Contributed Papers

Hunger and Nutrition

Presenter 1

Protein and the Post-Eugenic Politics of Nutrition

Hannah LeBlanc

Cornell University


After World War II, with the nominal demise of eugenics, nutritional explanations held new appeal for First World experts thinking about what would soon emerge as the Third World. According to nutritionists, deficiencies in nourishment could explain bodily and national differences that eugenicists would have, in an earlier era, attributed to inheritance. In this paper, I argue that during the cold war, international nutrition experts did not discard older hierarchies of races, nations, and bodies but made them palatable by rendering them mutable. This new theorization of old difference was exemplified by the theory of the global protein gap between the First and Third Worlds. This paper explores the institutions, ideologies, and research that lent credence to the protein gap theory. Particularly important were an emerging network of experts that spanned national borders, new nutrition surveillance techniques, and a wave of international nutrition research that connected early childhood malnutrition and learning deficits. The protein gap theory, moreover, framed bodily difference in ways consistent with increasingly dominant modernization theory. Protein malnutrition became not just a biological problem but a cornerstone in cycles of poverty and underdevelopment. In international nutritionists' thinking, better protein nutrition would increase human efficiency and help drive a virtuous cycle toward free market capitalism and democracy. I argue that the protein gap theory reframed eugenics' old hierarchies in ways that were congruent with cold war geopolitics.


Presenter 2

Seeing like an Engineer: Thermodynamics and the Politics of the Factory Diet in Early 20th Century China

Seung-joon Lee

National University of Singapore


In Republican China (1911-1949), a new generation of Chinese biochemists and nutritionists - mostly trained in the Western universities -shared a powerful impetus for the rise of thermodynamic understanding of the human body and machines in industrial production. Such a novel viewpoint helped to forge a new conviction that China could find a scientific solution to its stagnant industrialization questions and prevalent hunger. This belief in turn encouraged a series of managerial innovations in the Chinese industrial sectors in the 1930s and 1940s.
Fossil-fuel-based combustion for machines signified the ultimate symbol of the forthcoming industrial age, but also served as a metaphor for the perfection of the human body. What if China could devise an optimum point of calorific regimen for industrial workers such as used for machines? What if industrial provisioning in the workplace could guarantee the replenishing of the working body at a minimum level? Based on this logic, the Chinese state endeavored to facilitate an industrial welfare program; the centerpiece of this work was reforming factory diets.
This paper illustrates how the politics of factory welfare unfold around the viewpoint of thermodynamics. Yet, this is not to say that thermodynamics are simply a tool of managerial techniques. A logic of optimal energy input and output equally evoked historical actors from a wide range of ideological standpoints from conservatives to revolutionary radicals.


Presenter 3

The Metamorphoses of the Meaning of Hunger in Brazil (1930-1940)

Adriana Salay Leme

São Paulo University


Hunger has always been present in history, however, it does not carry the same meaning over different periods and in different social groups. The purpose of this presentation is to shed light on how hunger was understood in the 1930s and 1940s in Brazil, analyzing mainly the press, literature and scientific production of the period. It can be seen that the term hunger, as a social phenomenon and not a biological sensation, was closely linked to the sense of crisis. For example, a great drought may generate hunger, a war could also be a cause of hunger. However, scientific researches had begun in Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century, which later have formed the field of nutrition. Studies and food surveys have started to understand the needs beyond the crisis: nutritional problems, associated diseases and malnutrition were linked to the availability of food from the principle that human beings would need the minimum necessary for the healthy maintenance of life in their daily lives. Thus, the rationalized diet has created tools such as counting calories and discovering vitamins that changed the understanding about food intake. With the repercussion of this new view in Brazil, the term hunger takes on a broader meaning, which Josué de Castro named in his book "Geography of Hunger", of hidden hunger - even in a regular situation there may be hunger because it is a structural and social problem and not arising from climatic and temporary issues. The purpose here is not to say that hunger is only cultural, but to assume the direction of analysis: the focus is on how a particular social group looked at the phenomenon of hunger and how it gradually widened its meaning. It is also not just an epistemological issue, as the expansion of its definition has a substantial impact on how the public policies were thought. Therefore, analyzing the sense of hunger for a social group is also looking at that social group itself.


Presenter 4

Putting the "Burden of Evidence" on the Consumer: The Fleischmann's Yeast for Health Campaign in the 1920s

Lisa Haushofer

University of Toronto


At the beginning of the twentieth century, the architects of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 sought to strengthen medical oversight over drugs and proprietary foods. Historians have shown that in the aftermath of the legislation, food producers and drug companies appealed increasingly to scientific authority and the language of the Act to promote their products. But food companies also actively encouraged evaluation of their products through alternative forms of expertise. This inadvertent consequence of the 1906 regulation has received less historical scrutiny. In this paper, I investigate the deliberate construction of a culture of consumer-driven expertise during the 'Yeast for Health Campaign.' This 1920s campaign to promote a commercial baking yeast, Fleischmann's Yeast, as a health food, initially relied on tried and tested strategies of appealing to scientific expertise and using scientific terminology in advertisements. Increasingly, however, marketers grew concerned about scientific oversight over their product, and began to solicit consumer-driven forms of control and evaluation. I analyze consumer surveys and essay contests which the company used to allow consumers of the product to determine its indications and effects. User-generated evaluations of the product, I show, were showcased by the company in advertisements and used to adjust the repertoire of possible indications and target groups of Fleischmann's Yeast. I argue that Fleischmann's Yeast's significance therefore lies not so much in showcasing the immense cultural power of vitamins and science, but in highlighting how the relationship between scientific expertise and its application through products could be turned on its head: the focus of experimentation and evaluation, the paper insists, shifted from the content and use of health food products to the marketing strategies themselves.