What does it mean to call food nourishing: A historical perspective

Today, individuals who wish to commit to a healthy diet will find no shortage of scientific data to ground their choices. However, as we scroll past yet another study about the nutritional merits of the latest fad diet, it may be instructive to look back on the time before the modern paradigm of nutrition was established.

On March 30, University of Warwick Professor Dr. Rebecca Earle delivered a presentation, sponsored by the McGill Department of Latin & Caribbean Studies, about the meaning of “nourishment” in 18th century Europe.

In that period, dietetic knowledge was increasingly sought as a means to foster national strength and prosperity.

“This collective prosperity of the political whole depended on the energy and vitality of the individual,” Earle explained. “[….] Poorly fed peasants would not engender vigorous and robust children and underfed scrawny soldiers would scarcely protect the kingdom from military assault.”

Although the word “nourishing” often appeared in 18th century discussions of food, scientists could not yet explain what exactly makes a food nourishing, much less quantify nutrition.

In response to recurrent problems with food supply, charitable associations established soup kitchens that provided “poor soups” to those most in need. In the quest for efficiency, premiums were offered to individuals who could invent the most nutritious soups at the lowest cost.

Earle cited a famous example of a soup comprised of barley, potatoes, salt, vinegar, and croutons created circa 1800 by Count Rumford, who scrutinized the diets of the residents of a poor house in an effort to optimize his product. In a report, Rumford calculated the precise costs of preparing the soup, but provided no quantification whatsoever to support its nutritive qualities.

Instead, some promoters of “poor soups” would determine the portion sizes of their products by offering them to needy families and soliciting feedback on their subjective nutritional satisfaction.

In a similar vein, a contest of nutritional superiority between wheaten and oatmeal breads was argued on the basis of appearance and robustness of its consumers.

“The common people in Scotland, who are fed with oatmeal are in general neither so strong nor so handsome as the same rank of people in England, who are fed with wheaten bread,” wrote the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in 1776.

English writer and social investigator Frederick Morton Eden had a different take.

“Handsomer and more muscular men are not reared in any part of the British dominions, than those countries where the oatmeal diet is predominant,” Eden argued in 1797.

Without scientific data, scholars relied on spotty qualitative observations.

“Ultimately, 18th century savants were obliged to rely on the evidence of experience because they had not elaborated a single widely acclaimed paradigm that accounted for a food’s ability to nourish,” Earle said.

This changed in the 19th century when nutritional energy was finally quantified in the unit of a calorie and knowledge about nutrients became more conclusive. While this scientific progress enabled large scale programs of dietary intervention in populations, Earle remarked that it also created a psychological shift in the humanitarian paradigm.

“The recognition that consumers were in some way qualified to assess their own diets diminished,” Earle said. “[….] Indeed, a diet guided by gustatory pleasure was viewed as almost totally inimical to good health because the taste was likely to seduce the eater into the consumption of unhealthy and nutritionally irrelevant food stuffs. The opinions of eaters were not just irrelevant when it came to determining whether a food was nourishing—they were a positive hindrance.”

Earle went further to propose a parallel between the evolving conceptions of nutrition and poverty.

“Poverty [as conceptualized in the 19th century] is a condition created by the irresponsible neglect of the impersonal economic forces that shape human existence,” Earle said. “You might argue that poor nutrition is caused by willful disregard of scientifically established dietary advice. From this perspective, the principles of economics are no more subject to personal opinion or individual negotiation than are the carbon requirements of a fully grown man.”

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