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Health foods in the west

In all cultures food is considered to have an impact on health. Food was essential to humoral medicine, which emphasised balancing the body, including all of its ‘inflows’ and ‘outflows’.

In the 1500s foods had ‘qualities’ - hot or cold, light or heavy, and so on. Freshly caught fish or game was considered more nourishing than meat obtained from domestic animals, while ‘wild’ fruits, nuts, leaves and herbs were believed to have unique medicinal properties.

In the 1600s alcohol and new foodstuffs from the Americas such as tea, coffee, chocolate and sugar upset the old Galenic rules. There were intense debates as to whether these hot new ‘drugs’ were good for us or bad for us - mostly they were bad. In the 1700s healthy dieting was the new fad. Instead of heavy diets of meat and wine, anti-obesity diets of milk, grains and ‘light’ vegetable foods were recommended. ‘Economical’ or ‘lean’ cookery was developed in the early 1800s and the health-food industry, the ancestor of today’s ‘organic’ industry, appeared.

In the mid-1800s vegetarianism developed and vegetarian restaurants selling dishes such as ‘nut roast’ opened up. Anti-alcohol temperance and teetotalism converts bought vegetable-based cordials and carbonated drinks.

Raw fruit and vegetables, honey and uncooked grains were popularised by Swiss naturist Dr Maximilian Bircher-Benner in the early 1900s. Meanwhile John Harvey-Kellogg and other American health entrepreneurs invented ‘puffed’ grains and rolled wheat, bran and oat flakes.

In the 1900s the naturist diet became the mass-marketed supermarket commodity we know today. But the fear over what we put into ourselves is still summed up in the phrase borrowed from ancient medicine: ‘You are what you eat.’



F Fernandez-Armesto, Food. A History (Oxford: Pan Macmillan, 2002)

J O’Hara May, Elizabethan Dyetary of Health (Lawrence, Kans: Coronado Press, 1977)

V Smith, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)

R Tannahill, Food in History (London: Penguin Books, 1998)