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Arnaud Page (Sorbonne University): Nitrogen, the staff of life: measuring food intake before the Calorie

Most historical accounts of the emergence of ‘nutritionism’ have focused on the rise of the calorie at the turn of the twentieth century. This talk intends to show, however, the important rôle that nitrogen played in the earlier projects aimed at quantifying human food consumption. Focusing on Britain and India, it will attempt to explain how nitrogen, used as a proxy for protein content, played a key role in shaping a new metrological regime which meant to rationalize the diets of paupers, prisoners, soldiers and even of the general population. Rather than focus on debates between the most well-known scientists of the day, the talk will attempt to present some of the ways in which the question of nitrogen was mobilized (but also contested) in various political discussions as well as more mundane settings, from food museums and cookbooks to debates about Famine Relief in India. It will thus seek to study how British society and polity gradually incorporated this new unit and language of nutrition, and therefore to show how this new grammar of eating paved the way for, while differing in rather significant ways from, the later calorie-centered paradigm.

All welcome - This event is free, but booking is required.