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Our Troubles with Food: Fears, Fads and Fallacies

Our Troubles with Food: Fears, Fads and Fallacies

by Stephen Halliday

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For millennia the normal, natural and pleasurable activity of eating has been surrounded by fear and anxiety. Religious traditions have long decreed what foods are right for their followers to eat, but secularisation and scientific progress have not made the situation easier. Our present obsession with health, obesity, ethics and science has seemingly developed from a


For millennia the normal, natural and pleasurable activity of eating has been surrounded by fear and anxiety. Religious traditions have long decreed what foods are right for their followers to eat, but secularisation and scientific progress have not made the situation easier. Our present obsession with health, obesity, ethics and science has seemingly developed from a society that is over-supplied with the necessities of life. For the first time, social historian Stephen Halliday looks at the history of our fascinating relationship with food, from Galen in the first century AD declaring that fruit was the worst kind of food to eat, to John Kellogg's belief that eating wholegrain cereals would prevent masturbation and bring people closer to God. Through modern fears and food scares such as mad cow disease to our current fascination with superfoods, 'friendly' bacteria and organic farming, Our Troubles with Food is a thorough analysis of our changing attitudes towards food and a reminder that we are not so very different from our forbears after all.

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Our Troubles with Food

Fears, Fads and Fallacies

By Stephen Halliday

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Stephen Halliday
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9627-6



Fears, Fads and Fallacies

What is it for? How does it work?

A few years hence, when the connection between the poor feeding of mothers and children and subsequent poor physique and poor health is as clearly understood as the connection between a contaminated water supply and cholera, the suggestion that a diet fully adequate for health should be available for everyone will be regarded as reasonable and in accordance with common sense as is the preservation of our domestic water from pollution.

John Boyd Orr writing in Food, Health and Income, 1937

If thou are dull and heavy after Meat it is a sign that thou has exceeded due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body and make it cheerful and not dull or oppress it.

Benjamin Franklin

One of the greatest demonstrations in public health administration that the world has ever seen.

American Public Health Association, referring to the British diet in the Second World War

Why Do We Need Food?

When the distinguished nutritionist John Boyd Orr (1880–1971) wrote the words which head this chapter he may have been aware of the struggle which some of his Victorian predecessors had mounted to persuade their contemporaries that polluted water and epidemics of cholera, typhoid and dysentery were connected. Eminent authorities like Edwin Chadwick (1800–1890) and Florence Nightingale (1820–1910) went to their graves believing that epidemics were caused by foul air rather than infected water. In 1949 the by then Baron Boyd Orr won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nutritional research. Yet he cannot have anticipated that he and his fellow nutritionists would have as great a struggle persuading their political masters and their fellow citizens of the need for a healthy diet as had their antecedents in their campaigns for clean water. Many of the difficulties which he and his successors faced arose from widespread ignorance, even amongst the medical profession, of the roles of different foods in human health – of the need for quality as well as quantity in the foods ingested and of the need to understand what 'quality' meant. Many believe that this battle is still being fought.

It is therefore not surprising that the increase in the standard of living and of life expectancy, even amongst the poor, which had characterised the reign of Victoria in Great Britain, was not accompanied by a proportionate improvement in physical well-being. When Victoria came to the throne in 1837 the average lifespan of her subjects was about thirty-eight years. At the time of her death in 1901 this had risen to about fifty-two years. From the 1870s the cost of staple foods fell by as much as 30 per cent as policies of free trade encouraged the importation of cheap foods from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe. During the same period wages rose by 65 per centso that most Victorians were able to afford more nourishing food than their fathers, if they knew what 'more nourishing' meant. Yet at the end of Victoria's reign, 40 per cent of those volunteering for service in the Boer War were rejected on medical grounds, despite the fact that the minimum height requirement for the army was reduced from 5ft 3in to 5ft, a phenomenon which supports the claim of Boyd Orr's fellow nutritionist Sir Jack Drummond that 'the opening of the twentieth century saw malnutrition more rife in England than it had been since the great dearths of mediaeval and Tudor times'.

Sir Jack Drummond (1891–1952): born in Leicester, gained a first-class degree in chemistry at East London College in 1912 before joining King's College, London, as a research assistant in 1913 where he undertook studies of human nutrition. During the First World War he worked on the development of margarines as butter substitutes and became interested in the role of vitamins in human diet. In 1920 he argued, successfully, that the word vitamin should replace the earlier usage vitamine on scientific grounds. In 1922 he was appointed to the new post of professor of biochemistry at University College, London, where he wrote his seminal study of the English diet over five centuries, a task he shared with his secretary and future wife, Anne Wilbraham. It was published in 1939 as The Englishman's Food: Five Centuries of English Diet and is still in print, read as a standard text. During the Second World War he worked with John Boyd Orr as adviser to Lord Woolton, Minister of Food, their achievement being not just to maintain but to improve the diet of the British population in the face of wartime privation. In August 1952, Drummond, along with his wife Anne and ten-year-old daughter, were sensationally murdered while camping in France. Gaston Dominici, a peasant farmer on whose land the family was camping, was gaoled for the murder, but later pardoned.

How could it be that the greater abundance of affordable food, accompanied by a rise in wages, coincided with such poor physical condition for much of the population? This paradox can be partly attributed to the problems of adulteration which are examined in chapter six but much of the blame lies with contemporary ignorance of the basic principles of nutrition.

Early Theories of Nutrition

Theories concerning the amounts and types of food needed for humans to thrive are found as early as the works of Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 380 bc), whose texts were in reality the product of many writers spread over six centuries. His writings postulated, correctly, that the quantity of food necessary for health depends upon the constitution of the individual, the energy expended and the season. However, Hippocrates' theories of nutrition were inextricably bound up with his theory of 'Humours' which were adopted, developed and propagated by Galen (131–201 ad) in Christian Europe and bedevilled the practice of medicine for more than two millennia. Galen, who was Greek by birth and appointed medical attendant to the Roman gladiator school in Pergamon in Asia Minor, was regarded favourably in mediaeval Europe, partly because, as a believer in one God, he was more acceptable to the ecclesiastical hierarchy than were most authorities from the ancient world. Through the influence of Galen, 'Complexions' (better described as personality types) and 'Qualities' were in turn associated with Humours, as shown in the table below.

To these were added the four 'Elements' of earth, fire, water and air, derived from the writings of Aristotle, of which all matter was thought to be composed and which were, in turn, associated with the four Humours. Disorders in any one of the Humours would account for different types of illness and it followed that persons endowed with a certain 'complexion' should favour certain foods which complemented their characteristics and avoid those which exacerbated them. Galen was particularly severe in his view of fruit, claiming that his father had lived to the age of 100 by avoiding their consumption. Moreover, children were considered to be phlegmatic and should avoid foods and drinks categorised as cold or moist, these being deemed to include water, milk, fruits and lamb. Otherwise, it was feared, diarrhoea or worse would follow. For the same reason nursing mothers and wet nurses were advised to avoid these nutrients, advice which, where it was followed, presumably set back the cause of nutrition by centuries. The theories were not unchallenged even in classical times. Thus Cato the Elder (234–149 bc), who is chiefly remembered as a soldier and statesman, expressed the view that the consumption of cabbage was a sovereign remedy for all conditions – or, better still, the consumption of the urine of one who had eaten cabbage. There is no record of his prescription being widely adopted.

The mediaeval English diet, particularly in rural areas, was nutritious, as it needed to be given the hard physical work that it had to sustain. The most common food was 'pottage' consisting of a mixture of seasonal green vegetables, pulses, cereals and sometimes meat, cooked in a pot suspended over an open fire. To these would be added herbs including, from the fourteenth century, rosemary and saffron which had first been imported as medicines and later cultivated locally as foods. Many years later Sir Jack Drummond commended the qualities of a very similar diet consumed by people in developing countries: 'wholemeal cereals, mixed vegetables and dairy produce ... Little meat is eaten but the staple diet is a coarse, whole-grained bread, thick vegetable stews and goats' milk cheese'.

By the fifteenth century dried fruits were making their appearance in the form of currants from Spain, together with ginger, cloves and cinnamon and in the following century oranges and lemons, which were becoming available in London and other large towns along with locally grown apricots, spinach, parsley and sauerkraut. By this time lettuce was also available in about a dozen varieties whereas Henry VIII's first queen, Catherine of Aragon, had sought it in vain when she came to England earlier in the century to marry his elder brother. Some foods were regarded as 'wholesome' because they promoted health while 'physic herbs' were seen as medicines to cure disease. One of the earliest English recipe books, The Widowes Treasure, published by 'a gentlewoman' in 1585, has as its first concern the use of food as medicine. Sage was considered to be good for the brain and was the subject of poems celebrating its virtues including one by Sir John Harington (1561–1612), better remembered as the inventor of the water closet:

But who can write thy worth O sovereign sage? Some ask how men can die where thou dost grow ...

The theories of Hippocrates, as mediated by Galen, were brought to Europe by one Constantine the African via the Medical School at Salerno. They were propagated by a document called Regimen Sanitas Salerni, which may have been compiled at the request of Robert, eldest son of William the Conqueror in the late eleventh century and thereby came to influence English practice. The Regimen particularly disapproved of feeding apples, pears and milk to the sick but popularised the practice of bleeding, thereby inflicting great harm on the practice of medicine for centuries. Yet the milk of wet nurses was given to the elderly infirm, one of the beneficiaries being Dr John Caius (1510–73), second founder of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. The Regimen went almost unchallenged for 500 years though there were occasional sallies on behalf of individual foodstuffs like that made by Cato the Elder on behalf of cabbage. Thus Andrew Boorde (c.1490–1549), who left the Carthusian order in the face of Henry VIII's persecutions, travelled throughout Europe at the behest of the king's minister, Thomas Cromwell, and became convinced that rhubarb was a cure for many conditions – a plant he duly introduced to Henry's kingdom for the first time. Other new foods were given a more hostile reception in some quarters. Thus the potato, introduced to Europe by the Spaniards who brought it from South America in the late sixteenth century, was blamed for an outbreak of leprosy shortly after its arrival in Burgundy. Sugar, being associated with fruit, was also regarded with suspicion though Frederick Slare (1646–1727), a physician, Fellow of the Royal Society and contemporary of Sir Isaac Newton, wrote an essay entitled 'A Vindication of Sugars' in which he observed that the preservative powers of sugars meant that they could not be all bad.

In the following century the work of chemists undermined the theory of the four 'Elements' and, with it, the infrastructure of the 'Humoral' theories of Hippocrates and Galen. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) showed that Aristotle's element 'air' consisted of more than one chemical, one of which, oxygen, he described as 'dephlogisticated air'. Similarly, Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) discovered hydrogen, which had no place in the ancient theories. Robert Boyle (1627–91) in The Sceptical Chemist (1661) made it clear that he disagreed in every way with the theory of the four Elements and all that proceeded from them. There was, however, little to put in their place as a dietary model to promote a healthy population apart from some highly subjective, if patriotic, sentiments such as those expressed by one Robert Campbell in a publication entitled The London Tradesman. In it, he declared, in 1747, that 'In the days of good Queen Elizabeth mighty Roast Beef was the Englishman's Food' and went on to complain of 'French Fashion ... Spices, Pickles and Sauces, not to relish but to disguise our Food'. Galen's firm opposition to the consumption of fruit continued to hold sway, its 'evil, pernicious qualities' being condemned by a writer called Aubrey who appears to have been a ship's doctor, from which one may infer that any ship's company to whom he administered was exceptionally likely to suffer from scurvy.

Chewing and Chemistry

At about the same time that Boyle was at work, a number of continental writers were studying the processes by which food was absorbed by the human body. Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738) was born near Leiden in Holland and, fortunately for the cause of science, was diverted from his early intention to enter the church in favour of a career in medicine, in which he graduated from Leiden's famous medical school. From 1701 he worked as a lecturer at Leiden and attracted the admiration of Peter the Great, Voltaire and Dr Samuel Johnson, who wrote a biography of him. He suggested that, having been ground by the teeth, food passed into the stomach where it was transformed into chyle. This substance was then mixed with blood and carried along the arteries to those parts of the body where it was needed at which point, under pressure from the blood, it was converted into the materials needed to replenish the body. This represents the beginnings of an understanding of how food is converted into energy and tissue.

Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur (1683–1757) was born in La Rochelle, studied at a Jesuit college and devoted his life to the study of a wide range of scientific subjects including the digestive processes of birds, arguing that digestion was promoted by chemical processes in the birds' digestive systems rather than by the action of grinding, as done by human teeth. Another product of Jesuit education, the Italian Abbé Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729–99) supported this hypothesis, thus leading towards an understanding of the role of gastric juices in the digestive process. The Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94), one of the founders of the modern science of chemistry, was carrying out experiments on animals which showed the relationship between food, energy and heat which, if he had been allowed to complete them, could have advanced the understanding of nutrition by decades. Unfortunately, the generous income which enabled him to devote his time to scientific experiment was derived from his position as a 'farmer' of taxes – that is to say a tax-gatherer – and although he appears to have conducted this business with an unusual degree of probity, it was enough to condemn him in the eyes of the revolutionary government which came to power in France in 1793. His pioneering work was ended when he was arrested, tried and executed in one day in May 1794. The judge who presided over his trial, upon learning of Lavoisier's eminence as a scientist, declared that 'the revolution does not need scientists', thereby dealing a blow to the development of the science of nutrition as well as that of chemistry.

Dieting to Death

A more heroic, if misguided test of the role of food for humans was undertaken by an English doctor called William Stark in 1769. He was probably born in the then small town of Birmingham in about 1740 and studied medicine at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, moving to London in 1765 to study with the distinguished physician John Hunter (1728–93). He was more successful in making influential friends than in obtaining jobs, since he failed to gain the post of physician at St George's Hospital despite being one of its governors. He did, however, befriend Benjamin Franklin who was in London at the time and also Sir John Pringle (1707–82). Pringle was physician to the army, later to George III, and was a man whose opinions carried much weight in the medical world. He became President of the Royal Society which august body awarded him its prestigious Copley Medal for his confident (if false) assertion that sweet wort, a by-product of the brewing process, mixed with sugar, was a remedy against scurvy.Benjamin Franklin informed Stark that, when a younger man, he had lived on a weekly vegetarian diet of water and bread, expressing his doubts about the value of meat by adding: 'If thou are dull and heavy after Meat it is a sign that thou has exceeded due measure; for Meat and Drink ought to refresh the Body and make it cheerful and not dull or oppress it.' Pringle told Stark that Greeks lived on a diet of currants, adding that one lady of his acquaintance, aged ninety, lived entirely on mutton fat. Such tales survived well into the nineteenth century, sometimes taking more extreme forms. In 1809 Ann Moore, 'The Fasting Woman of Tutbury' in Staffordshire, claimed to have eaten, drunk and excreted nothing for five years and was widely believed. It was probably Pringle's confident advice that aroused Stark's interest in nutrition and led him to undertake the experiment that led to his untimely death.


Excerpted from Our Troubles with Food by Stephen Halliday. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Halliday. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Halliday is the author of The Great Stink of London, Newgate, and Underground to Everywhere.

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