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Posts tagged ‘Food Programme’

Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Children’s Food

I’m writing this post while listening to this week’s podcast of BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. The episode is about nine year-old food writer Martha Payne, whose blog about the dinners served at her school became the cause of a strange and troubling controversy a month ago.

Martha uses her blog, NeverSeconds, to review the food she eats at school. As Jay Rayner points out, although she may criticise – rightly – much of which the school provides for lunch, NeverSeconds is not intended as a kind of school dinners hatchet job. She rates her meals according to a Food-o-Meter, taking into account how healthy, but also how delicious, they are.

As her blog has grown in popularity, children from all over the world have contributed photographs and reviews, and it’s partly this which makes Never Seconds so wonderful: it’s a space in which children can discuss and debate food.

NeverSeconds came to wider – global – notice when the Argyll and Bute Council tried to shut it down in June, after the Daily Record published an article featuring Martha cooking with the chef Nick Nairn, headlined ‘Time to fire the dinner ladies.’ The blog’s honest descriptions and pictures of some of the food served to schoolchildren can’t have pleased councillors either.

As Private Eye (no. 1317) makes the point, the council’s bizarre – and futile – attempts to silence a blog probably had as much to do with internal politicking and minor corruption as anything else, but the furore which erupted after the ban also said a great deal about attitudes towards food and children.

What is really scandalous about the blog is that it reveals how bad – how unhealthy, how heavily processed – school meals can be. When Jamie Oliver launched a campaign in 2005 to improve the quality of school dinners in the UK, his most shocking revelations were not, I think, that children were being fed Turkey Twizzlers and chips for lunch, but, rather, that the British government is willing to spend so little on what children eat at school. Last year, the state spent an average of 67p per primary school pupil per meal, per day. This rose to 88p for those in high school.

Michael Gove has recently announced another inquiry into the quality of school meals – this time headed up by the altogether posher-than-Jamie Henry Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon chain of restaurants, who also seems to spend the odd holiday with the Education Secretary in Marrakech. It’s a tough life.

But as Sheila Dillon comments during this episode of the Food Programme:

Martha Payne, a nine year-old who seems to understand better than many adults, that dinner ladies, or even individual school kitchens, are not the source of the school dinner problem. It has far deeper roots.

When did it become acceptable to serve schoolchildren junk food for lunch? The way we feed children tells us a great deal about how we conceptualise childhood. Or, put another way, what we define as ‘children’s food’ says as much about our attitudes towards food as it does about children.

The idea that children should be fed separately to adults has a relatively long pedigree. The Victorians argued that children – and women – should be fed bland, carbohydrate-heavy meals to prevent their delicate digestive systems from being exerted. Fruit, meat, spices, and fresh vegetables should be eaten only in strict moderation.

There is, of course, a disconnect between what experts – medical professionals, childrearing specialists – recommend, and what people actually eat. In the late nineteenth-century Cape Colony, for instance, the pupils at an elite girls’ school near Cape Town were fed a diet rich in red meat and fresh fruit and vegetables.

But the belief that children’s bodies are delicate and potentially vulnerable to disruption was an indicator of shifts in thinking about childhood during the mid and late nineteenth century. The notion that children need to be protected – from work, hunger, poverty, and exploitation and abuse from adults – emerged at around the same time. As children were to be shielded from potential danger, so they were to eat food which, it was believed, was ideally suited to digestive systems more susceptible to upset and illness than those of adults.

But as scientists became interested in the relationship between food and health – in nutrition, in other words – towards the end of the 1800s, paediatricians, demographers, and others concerned about high rates of child mortality during the early twentieth century began to look more closely at what children were being fed. For instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, scientists in Britain and the United States drew a connection between the consumption of unhealthy or diseased food – particularly rotten milk – and high rates of diarrhoea, then almost always fatal, among children in these countries.

They were also interested in what should constitute a healthy diet for a child. As childhood became increasingly medicalised in the early twentieth century – as pregnancy, infancy, and childhood became seen as periods of development which should be overseen and monitored by medical professionals – so children’s diets became the purview of doctors as well. As RJ Blackman, the Honorary Surgeon to the Viceroy of India (no, me neither), wrote in 1925:

Food, though it is no panacea for the multitudinous ills of mankind, can do much, both to make or mar the human body. This is particularly so with the young growing child. All the material from which his body is developed has to come from the food he eats. Seeing that he doubles or trebles his weight in the first year of life, and increases it twenty-fold by the time he reaches adult stature, it will be seen that food has much to accomplish. Naturally, if the food be poor, the growth and physique will be poor; and if good, the results will be good.

Informed by recent research into dietetics, doctors advised parents to feed their children varied diets which included as much fresh, vitamin-containing produce as possible. In a popular guide to feeding young children, The Nursery Cook Book (1929), the former nurse Mrs K. Jameson noted:

Many years ago, I knew a child who was taken ill at the age of eight years, and it was thought that one of her lungs was affected. She was taken to a children’s specialist in London. He could find nothing radically wrong, but wrote out a diet sheet. By following this…the child became well in a month or two. This shows how greatly the health is influenced by diet.

This diet, she believed, should be designed along scientific principles:

Since starting to write this book I have come across an excellent book on vitamins called ‘Food and Health’ (Professor Plimmer), and I have found it very helpful. I have endeavoured to arrange the meals to contain the necessary vitamins, as shown in the diagram of ‘A Square Meal’ at the beginning of the book.

Indeed, she went on to explain that children who were properly fed would never need medicine.

In 1925, advising mothers on how to wean their babies in the periodical Child Welfare, Dr J. Alexander Mitchell, the Secretary for Public Health in the Union of South Africa, counselled against boiling foodstuffs for too long as it ‘destroys most of the vitamins.’ He argued that children’s diets ‘should include a good proportion of proteins or fleshy foods and fats’, as well as plenty of fruit, fresh vegetables, milk, and ‘porridge…eggs, meat, juice, soups’.

What is so striking about the diets described by Mitchell, Jameson, and others is how similar they were to what adults would have eaten. Children were to eat the same as their parents, but in smaller quantities and in different proportions. For example, some doctors counselled again children being allowed coffee, while others believed that they should limit their intake of rich foods.

So what is the origin of the idea that children should be cajoled into eating healthily by making food ‘fun’? Mrs Jameson’s recipes might have cute names – she calls a baked apple ‘Mr Brownie with his coat on’ – but they’re the same food as would be served to adults. Now, our idea of ‘children’s food’ differs from that of the 1920s and 1930s. When we think of children’s food, we imagine sweets, soft white sandwich bread, pizza, hotdogs, and brightly coloured and oddly shaped foodstuffs designed to appeal to children.

As Steven Mintz argues in his excellent history of American childhood, Huck’s Raft (2004), the 1950s and 1960s were child-oriented decades. Not only were there more children as a result of the post-war baby boom, but with the growing prosperity of late twentieth-century America, more money was spent on children than ever before. Families tended to be smaller, and increasing pocket money transformed children into mini-consumers.

Children either bought, or had their parents buy for them, a range of consumer goods aimed at them: from clothes and toys, to ‘child-oriented convenience foods… – “Sugar Frosted Flakes (introduced in 1951), Sugar Smacks (in 1953), Tater Tots (in 1958), and Jiffy Pop, the stovetop popcorn (also in 1958).’

The same period witnessed a shift in attitudes towards childrearing. Families became increasingly child-centred, with meals and routines designed around the needs of children, rather than parents. In many ways, this was a reaction against the orthodoxies of the pre-War period, which tended to emphasise raising children to be obedient, well-behaved, and self-disciplined.

So the definition of children’s food changed again. For the parents of Baby Boomers, food was made to be appealing to children. Fussiness was to be accommodated and negotiated, rather than ignored. And children’s desire for food products advertised on television was to be indulged.

I am exaggerating to make a point – in the US and the UK children during the 1960s and 1970s certainly ate less junk than they do now, and this new understanding of children’s food emerged in different ways and at different times in other parts of the world – but this change represented a bonanza for the burgeoning food industry. Although the industry’s attempts to advertise to children are coming under greater scrutiny and regulation (and rightly so), it does have a vested interest in encouraging children and their parents to believe that that is what constitutes good food for children.

I think that it’s partly this shift in thinking about children’s relationship with food – that they should eat only that which they find appealing, and that children will only eat food which is ‘fun’, brightly coloured, oddly shaped, and not particularly tasty – that allowed for the tolerance of such poor school food for so long in Britain.

Martha’s blog is a powerful corrective to this: she, her classmates, and contributors all have strong opinions about what they eat, and they like a huge variety of food – some of it sweets, but most of it is pretty healthy. The irony is that in – apparently – pandering to what children are supposed to like, politicians and policy makers seem to find listening to what a child has to say, fairly difficult. If we’re to persuade children to eat well, then not only should we encourage them to talk and to think about food, but we need to listen to what they have to say about it.

Further Reading

Linda Bryder, A Voice for Mothers: The Plunket Society and Infant Welfare, 1907-2000 (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2003).

Deborah Dwork, War is Good for Babies and Other Young Children: A History of the Infant and Child Welfare Movement in England 1898-1918 (London and New York: Tavistock Publications, 1987).

Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2004).

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.