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Feeding the world
Too much or not enough?
20
January
2015
Annika Gil
Since time immemorial, humans have tried to improve their health through their diet. This has resulted in ironic turnabouts in beliefs about what constitutes healthy, rich or inadequate food: the Middle Ages feared fresh fruit, the 1950s sung the praises of sugar, the early 21st century demonises gluten, while “100% natural” is just part of the cycle, periodically calling us to order.

Beware of fresh fruit !

Rich in vitamins, fibre, minerals and water, fresh fruit is the health food par excellence. To be consumed without moderation! Yet, from ancient times until the Renaissance, fruit was considered indigestible, or even toxic, as it was believed that it decomposed in the stomach much as it rots when left exposed to air. To eat fruit completely safely, doctors recommended that it be stewed or cooked with other ingredients.

Rich and poor have different stomachs

Louis XVI, who supported the efforts of Antoine Parmentier to popularise the cultivation and consumption of potatoes in France in the 18th century, thanked him for “inventing the poor man’s bread”. Since the king’s own – noble – stomach preferred bread made with wheat flour, this little comment was a reminder that the digestive systems of rich and poor had to be nourished according to their “nature”: rough foods (turnips and other root vegetables, chestnuts, rye, etc.) for the latter, delicate dishes (game, fish, wheat, honey, spices, etc.) for the former. This association between social classes and the ability to digest emerged in the Middle Ages and persisted until the 19th century.

The miracle of alcohol

The mastery of the distillation process in the 12th century led to the birth of one of the first foods to be considered particularly good for people’s health: eau de vie, a liquid with miraculous and contradictory properties, as it both burns and prevents decomposition at the same time. An elixir of long life, aqua vitae was a medicine prescribed to the rich for all sorts of ailments, as well as to promote long-lasting beauty. Once the secret of its manufacture came to light in the 16th century, eau de vie also became the common “treatment” for the poor. That is, until the medical profession realised, in the 19th century, the harmful effects of alcohol addiction, a scourge that ravaged the working classes in particular.

 
 

Eat sugar : it’s high in calories and cheap !

“We all know that sugar is not an unnecessary luxury, but the most economical and healthy of foodstuffs.” This assertion seems to border on heresy nowadays, but in 1930 was widely shared by the population and the French media and continued to be so right up until the late 1950s. At the time it was believed that only the caloric content of a food mattered. Sugar, billed as having three times more calories than a steak but being ten times cheaper, appealed to households that, during the inter-war and post-war period, were on the lookout for the slightest saving.

100% natural – our ancestors’ ideal diet

Periodically there appear new “natural” diets that capture the imagination of our industrial societies, for which nature necessarily goes hand in hand with health. If the Paleo(lithic) diet, which aims at eating like our early ancestors (raw vegetables, meat, no processed foods or dairy products) is popular today, between 1930 and 1970, it was preceded by another 100% natural diet. It held that an isolated people in a remote Himalayan valley had the ideal diet, one unspoiled by modern civilisation: the autarkic Hunza people live happy and robust to the age of a hundred or more, thanks to their frugality and, above all, their apricots. The fact that it was known that they actually suffered from malaria, dysentery, and ulcers related to deficiencies did not shake Westerners’ great eagerness to believe that in another place, in another time, humans have always known what is good for them.

Santé-bonheur”, by Harvey Levenstein, in Manger magique, coll. Autrement, 1994
 
 

Gluten, the new enemy

Drab and dreary, the gluten-free products of 20 years ago resembled what they were: special foods created for coeliac patients suffering from gluten intolerance, totalling 0.25% to 1% of the population. Appetising, certified with a standard label and ever more numerous, today’s gluten-free food products exude healthiness. Originating in the USA in early 2000, the trend of the gluten-free diet – thought to promote vitality, weight loss, digestion or immunity and combat hyperactivity – has won over 15-20% of Europeans. Today they declare themselves intolerant or overly sensitive to a protein that has existed since the dawn of time. Indeed, it was eaten by millions, in both East and West, who came from civilisations whose staple was bread until the start of the 20th century. As for whether avoiding gluten is actually beneficial for the health of those who are not intolerant, this has yet to be substantiated!

"Does wheat make us fat and sick ? " in the Journal of Cereal Science, Vol. 58, Issue 2, September 2013

Yoghurt cleanses our intestinal flora

Before it became a popular food, yoghurt was sold as a medicine in the early 20th century, notably in pharmacies. Today, yoghurt still enjoys the healthy reputation it acquired in its medicinal past. A Ukrainian scientist, Elie Metchnikoff, was responsible for this trend, having asserted in 1901 that the two kilos of bacteria that are present in our intestines poison the organism and are “the reason our lives are too short”. And that this was “an injustice [...] that science must repair”. His solution was yoghurt, rich in beneficial bacteria that would purge the intestinal flora of undesirable bacteria. Despite consuming yoghurt intensively, Metchnikoff died in 1916 at the age of 71. He was a way off the ripe old age reached by those who ate curdled milk, notably the Bulgarian peasants who had inspired him to try out this approach in the first place.

Too much water ruins your figure

Don’t drink more than 75 cl of water a day, otherwise you will bloat, because your “tissues are saturated !” In 1959 the beauty column in the French women’s magazine Arts ménagers picked up on a belief that had been common currency for over a century – ever since a Parisian doctor, Dr Jean-François Dancel, observed that obese people drink excessively with their meals and concluded that water promotes the formation of fat. He therefore also condemned vegetables with a high water content because, as everyone can see, unlike carnivores, herbivores (hippopotamuses, cows, etc.) are fat.

Dancel, F., Traité théorique et pratique de l’obésité (trop grand embonpoint), Paris, 1863.
Annika Gil

Journalist

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