The Newer History of Nutrition

Andrew Ruis's picture

(Beginning with this post and in three subsequent posts, each member of the H-Nutrition editorial team has written a brief, reflective piece on the history of nutrition as a field and our various perspectives on it. We have done this both to "introduce" ourselves and to begin a conversation about history of nutrition as a scholarly endeavor. Any H-Nutrition subscribers who would like to contribute a similar piece are welcome to do so!)

The Newer History of Nutrition

A. R. Ruis

The New York Times recently reported the results of a survey that compares the extent to which nutrition experts and lay Americans agree or disagree about the healthfulness of different foods ( What is most striking about the survey is not the results—the survey design is so deeply flawed as to preclude any useful conclusions—but the way in which it highlights questions that are central to historians of nutrition and to scholars in fields with which we have as yet too little productive interaction. I pose some of those questions here, not to answer them but to suggest some of the ways in which historical investigation can help us understand not only the past but also the present, particularly through engagement with scholars in food studies.


Are foods intrinsically healthful or unhealthful? One of the first questions that arises when considering the survey, or issues of nutrition more broadly, is whether foods have intrinsic properties that make them better or worse for our health. Why do fewer than 30% of both Americans and nutritionists think beer is healthful, but more than 50% think wine is? Why is corn considered more healthful than popcorn? Eighty percent deem whole-wheat bread healthful, but only 20% said the same of white bread. And why do Americans and nutritionists disagree about the healthfulness of granola bars, sushi, frozen yogurt, and quinoa?


The survey assumes that people, both expert and lay, regard foods as intrinsically healthful or unhealthful, with no indication that the healthfulness of a food may be significantly affected by the amount consumed, the way it is prepared or eaten, or any of a number of factors from genetics to lifestyle to environment that influence the properties of foods and what bodies do with them. From a historical perspective, these are fascinating issues. How does the determination of a food’s (or a diet’s) healthfulness differ across time, place, and culture? What factors are considered when making that determination, and how contested are they? To what extent is the very definition of a food based on perceived healthfulness? The very idea that a food can be deemed healthful or not is based on a wide range of beliefs and assumptions that historical scholarship can trace and critically examine. Similarly, research in food studies can help historians understand how these developments have created cultural and social beliefs and behaviors in a wide range of contemporary contexts.


What’s in a name? Another question that arises from the survey has to do with how foods are named, defined, and categorized for the purposes of assigning them health values. Bread, for example, is either “white” or “whole wheat.” Single item foods, such as apples, oatmeal, and shrimp, are compared with compound foods such as hamburgers, sushi, and pizza. Packed into the names of contemporary foods are all sorts of assumptions—about processing, added ingredients, naturality, preparation, and consumption, and about the people who eat them and the contexts in which they are eaten—that influence perceptions of nutritional value, for both experts and the lay public.


Why, for instance, would both groups rate popcorn as less healthy than corn? Is it about the level of processing, or a belief that people put more butter and salt on popcorn than on corn, or the imagery associated with each: perhaps outdoor barbeques project a picture of healthfulness more so than the sticky-floored movie theater. Such questions surely have historical answers—ideas about food do not simply appear—yet careful ethnographic, sociological, anthropological, and epidemiological study can enhance and be enhanced by our understanding of the history, particularly if we want to address pressing issues in public health nutrition or food systems.


Who is a nutrition expert? Given the stated goal of comparing expert views with those of the lay public, we may naturally ask what qualifies one to be an expert on nutrition. To be sure, as in most professions, expertise is established in a variety of ways: through education, through certification by the state, through demonstration of knowledge or ability, and so on. But in the case of nutrition, such questions are even more fraught than in most contexts. Expertise in the nutritional content of foods is predominantly chemical; expertise in how the body utilizes foods is predominantly physiological; and expertise in how to grow, process, or prepare foods, all of which affect nutrition, is predominantly agricultural, technological, or culinary, respectively. And this does not even touch on the realms of expertise that may influence beliefs about nutrition, which include everything from religion and national identity to advertising and personal experience.


There are few fields in which expertise is so diffuse as in nutrition, which helps to explain in part the lack of clarity in beliefs about the healthfulness of foods, even among the survey’s experts. And once again, while there are important historical reasons for this diffusion of nutritional expertise, fields such as science and technology studies can help us to understand how the historical context has influenced particular configurations of expertise in the present.

Of course, there are numerous scholars in both history and other fields who have addressed all of these questions in various ways and in various times and places. In launching H-Nutrition, our goal is not only to support continued exploration of questions such as these (and many others) related to the history of nutrition, but also to develop productive relationships with scholars, teachers, and others interested in nutrition studies, broadly conceived.

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