A Leaner World

Michael Metzger

Considered the grandest of all World’s Fairs, the 1904 St. Louis Exposition celebrated America’s progress over the previous century. It marked the public debut of early automobiles and processed sugar in packaged foods, establishing American fast food culture. And that greatly contributed to making a wider world in the century to come.

Sugar is the story of overlapping networks shaping appetites as well as cultures. In ancient times, sweeteners were rare. Honey was used, serving as a metaphor for God’s Word (“sweeter than honey” – Ps. 19:10). In Bet Sefer, the rabbi used honey to cover the student’s plates. Student licked the honey off while the rabbi said, “May the words of God be sweet to your taste, sweeter than honey to your mouth” (Psalm 119:103).

Honey was rare, but sugar was rarer. In her sprawling book, Sugar: A Bittersweet History, Elizabeth Abbott writes how the “royal and noble courts were the first to indulge in excessive sugar consumption.”1 Sugar was used to sculpt expensive statues and ornaments. However, the age of exploration (between 1350 and 1500) created new sources. The cost of ten pounds of sugar dropped from a very high 35 percent of an ounce of gold to a mere 8.7 percent. The joys of sugar, Abbott writes were soon “to percolate downward to the working classes, who were beginning to clamor for it.”

The percolation took about 150 years. Christopher Columbus’ second voyage (1493) included sugarcane from the Canary Islands. It grew faster and sweeter in the New World. A few years later, Cortés introduced Spaniards to an acrid Aztek drink, chocolatl. Europeans disliked it until they discovered how sugar transformed this bitter dessert into a heavenly delight. It worked wonders with tea and coffee. When the first coffeehouse opened in London in 1652, sugar sweetened the coffee and tea. By this time appetites were hooked on sugar and the triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa and North America was established to serve up yummy delights day in and day out.

Ice cream was added to the sugary list in 1671, when Charles II enjoyed it for the first time on the Feast of St. George. In 1718, a recipe for ice cream was published, propelling it into the popular consciousness. Two decades later, the nature of work began to change. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the “cottage industry,” in which family members produced goods at home, declined. Workers began eating away from home and enjoying access to foodstuffs previously restricted to the privileged, including chocolate, sugar, and tobacco. The English diet underwent a “great change in consumption levels and eating habits,” writes economic historian Carole Shammas.

The number of daily meals also increased. Three meals a day replaced the medieval habit of two, increasing sugar consumption. This contributed to sugar imports to England quadrupling between 1700 and 1740, and more than doubling again in the period 1741 and 1775. By the late 1700s, Christians were working to abolish the slave trade. Many urged a boycott of sugar, persuading 400,000 Brits to forgo sugary delights.2 Through their arduous labors, the English Slave Trade was abolished in 1833. This however did not squelch the English appetite for sugar. Britain began importing sugar grown by foreign slaves. In an 1845 parliamentary debate, Thomas Babington Macaulay, son of abolitionist Zachary Macaulay, mocked the hypocrisy: “We import the accursed thing; we bond it; we employ our skill and machinery to render it more alluring…”

Macaulay could hardly have imagined what came next. The year before his speech, in 1844, Paris hosted the French Industrial Exposition. It was a beginning of what would become World’s Fairs. In 1851 London hosted the fair at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park. World’s Fairs were designed to celebrate industrialization and urbanization.3 The 1904 St. Louis Exposition celebrated America’s progress in the century since the Louisiana Purchase. It featured early automobiles while introducing air conditioning and processed sugar in packaged foods. It also pushed the hamburger into widespread popularity.4 Americans began eating on the run, a behavior long considered vulgar.

The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis “established what we consider fast food or pop-culture food as a part of the mainstay of the American culture,” explains food historian Suzanne Corbett. The hot dog was created, served with an array of sugar-sweetened drinks including Dr. Pepper, Coke, ginger ale and Hires Root Beer. “By fair’s end,” Abbott concludes, “sugared soft drinks were firmly established in the growing lexicon of fast food.” Ice cream became portable fast food, sold at 50 fair stands but making history by being served in cones. Another newcomer was Fairy Floss Candy, pure granulated sugar spun in an electric machine and so resembling cotton that it took the name cotton candy. Fairgoers bought 68,655 cardboard boxes of it.

The best way to slay the beast is to first understand the nature of the beast. World-changing movements, for better or worse, operate by overlapping networks of institutions, images, key individuals, ideas, and items. The ubiquitous presence of processed sugar in most packaged foods is Exhibit A. We’re witnessing what Yuval Levin has called a “gluttonous feast upon the flesh of the future.” The challenge is daunting and solutions will be difficult. They will require collaboration between various institutions understanding the nature of the beast. Faith communities with a mission of making culture and a mindset of thinking institutionally are most likely to make the cut. They could assist in establishing a healthier, leaner world in the century to come.

1 Elizabeth Abbott, Sugar: A Bittersweet History (London: Penguin Books, 2008), p. 21.
2 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 193.
3 Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, Thomas L. Purvis, Harvard Sitkoff, Nancy Woloch, The Enduring Vision (U.S.A. and Canada: D.C. Heath and Company, 1990), chps. 17-21.
4 Dorothy Daniels Birk, The World Came to St. Louis (St. Louis: The Bethany Press, 1979).


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  1. Let’s say a church wanted to practically assist in establishing a healthier world. (Audacious to think about!)

    Mike, is there any practical insight you can give, or even fabricated but plausible examples of how to even start, how to measure success, and how to sustain efforts? I suspect it’s not just that a church would write checks to the American Diabetes Association.

  2. Brody:

    Good question. When we think institutionally, a wise move would be to assess whether your church has anyone with cultural capital in the food or health industry. Put your question to them.

  3. If I remember my American church history class properly, the church has had phases where we recognized the fine line of interaction between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual worlds, and that to reach whole man required wholistic thinking. There was a brief movement for healthy eating in the church. I may have faulty memory but I believe companies like Kellogs can trace their roots to those movements.

  4. I don’t believe that it is the job of the church to take this on explicitly. If, in the context, of learning how to glorify God with our bodies, we learn that eating only what we need is part of that, so much the better. It’s a question of idolatry.
    Thinking that the church should take on this societal problem would be like expecting the church to initiate a campaign against smoking.
    Individuals who happen to be Christians should certainly ‘have at it’ – but not the Church.

  5. Idolatry takes many forms. Eating to comfort ourselves when we feel unloved, is another way to prevent us from turning to God who is the only one who really loves us. I have no problem with the church preaching against idolatry in its many forms but when they start weight watchers groups to free people from “food Idolatry” they begin to stray away from truth into fads. And when success in this area becomes a tool to prove our piety, then we are throwing out the baby with the bath water.

  6. Dear Maria and Tom:

    I might misunderstand you, but I find some of your comments disconcerting. How do you reconcile your comments with Colossians – where God calls us to renew all things? Wouldn’t “all things” include eating habits? And if we are to love God and neighbors, wouldn’t that include desiring to foster heathy eating habits in neighbors?

    Second, I don’t understand your comments regarding idolatry. Augustine said we’re to love all things in the order in which God loves them. God loves healthy eating. We’re to love healthy eating. God love everyone. We’re to love everyone, and that would seem to be manifest in encouraging eating healthy. The ordering of our loves produces a tension that you seem to overlook. Loving something too much is called idolatry. But loving something too little is ignorance. Both are bad and we are, of course, often given to either one. But in saying Christians should not get involved in promoting healthy eating, it sure sounds like you’re not loving this “thing” as much as God seems to love it.

  7. Mike-

    Let’s say there’s no one in my local particular church with that type of social capital. Should we pick a different sphere of life to renew (based on our current “talent”)?

    You know I’m with you on the way of living you express in this article. But man is it difficult to turn into practice … especially with institutional support … especially when it often feels like (forgive me) no one is doing this with intentionality.

    So, how shall someone like me live? It feels like fighting when all I want to do, spiritually speaking, is let go of my own agendas.

  8. Brody:

    People are doing it. Yes, you can find a different sphere. But bear in mind that you can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip. You might have to find a better church.

  9. Maria,

    You seem to make a distinction between the duty of the church as an institution and the option of individual members of the church – I think that is quite helpful. Thank you.

    Mike, I can’t find the reference in Colossians that says that we are to renew all things??

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