Being an article, originally entitled “How the Striking Changes in Diet have affected the Peoples Health,” included in the Supplement, “The Nations Milk,” recently published by the Daily Telegraph. Here reprinted by kind permission.
Professor of Biochemistry, London University.
(From the Daily Telegraph).
IT is not widely recognized how greatly the character of our everyday diet differs from that of a century ago. Most people tend to assume that, except for a few minor differences – we do not, for example, drink beer for breakfast or liberally supply it on our school dining-room tables – we eat very much as our great- grandfathers did. But in actual fact we do not.
The differences are striking when we compare the food of the middle classes and the poorer folk. We often speak of the roast beef and beer of the Old England, but, as a matter of fact, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, cheese was a far more important article of diet than meat, which was expensive.
It is true that the ordinary town dweller or country labourer a hundred years ago ate more meat than his French or German cousin. Nevertheless, the basis of his food was vegetarian – in the wider interpretation of the word; coarse wholemeal breads, vegetables and dairy produce, milk, cheese and butter. Such diets were undoubtedly nourishing.
It was in the early years of the nineteenth century that the character of the national food began to alter and although the changes were at the first gradual they soon spread and began to have far-reaching consequences. With the opening of the ear of industrialization there began a vast movement when the people flocked to the towns.
The urban populations grew at a fantastic rate during the Victorian years, and with this growth many difficult problems of public health inevitably arose. None of these was of greater magnitude than the necessity for developing methods for the rapid transport of food and for its storage.
In the village or the small town stoneground flour was usually baked a short time after milling, but when this was not possible, and it was necessary to send the flour some distance, or to hold it in store, the material soon became rancid and unfit for human consumption.
The introduction of the roller mill was a big step forward for the miller, because it enabled him to remove quite simply the crushed germ of the wheat berry, the part which if left in the flour would cause rancidity to develop.
The extraction of the germ gave us what was termed patent flour and what is more generally spoken of to-day as white flour; but it must not be forgotten that this development in the manufacture of flour resulted in one of our staple foods being deprived of a number of highly nutritious and indeed essential constituents.
Margarine first appeared in response to a challenge to industry in France to produce an edible but cheap substitute for butter in time of national emergency. The low standard of living prevailing in the industrial areas of England towards the end of last century soon led to a rapid increase in the consumption of this food.
But the ingenious manufacturers could not then know that the product they had made by emulsifying certain vegetable oils without soured separated milk lacked several essential dietary factors – the fat-soluble vitamins which are to be found as a general rule in good dairy butter.
In the last year or two the industry has succeeded in find a means of adding the missing vitamins to these products so that the public may buy vitamin-enriched margarines at a reasonable cost. But it must be remembered that margarine had been an important article of the national diet for some twenty-five years before nutritional research discovered the defect.
Another change now in progress which few people have appreciated is a falling consumption of bread and flour and a proportion increase in the use of sugar. This, of course, is related to the rise in the eating of fruit and in the sale of “soft” drinks and ice cream.
It is essential, therefore, to remember not only that changes in the character of our national dietary may occur so gradually as almost to escape notice, but that their effects may have been operating over a long period before they are recognized. Indeed, it is fair to say that only during the past ten years or so have we learnt to what a large extent some of these changes in our diet have been responsible for so many disturbances of health.
It is often said that there is no need to worry about deficiencies of one foodstuffs – for example, white bread – because in any reasonably varied diet they will in all probability be made good by other foods. This is a dangerous fallacy, because it may give rise to an entirely false sense of security.
It is possible, for example, to give an extensive list of foods such as would constitute quite a common breakfast, luncheon, tea and dinner, which, whilst satisfying the palate and the appetite in every way, would nevertheless be nutritively deficient. In actual fact, looking at everyday diets one more often than not finds that in spite of a considerable range in the choice of foods deficiencies are traceable.
An error frequent among all classes of people is to imagine that because a dish is attractive to the eyes and nose it is pretty sure to be valuable for the stomach.
It is in this connection that such great importance must be attached to what have rather aptly been called the protective foods. The most common deficiencies are in respect to certain of the vitamins and important minerals, particularly lime and iron. The protective foods are milk, green vegetables and fresh fruits.
So far as is known almost every type of dietary deficiency can be made good by these foods, but milk is of particular interest not only because it supplies these important vitamins and minerals, but because it is in itself a natural foodstuff providing proteins of high value for growth and readily assimilable sources of energy.
Most people must be aware that during the past few years striking demonstrations of the great value of milk as a supplement to the ordinary everyday diets of young child have been made. It is certain that the observations now being made on a large number of school children who are receiving a third of a pint of milk daily under the existing scheme will be equally impressive and instructive.
In some countries, particularly in Northern America, there is a much higher consumption of milk per head of population than in England.
It is probable that this is due, as regards the United States, to the much later development of the large towns. It seems likely the difficulty of keeping milk fresh led to a rapid decrease in its consumption in the growing towns of England last century.
Those who know both sides of the Atlantic will admit that the greater consumption of protective foods, particularly milk, by the young children of the United States and Canada is to a large extent responsible for their relatively higher degree of physical development and markedly better teeth. Those who make experimental studies in the laboratory on the disorders which arise from deficient diets know that in almost every case the surest and most certain means of cure is to administer milk.