This time last year the British media was buzzing with stories about the demise of marmalade. In January, The Grocer reported that sales of marmalade fell by 4.4% in the year to 4 November 2006. Worse still, most marmalade consumers have their best toast munching years behind them — 81% of marmalade is consumed by people over 45.
According to The Spectator’s Rachel Simhon, marmalade’s decline "is due to ‘younger consumers’ – or rather their parents, who bow to demands for honey, jam, Nutella and other sickly concoctions." Market researchers say that children find marmalade too strong. "Well, of course they do", writes Simhon:
Seville orange marmalade is for grown-ups. It’s one of life’s great adult pleasures and cannot be allowed to disappear because of feeble-minded pandering to infant whim.
Now the Sydney Morning Herald’s Richard Glover has unearthed the story — and the implications are more serious than anyone realised. The demise of marmalade is part of an ominous trend. Like Simhon, Glover argues that parents are becoming more indulgent and food is becoming sweeter and fattier:
Sometime in the early ’90s parents were convinced that it was OK to give their children sweets for breakfast. The product was called "hazelnut spread" to make it sound healthy, although the main nuts involved were surely the parents who served it.
And once children become used to food that’s loaded with fats, sugars and colourings, normal, healthy food will look and taste bland in comparison.
But unlike Simhon, Glover traces the problem to its root — capitalism. According to Glover, it infantalises us all by creating products that appeal to our "basest, most primitive instincts". This is why "our food gets steadily sweeter, our TV drama more violent and our ice-creams ever more fattening."
Does Glover have a point? After all, there is a trend towards sickly sweet adult products that taste like they’re made for children. The latest example is beer that tastes like marmalade. But sweet, citrus flavoured beer, ought to make us wonder — is the demise of marmalade really a best example for an argument about the insidious effects of capitalism on food preferences?
Modern marmalade only came into being as the result of international trade. Like tea, coffee and cocoa it is a relatively recent addition to the English diet. And despite being developed in Britain, spreadable orange marmalade’s two major ingredients — sugar and Seville oranges — are imports. The product itself is hardly a health food. While it may contain some vitamin C, it contains a huge amount of sugar. But at least today’s marmalade isn’t adulterated with turnips as it was in the 19th century.
In the good old days of loosely regulated 19th century capitalism, all kinds of odd ingredients made their way into food. According to Walter Gratzer’s book, The Terrors of the Table , ‘raspberry’ jams were occasionally made with a combination of root vegetables and fake raspberry seeds manufactured from pieces of wood. Worse still were the artificial colourings made from poisonous substances like lead chromate, mercuric sulphide and copper arsenite.
And if food under capitalism seems bad, how about food before capitalism? According to historian Kathy Pearson:
The food supply may have been natural, but it certainly was not pure. Contaminants included insects, rodents, fecal matter of various sorts, poisonous weeds harvested along with the crops, dangerous herbs, molds, and viral or bacterial diseases resident in the animal populations.
Pearson reports that malignant tumors are commonly found among the skeletal remains of people from the early medieval period. She speculates that these could be the result of carcinogenic molds such as the aflatoxins and Fusaria. But by far the most serious problem was malnutrition. Lack of food, particularly the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables during the winter, led to diseases like scurvy. Life expectancy rarely exceeded 35 to 40 years. As for the over indulgent rich, they probably "suffered from some of the diseases common to contemporary Americans who consume a high-saturated fat, high-sodium diet: obesity, high blood pressure, and cardiac diseases."
So while modern capitalism might give us to nutritional horrors like trans fat laden donuts, deep fried Mars bars and the Monster Thickburger, it’s difficult to argue that food today is less healthy than in the past. And if the kids are refusing to eat marmalade, then maybe it’s safe to keep this in the cupboard.