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Consumption, Nutrition and Health

Technical reports handled by FAO experts, to discuss the world’s situation and draw up new programmes, were essentially based on a Food Balance Sheet Method. This was an instrument that contained national average food supplies available for human consumption, which allowed for estimation of the caloric and protein contents of a given diet. The pre-war estimates used in the Second World Food Survey mostly referred to the period 1934-38. They were similar to those used in the first WFS and included several improvements in the accuracy of the statistics. The broad picture presented by the earlier statistics remained unchanged and estimates for the post-war period included 52 countries. Taken as a whole, average food supplies, measured in calories, were six per cent lower in 1950 than in pre-war years. Shortages led many countries to take exceptional measures to maintain food supplies. Milling extraction rates were high, the admixture of coarse grains such as barley, oats and maize in bread was appreciably increased and products normally limited to industrial uses, such as oilseeds, were now used for human consumption. By far the largest economy was achieved by the diversion to human consumption of crops normally reserved for feeding stock.

Since caloric intake was considered a quantitative measure of a diet, the 1951 survey considered the adequacy of national average food supplies in relation to estimated physiological requirements. The method used to assess energy requirements included environmental temperature, body weights, and the age and sex of the population. It was thought to provide a better average of calorie requirements of different population groups than any uniform standard applied to the whole world. The results for some European countries offered by the survey are the following:

Calorie Supplies Measured Against Requirements

European Countries

Recent level

Estimated Requirement






































United Kingdom







Source: Second World Food Survey, 1952, Rome, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 1952

However, the situation in Europe represented an exception to the global picture, since shortages were significant in many parts of Latin America, the Near East, the Far East and Africa. Nevertheless, no relatively simple unit like the calorie could be used for measuring diet quality, which was principally determined by the presence of nutrients, vitamins and minerals in satisfactory amounts. The amount of proteins consumed per caput tended to be considered the best available indicator: “Where the food supply is sufficient in calories, it has usually a high protein content, a good proportion of which is derived from animal products. On the other hand, when calorie supplies are inadequate, the total amount of protein in the diet is usually small and supplies of protein from animal products frequently do not reach 10 grams per caput a day”.[1]

The tendency to consume less cereals and starchy roots and more nutritionally rich protective foods such as meat, milk, eggs, fruit and vegetables was apparent in countries that were enjoying an increase in real national income. It has been discussed previously in this book how special efforts had been made in many countries to increase the consumption of milk in order to safeguard the health of nutritionally vulnerable groups such as infants, children and nursing and pregnant women.[2] During the post-war years the volume of international trade in dried and condensed milk had more than doubled, with these products playing a role in the international food trade as well as in a more balanced diet, according to medical experts.

Governments had become increasingly aware of their responsibility in safeguarding the health and nutrition of the more vulnerable members of the population. This protection was ensured through food rationing and price control during the war and much of the post-war period; the results were considered to be satisfactory when efficiently organised. Rationed items included not only bread and cereals, but also protective foods like meat, milk, cheese and eggs. In addition, European governments assumed the burden of food subsidies to ensure that essential supplies arrived to the most needy sectors of the population. As the food situation gradually improved, rationing in most countries was abolished or at least substantially reduced. In some cases, political and social perceptions led to the premature abolishment of rationing, which was quickly reintroduced when new acute shortages reappeared. Again, the provisions of supplements and special foods to infants, school children, expectant and nursing mothers and heavy manual workers showed excellent results and was widely applied in many countries.

  • [1] Second World Food Survey, 1952, p. 14.
  • [2] Research on the case of Spain: Castejon-Bolea, R., Perdiguero-Gil, E., “The closestthing to a mother’s milk”: the introduction of ‘formula milk’ and bottle feeding andtheir medical regulation in Spain (1926-1936)”, Food & History, No. 6, 2008,pp. 247-276; Castejon Bolea, R., Perdiguero Gil, E., “Medicos, regulacion estatal yempresas alimentarias en la introduccion y consumo de las formulas infantiles enEspana (1900-1936)”, in Bernabeu-Mestre, J., Barona, J.L. (eds.), Nutricion, saludySociedad. Espana y Europa en los siglos XIX-XX, Valencia, SEC/PUV, 2011,pp. 323-369.
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