If health-conscious people were to choose between diets recommending natural or processed food products, which would they choose? The language of dietary advice today is dominated by notions of nature, organic farming, and organic products. It seems that such labels are very appealing to people wanting to live more healthy lifestyles. Only 40 years ago, however, health experts and dietitians in the Polish People’s Republic used a far different language to convince their beneficiaries to eat certain foods. It was the language of science, industry and technology.
In 1970s media discourse, the word “natural” was hardly ever used; both in cookbooks and women’s magazines. It was obvious then that vegetables, fruit, mushrooms and milk were all-natural. What seemed less obvious were the possibilities that would come from new technologies, such as those from modified or fortified foods or enriched crops. The introduction to the most famous cookbook and nutrition guidebook of the 1970s, Kuchnia Polska (“Polish Cuisine”), edited by the Polish nutrition scientist Stanisław Berger, is mostly devoted to popularizing new scientific achievements. In the 1970s, bouillon cubes, frozen vegetables and pre-packaged products were new to people used to cooking from scratch. Nutritional inventions, like foods with artificially added nutrients, were new as well. Their innovativeness and additional health benefits were presented as the main reasons for their consumption.
In Poland in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a strong belief in the potential of science and technological progress to improve the human condition – an era called high modernism. That the 1970s were perceived as a decade of economic growth and prosperity was partly due to the “propaganda of success” – a type of propaganda that exaggerated the political and economic achievements of the government, highlighting scientific discoveries, economic success and new inventions.
The language of dietary advice reflected the power of high modernism and narratives of socialist progress. The socialist state, and the efficiency of a centrally planned economy were believed to be best suited to solve nutritional deficits and malnutrition in the population. Berger’s book strongly suggests that industrial food was, in fact, better than natural food. Only scientists, using calculations and “hard” data, were capable of providing people with the food suitable for their dietary needs. Moreover, they allegedly could do it better than nature did. In the 1977 edition of Kuchnia Polska, in a section on shopping, Berger states that technology could improve nature by “strengthening or even boosting the original nutritional value of natural food products.” It could also “even out nutritional deficits among the population by picking the right food raw material and by enriching certain products (for example by adding vitamins, mineral components, amino acids).”
Science served as the biggest signifier of authority when it came to diets. Scientific language, for instances displayed in tables featuring detailed information about the recommended amount of nutrients, was an indispensable element of articles written in popular women’s magazines. Dietary advice frequently underlined that everyday diets should be ”rational,“ rather than enjoyable. Berger even suggested that the preparation of appealing and aromatic food had a scientific justification: it helped the body produce gastric juices. While pleasure was thus regarded as a means to healthy eating, cultural or traditional values were not important for dietitians constructing everyday bills of fare. The dietary guidelines were so precise that they indicated the recommended per cent of each product on a plate up to 1 decimal place (!). The model, in the shape of a plate, recommended to allot 6 % of the daily fare to vegetables rich in vitamin C, 8.6% to vegetables rich in beta-carotene and 11 % to other vegetables. Potatoes, the main source of carbohydrates, should constitute 24% of the daily food consumption. The amounts were presented also in grams, so it required using a scale while preparing meals. Planning and calculations were inevitable elements of daily cooking. It is hard now to even imagine how housewives used the model in their everyday cooking practices.
A Shift Towards Nature
Since those times, the language of dietary advice has changed dramatically. The tables, percentages and scientific calculations have been relegated from popular media discourse. They have been replaced by an emphasis on ”natural,” ”organic,” or even “home-grown” food products. Women’s magazines now propose a ”clean” way of eating, highlighting the positive effects wholesome food and home cooking would have on one’s body. Such dietary advice also calls for avoiding processed and fortified food products—even those with “healthy” additives, such as vitamin C. Slightly processed foods, such as low-fat milk, are considered by some experts “industrial” (or “unnatural”) and, therefore, unhealthy. In an interview printed in May 2014 in the magazine Women and Life (“Kobieta i Życie”), Julita Bator, author of the Polish consumer guidebook Zamień Chemię na Jedzenie (“Exchange Chemicals for Food”) argues that any additives in products which originally “should not be there” could be harmful to one’s body. This includes, according to her, adding powdered milk or sugar to yogurts.
The interesting thing about this is that scientific research has ceased being an obligatory reference point for dietary experts in the media. Bator does not refer to any research in the article, so it is hard for readers to objectively judge her precepts. The lack of reference to science seems to suggest that scientific discourse is not very appealing to consumers anymore as a justification to eat certain foods. Contemporary discourse is all about nature and the language of dietary advice is often based on ”common sense” rather than actual scientific data. One example is a statement, that can be found in contemporary media discourse. Some claim that cow’s milk is for calves and not humans (a common-sense argument), despite the fact that science claims that milk is an important source of essential nutrients (a scientific argument). Other examples from popular media include trends like “The Five Element Diet,” which is a spiritually based rather than science-based variety of a lifestyle diet.
Official governmental institutions, unlike the popular media, still use science as a signifier of authority. The website of the National Center for Nutritional Education (Narodowe Centrum Edukacji Żywieniowej), created to popularize dietary knowledge among Polish citizens, undergirds its recommendation of organic and natural foods with reference to scientific research publications. One can find research data, for instance, proving certain certified organic crops to be more nutrient-dense than foods produced using conventional agricultural methods. Such statements both align with contemporary trends and are based on scientific facts. But the shift towards “natural” as a current signifier of authority is visible as well.
The change in dietary language is not a result of less scientific research—quite the contrary: nutrition science is thriving. New scientific centers and projects, like the respected National Center for Dietary Education, have been created in Poland in the last decades. But the language of dietary advice and the food marketing strategies are subordinate to trends, cultural changes and prevailing political currents. That is why we need to read between the lines to get closer to scientific facts to ascertain how our diets should actually look. In the 1970s, nutritional facts were sometimes hidden behind overly-optimistic propaganda. Today, the science behind them can be obscured as well: behind new marketing strategies, trends, and lifestyles.