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A brief history of the 'knowledge of nutrition'

Photo/Getty Images

Until 1900, food and disease weren’t seen as connected. But even when research showed a link, the British Government tried to deny it.

Healthcare was revolutionised in the early 20th century with the discovery of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Surprisingly, though, this “newer knowledge of nutrition” was not welcomed by the post-war British Government.

Until about 1900, the study of nutrition, or metabolism, as it was then called, focused solely on energy requirements, with consideration given to people’s need for carbohydrates, fats and protein.

The quantity of food was seen as king, as clearly, without food, starvation would occur. But until the early 1900s, disease and ill-health weren’t connected to food.

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With the discovery of micronutrients and amino acids, however, scientists began more sophisticated analyses of food, soon realising that quality was just as important as quantity.

Animal experiments revealed that rickets, a bone disorder common in that era, was caused by vitamin D deficiency. And beriberi and scurvy were caused by vitamin B1 and vitamin C deficiencies, respectively.

Cod liver oil was found to combat rickets. Photo/Getty Images

The many eating problems that occurred after World War I provided plenty of opportunity to test new nutritional theories, such as the 1919 Vienna experiment in which British scientists successfully fed children cod liver oil to wipe out rickets.

The scientists soon turned their attention to the “low” diets of working-class families in England and Scotland. They discovered that working-class people were generally eating enough food for their energy needs, but many of the low paid and unemployed couldn’t afford to eat enough of the newly discovered “protective foods”, such as milk, fresh vegetables, fruit, meat and fish.

As British social historian John Burnett explained, “Poor families first satisfied their hunger with cheap carbohydrate foods washed down with innumerable cups of tea, and only after this did they turn to the protein and vegetable foods high in vitamins.”

Eighty years later, many low-income New Zealand families resort to similar means to cope with a limited food budget. In our most recent Nutrition Survey, in 2008-09, 7% of households severely struggled to afford sufficient food to feed everybody.

Their food budget simply didn’t stretch to meet basic nutritional costs, researchers from Massey University found. Instead, a common method of survival was to fill hungry bellies with cheap carbs, such as $1 packets of pasta, white bread or two-minute noodles, that don’t meet basic needs.

In 2019, not everyone has the time and kitchen skills of middle-class New Zealand. Impoverished families with better cooking abilities could “make something from nothing”, some people lament. But it’s not a new problem. Early last century, Edward Cathcart, a Scottish doctor and British Medical Research Council member, said poor people lived in many cases mainly on bread and ready-cooked foods. They suffered not only from lack of money, he said, but from lack of cooking facilities and utensils and the knowledge and ability to use to the best advantage the materials they were able to secure.

Edward Cathcart. Photo/Wellcome Library/Supplied

In the 1930s, the research council felt enough was known about protective foods for the nutrition principles to be put into practice. It wanted the Government to share this “newer knowledge of nutrition” with the people.

However, it hadn’t escaped the British Government’s notice that its newly reduced unemployment benefit wouldn’t provide for the basic nutrition needs for many families.

In a post-war era marred by mass unemployment, poor wages and Crown cost-cutting, the Government in Westminster was desperate to disprove links between malnutrition, ill-health and low income. Throughout the 1930s, the UK Ministry of Health – from which New Zealand took its lead – denied malnutrition was linked to lower incomes or food intake. Instead, it redirected the responsibility for malnourishment to the individual, batting away discussions about nutrition and the persistently high maternal mortality rates and ongoing child malnutrition.

Financial considerations determined economic and social policies, said UK historian Madeleine Mayhew, in a research paper on the nutrition controversy of the 1930s.

Much nutrition knowledge has been gained since then, but, practically speaking, little has been done to resolve the nutritional inequalities faced by people on low wages.

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.