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Home arrow Political science arrow From Hunger to Malnutrition: The Political Economy of Scientific Knowledge in Europe, 1918-1960


Rural Dietaries and the Problem of Feeding Habits

A specific report on food habits in rural populations in Europe was prepared by the experts’ commission on nutrition of the League of Nations’ Health Organisation. Rural health, dietaries and living conditions became a source of interest in times of crisis. According to all surveys, rural communities and dietaries were extremely different in the varied rural areas of Europe, although they showed certain common characteristics when compared to urban dietaries.[1] The chief characteristic of rural diets was monotony, since the average peasant household only used a limited number of foodstuffs. From a nutritional point of view, this was clearly a disadvantage: in a more varied diet, there was less risk of being deprived of one or more essential foods, particularly minerals and vitamins. In rural communities, seasonal variations were considerable, but day-to-day dietaries often lacked variety for most of the year.

The improvement in communications and means of transport was indeed an advantage for food trade and commercial distribution, but at the same time it might imply a nutritional disadvantage for primitive isolated rural areas in as much as they allowed the selling of their products in towns. This meant that certain foodstuffs traditionally consumed were being kept for sale and not eaten at home. McDougall’s report attributed to this reason the fact that the level of consumption of animal foodstuffs was reported to be higher in certain poor parts of Europe than in more developed neighbouring areas. It was not ignorance but economic necessity that prevented peasants from eating the meat, eggs and dairy products they produced. In most districts these foodstuffs were considered a luxury and only prosperity introduced them into peasantry dietaries.[2] Nevertheless, local tradition played a meaningful role and this important factor was frequently overlooked in most of the expert reports. Goat or sheep-milk cheese was eaten in poor rural areas whereas in more developed ones the cheese products were usually sold in towns.

Again, education was pointed out as the key element to improving rural nutrition. Quite often, when talking about dietaries and food consumption, popular culture and scientific knowledge confronted one another. McDougall’s report on rural dietaries stated that: “The majority of rural housewives in Europe know little or nothing of the principles of nutrition, and they might frequently be able to feed their families more adequately if they knew the relative value of different foodstuffs”.[3] Yet, cultural habits relating to the consumption of certain foods varied considerably across countries and regions depending on availability, religious beliefs and local traditions. During the interwar period many Western countries started campaigns to instruct the rural housewife, who was considered to be the keystone to changes in traditional habits that were incompatible with new scientific ideas.[4]

Apart from education as a tool to change habits, state relief in the form of food supplies was often given to destitute rural families in many European countries after the 1929 crisis. School meals and public canteens for unemployed and poor people spread in many rural areas in Europe. However, two levels of action orientated political strategies. The first level was linked to the urgent need to overcome shortages, inadequate dietary habits and nutrition deficiencies. But this was not enough, because the economic dimension of severe deficiencies in rural nutrition could only be tackled by agricultural and economic readjustments, both nationally and internationally.

Some exceptions were reported for mountain regions of the Balkans, Sub-Carpathian Russia and Scandinavia, where cereals could not be easily grown and the diet was made up of whatever variety of vegetables could be produced (potatoes, beans, etc) and animal foodstuffs available. Since these foods were usually more expensive than cereals, these populations were frequently underfed, unless some complementary income was found or state relief was provided through special means such as large amounts of cereals.

From Hunger to Malnutrition

According to McDougall’s report, the preponderance of cereals in the rural dietary was most marked in Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, where the cereal provision of energy was estimated to be 80% to 90% of the total diet.[5] His report concluded that the high proportion of cereals intake decreased as the peasant population became more prosperous, and had been substantially reduced in Western and Northern Europe for a number of agricultural and climatic causes. On the other hand, in those European regions identified by nutritionists as “the more primitive areas”, cereals were not only eaten as bread but also simply ground to a rough meal and cooked with water as groats, porridge, polenta or cakes.[6]

The second most important foodstuffs in the rural areas of Europe were some vegetables of a high energy-providing value. In rural Ireland, Poland or Germany, potatoes were even more important in the diet than cereals, while in the Balkan Region and Central Europe, beans constituted a regular source of calories in the rural dietary, according to data in McDougall’s report.

Less homogeneous seemed to be the amount and varieties of meat eaten from one region to another. The consumption of meat was said to depend on the prosperity of the peasantry and on cultural habits, but the importance of certain animals for human survival in many rural districts is well known. Some of them delivered milk, wool and other goods fundamental for rural families. In other cases, animal products were important in the rural economy, as well as in rural dietaries. The case of Spanish peasantry and farmers in relation to pork consumption is paradigmatic. The so-called matanza [slaughter of the pig] constituted a big feast, an essential event in many rural districts, associated with old traditions and probably religious beliefs. One should conclude that the insistence of nutritionists on the lack of meat consumption among poor social groups in rural districts is not always acceptable; sausages, most animal viscera and organs, blood and intestines were present in popular rural dietaries in different ways and proportions. Animal products were not always a luxury for many peasants in Southern Europe; medical topographies and official reports confirm this fact.

However, McDougall insisted on the idea that poorer farmers in the poorest parts of Europe would only have meat on feast days, just a few times a year, while the more prosperous peasants in those poor regions used to eat it once or twice a week. This was probably true for meat, but not for all animal produce that provides animal proteins. On the contrary, he reports that in the most prosperous areas of Western Europe the poorest peasants ate meat once a week, while prosperous farmers had two or three meat meals daily. Was it mainly a matter of prosperity? He stated: “The consumption of milk also varies enormously from one part of Europe to another. In Finland and Latvia, the rural population is reported to drink a litre of milk per head per day, while in Hungary, Romania and Yugoslavia there are districts where peasant families drink practically no milk at all”.[7]

Indeed, not only McDougall’s report but also other nutritionists insisted on the idea that production and consumption were sometimes dissociated. The case of milk was frequently mentioned because it was reported that peasants who produced milk, butter and cheese regarded these products primarily as market goods and not as essential foodstuffs for their own families. McDougall cited the striking example of Danish farmers producing butter for export and buying margarine for their own consumption. In many rural areas, milk was considered an essential foodstuff for newborns and infants, but was absolutely absent from an adult’s diet. Due to the insistence of rural doctors and hygienists on the benefits of milk consumption, a widely extended popular belief was reported in Spanish rural districts that associated milk with a medical product, a sort of medicine for sick people, rather than a foodstuff.

Surveys and reports by hygienists and nutritional experts showing evident deficiencies in rural dietaries put some questions to historical evaluation. Cultural habits were seldom positively considered as a fundamental element of rural dietaries. Science and culture clashed and scientists labelled any idea or practice that was contradictory to the new scientific discourse as ignorance. To what an extent were experts legitimated to talk about ignorance as a main cause of nutritional deficiency, especially when cultural habits were the principal tool for survival in traditional societies? Was it really a lack of scientific knowledge or was it cultural habits and economic necessity that prevented peasants from having meat, eggs and the dairy products they produced? In most cases, certain products were not included in traditional rural dietaries and it seems reasonable to wonder if such foodstuffs were considered to be a luxury or simply they were not part of traditional family cooking. Was prosperity really the path for the introduction of new foodstuffs into the peasantry dietary? Undoubtedly, cultural habits played a major role. But popular customs were often put down to ignorance if they did not fit with experimental approaches. McDougall remarks that such valuable foodstuffs as whey and blood were wasted in certain areas while consumed in others. It is remarkable how new scientists identified science as knowledge and considered culture and popular habits on the side of ignorance, illustrating the authoritarian mentality of the positivistic approach of trying to civilise the ignorant.

Other factors were also considered in nutritional surveys in relation to the urban-rural divide. Rural dietaries tended to be affected by much greater seasonal dependence than in urban areas, because most peasant families relied on what was grown locally and urban areas received goods from different places. In those cases, the diet used to be at its best in late summer and autumn, a period in which a wide variety of fruit was available and cereals, vegetables, eggs and dairy products were more abundant. During this period, the diet of peasants was almost ideal, particularly in areas where milk was abundantly drunk. Fruit and vegetables were eaten in adequate amounts; milk and meat products were easily available. Just the opposite was true in spring in Central and Eastern rural Europe; it was during this season that most health problems associated with the diet appeared, such as pellagra, scurvy, night blindness, rickets and others. During the hard periods of the year, rural diets tended to be deficient in fruit, fresh green vegetables and animal foodstuffs. In addition, religious fasting further impoverished the winter diet, as no animal products were eaten and the global intake of proteins decreased.[8] According to the expert’s approach, to increase the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables, it was necessary to learn how to preserve them for winter use, avoiding much of the crop being wasted. The conservation of fresh foodstuffs became an important challenge for many rural areas.

McDougall’s report coincided with other experts in the idea that the only special advantage of rural dietaries over urban ones was that food in the countryside was usually consumed in fresher, more natural condition, something important for cereals “which are usually eaten as highly refined white flour in the towns, while in most parts of Europe the rural populations still eat whole-grain cereals”.[9] The difference between refined and wholemeal flour was undoubtedly considered of great nutritional significance, especially in rural regions, where bread and other forms of cereal food formed the basis of the diet. Nutritionists knew that the proportion of minerals and vitamins decreased largely in refined white flour, something that might not be important in urban varied diets but, on the contrary, it was probably meaningful in the more restricted rural dietaries. In many cases, nutritionists shared a critical and suspicious attitude towards the quality control of industrialised food at a time when a debate was open on the use of colourings and other additives that required further regulation.[10] Among other losses, minerals and vitamins were considered by some physiologists to be lost as a result of industrial processing. This would not be important in urban and more varied diets but, once more, it could be a serious threat in the more restricted rural diets.

One of the main sources of confrontation between popular habits and the new expertise was the feeding of specific groups of the population, such as infants, young children, and pregnant and nursing mothers. Although infants were usually breastfed longer in rural areas than in towns and cities, experience showed that rickets was widespread in most rural regions. This paradox was explained by hygienists, who considered it a consequence of deficiencies in the mother’s diet, which was too poor to provide the child with the necessary minerals and vitamins. Once more, this was seen as a sign of the mothers’ ignorance of nutritional needs in pregnancy and lactation. “It has been found in Greece and Yugoslavia that prolonged breast-feeding, which is the usual practice of peasant mothers, rather increases than prevents the amount of rickets in the children, showing that the diet of the nursing mother is seriously deficient”.[9]

Despite the availability of milk, eggs, meat and vegetables, experts blamed mothers: they were unaware of how important it was to increase their intake of these foods. McDougall stated: “Amongst the slightly older children also, wrong feeding is probably more common in the country districts than in the towns, due to greater ignorance, as well as to lower purchasing power”.[3]

The concern about deficiency diseases in the rural areas mainly appeared in the 1930s as a consequence of the international crisis. Not many dietary surveys could give exact figures to estimate whether the intake of vitamins and minerals was enough to meet physiological requirements, but certain signs of shortage of one or more vitamins could explain the symptoms of deficiency diseases frequently reported amongst rural populations in many parts of Europe.[4] Nutritional deficiencies and malnutrition were indeed a threat for the new generations, and the new science of nutrition supported by state policies posed a sort of eugenic issue, a strategy to improve health and organic development.

In the Muslim rural communities of Yugoslavia, where women used to live a secluded life, some cases of osteomalacia and osteoporosis had been reported, reflecting a shortage of vitamin D and calcium in the diet and a lack of exposure to sunlight. These cases were probably even more frequent in towns than in rural districts. Pellagra cases appeared every spring in rural areas of Romania, where maize was the staple foodstuff. Once more, pellagra cases were easily avoidable; they indicated a dietary deficiency that could be prevented simply by improving dietary habits.

The availability of foodstuffs in rural areas, as well as farm and agriculture production, was important. But, for the experts, education became the keyword, the eligible and most prominent method to change habits and subsequently improve rural standards of nutrition. Spreading scientific knowledge among the rural populations would help to eliminate bad habits. Now and again popular culture and the experts’ scientific knowledge clashed. McDougall’s report stated: “The majority of rural housewives in Europe know little or nothing of the principles of nutrition, and they might frequently be able to feed their families more adequately if they knew the relative value of different foodstuffs”.[14]

In fact, cultural habits attached to the consumption of certain foods varied considerably in different countries and regions. Milk could be considered a valuable foodstuff, being drunk by old and young, or, on the contrary, discarded for adults and only given to very young children and invalids. Some peasants did not grow vegetables for their own use while others grew and ate a variety of vegetables - even in the same or very close areas - and thereby the latter escaped pellagra and other deficiency diseases. Experts concluded that ignorance in the rural population was a serious waste of potential foodstuffs in rural communities and this should be resolved through education. Once again, cultural habits were confronted: whey was used as pig feed or thrown away in some rural areas, while in others the peasants would take it home for cooking, adding valuable minerals to their diet. The animals’ blood was thrown away after slaughtering and the blood was made into sausages or drunk as soup.

Education was called upon to rationalise feeding habits and therefore help to prevent such a loss of valuable foodstuffs. “Education in the feeding of infants and growing children would also be of immense value in most villages of Europe, for it is here that ignorance is the greatest danger to health”.[15] Many European countries realised the urgent need for education to change rural dietaries and started campaigns to instruct the rural housewife. This was one of the most frequently recommended strategies.

Apart from education, in areas where peasants did not have sufficient land to produce all the food a family needed, or enough money to buy an adequate diet, planned assistance from the state was required to procure a healthy diet. State relief in the form of food was often given to destitute rural families during the big crisis and in war and post-war years. Rationing standards for families and individuals and the scheme for a minimum diet was also based on expert work on the physiology of nutrition. Country children were sometimes given free or very cheap meals at school or in public dining rooms. Famine and malnutrition required immediate, urgent action, yet the experts agreed that “these relief measures only touch the fringe of the problem and offer no real solution”.[14] The background - the economic dimension of the serious deficiencies in rural nutrition - could only be improved through agricultural and economic readjustments, both nationally and internationally. The complexity of the problem was discussed in the Final Report of the Mixed Committee on Nutrition (1937), which considered nutrition in relation to a wider perspective, including agriculture and economic policy.[17]

  • [1] [McDougall, E.J.], 1939.
  • [2] Ibidem, p. 475.
  • [3] Ibidem.
  • [4] Ibidem, pp. 474-475.
  • [5] Ibidem, p. 470.
  • [6] Ibidem, p. 471.
  • [7] Ibidem, p. 472.
  • [8] Ibidem, p. 470 passim.
  • [9] Ibidem, p. 474.
  • [10] Guillem-Llobat, X., Perdiguero, E., “Fighting adulteration in early European foodindustrialisation. The case of Alicante (Spain)”, in Vamos, E. (ed.), History of theFood Chain. From Agriculture to Consumption and Waste, Hungarian ChemicalSociety, Budapest, 2006, pp. 33-40
  • [11] Ibidem, p. 474.
  • [12] Ibidem.
  • [13] Ibidem, pp. 474-475.
  • [14] Ibidem, p. 477.
  • [15] Ibidem, p. 476.
  • [16] Ibidem, p. 477.
  • [17] Final Report, 1937.
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