Problematic calories: Belgium, 1890-1918

Peter Scholliers

Why has obesity become a universal problem today, given that nutritional science has progressed and food recommendations intensified since more than a century? This plain question is the basis of this paper, which fits within the study of the relationship between science and the general public addressing food, body and health.
Ideas about right eating existed since very long, but in the first half of the 19th century a more scientific approach of human nutrition emerged with the understanding of the functioning of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Calorie and vitamin hugely added to nutritional insights, thus revolutionizing notions about eating and drinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This paper focuses on the nutritional calorie in Belgium between 1890 and 1920. ‘Calorie’ emerged as a means to quantify the energetic needs of various sorts of people (the average worker, the pregnant woman, the young child, the sportsman,…), while it denoted the energetic value of all possible foodstuffs (100 g of bread equals 230 calories, 100 g of butter equals 750 calories, et cetera). Numerous scientists enthusiastically promoted this new nutritional concept. This history is known. But largely unknown is the way wider audiences got to know about ‘calorie’ and how they reacted to it.
These questions are tackled by investigating newspaper articles in which ‘calorie’ appeared, assuming that newspapers seized the contemporaries’ views. Belgium is chosen because it is on the crossroad of international scientific influences. The country was not a forerunner in nutritional research, and it may therefore be seen as representative of many countries.
The digitalized newspapers ( with 85 newspapers up to 1914, and, with all newspapers and magazines pertaining to the Belgian territory during the Great War) allow to efficiently searching for ‘calorie’ within a nutritional context. This yielded 259 articles between 1890 and 1918: 118 between 1890 and 1913, but 142 during the Great War, respectively 5.1 and 35.5 per year. Comparisons with the Netherlands confirm the break-through after 1914 (based on Delpher database).
Applying a close-reading method with interest in what and how the authors wrote, the following classification of articles with regard to ‘calorie’ appears: 1) eagerly accept; 2) reject; 3) critically accept. By 1914, the former was dominant, whereas during the war national and international bodies conceived of food aid in terms of calories, thus introducing this concept in very wide circles, including housewives (recipes with caloric content), local food aid (soup portions of 250 calories), trade union members (wage demands to obtain a specific amount of calories), or advertisements for dog food… The presentation of the paper will illustrate each position with examples, so to analyse the various views and arguments. In short, the stance with regard to ‘calorie’ reflected a struggle over everyday cuisine between nutritionists on the one side, and cook-artists on the other.
If calories were rapidly popularized in Belgium in those years, some people doubted their meaning and usage, which testified to distrust of science that seem to conquer cuisine and, for that matter, everyday life.