Food groups and macronutrients revisited

The role of nutritional products

Lisa Haushofer

The advent of modern nutrition science, usually located in the 1840s, is often linked to the identification of the so-called macronutrients and the related concept of food groups – carbohydrates, proteins and fats. According to scholars like Michael Pollan and Gyorgy Scrinis, the identification of nutrients and food groups was the beginning of a revolutionary new way of thinking about food and its relationship to the body. The process by which this was achieved tends to be viewed as a chemical takeover of the cultural realm of food, resulting in the chemical identification of the component parts of foods. It enabled the quantification of foods’ nutritious content, and allowed nutrition scientists to offer prescriptive food advice to entire populations, not just to individuals, and to develop nutritional products based on their theories (such as Justus von Liebig’s Meat Extract). In this paper, I revisit the concepts of food groups and macronutrients by reassessing the role of nutritional products in their articulation. Products, I argue, did more than ‘diffuse’ or ‘popularize’ pre-formed nutritional scientific theories; they were implicated in the process of knowledge creation. By juxtaposing the scientific texts of nutrition scientists involved in the articulation of food groups (such as William Prout, Jonathan Pereira, Justus von Liebig, Edwin Lankester, and Henry Letheby), and the nutritional products they created and discussed (for example, Gail Borden’s Meat Biscuit, Osmazome, Brocchieri’s Blood Cakes, Justus Liebig’s Meat Extract), I recover the products’ epistemic function in the construction of constituent-centered nutritional theories. I show that products were tools to think with: they forced attention on content, on the relationship between weight, size and nourishing power, and on the notion of ‘extraction.’ By highlighting the role of products in the making of nutritional knowledge, I propose that we consider the ‘invention’ of food groups and macronutrients not as a revolutionary new way of thinking about food, but as the outcome of a process of negotiation, between old and new notions of nourishment (kind and constituent), between chemical and vitalist conceptions of the digestive body, and between normative and interventionist notions of nature in scientific research.