Wondering About Wonder Foods: An Interview with Lisa Haushofer

In Wonder Foods: The Science and Commerce of Nutrition, Lisa Haushofer (Senior Research Associate in the History of Medicine Department at the University of Zurich) offers a vital history of our relationship with food, which is often easily distracted by the latest “superfood” or nutrition fad. She analyzes four “wonder foods” that gripped American and British food culture from the 1840s through the 1940s. Rather than a linear story of scientific discovery followed by commercial application, Haushofer’s book documents how nineteenth-century nutrition science and food business fueled one another, often working in lockstep. This cooperative relationship led to at least two deleterious results. First, it exacerbated food inequalities on a global scale. These nutrition-infused business relationships spawned a slew of products that realized an economic worldview that valorized efficiency, productivity, and value, while promoting imperialism, extractive logics, market-driven solutions, and white supremacist imperatives. Second, the partnership between nutrition and commerce shifted consumers’ food outlook toward not only nutrients but also products, particularly those that made (and make) miraculous promises. For all they inspire, wonder foods have done little to address food insecurity or malnutrition, which is by design. But, as Haushofer shows so well, they’ve done much to create current Western food systems, shape food cultures, guide humanitarian efforts, and impose a limited view of our food future that needs more inclusive reimagining.

The cover of Wonder Foods, featuring to vials filled with food and liquid.
(Courtesy University of California Press)

Emily: Congratulations, Lisa, on this wonderful book, and thanks for chatting with me! I love to judge a book by its cover, so let’s start there. How did you and your publisher select the archival image for the book’s cover, which also appears in chapter 4? What do you hope it visually communicates to readers about what “wonder foods” are and what they can teach us?

Lisa: I’m so glad you asked about the cover — I adore it. The cover design is by Glynnis Koike, a graphic designer and illustrator who specializes in comics and zines . The historical image on the cover accompanied an article in a medical journal on the supposedly “digestive” effects of papaya extract, one of many wonder foods marketed during the late 19th-century obsession with digestive enzymes. The two tubes supposedly illustrate the before and after of food digestion with papaya extract. Publishing a colored image was quite unusual for a medical journal during this time. It only makes sense when you understand it as a product of a commercial-scientific culture that systematically blurred the boundaries between scientific product testing and product promotion. The image illustrates the close ties between nutrition science and commerce, as well as the typical side-by-side of substance and spectacle in such products, both central themes of the book.

The fad which this product forms a part of–so-called “pre-digested” or “artificially digested” foods–was also informed by racist and eugenicist ideas to restore “degenerate” and “over-civilized” white digestive systems to their original strength. It’s one of several examples I use in the book to show how wonder foods were never purely about scientific/technological advances but also about who was deemed worthy of eating, digesting, and thriving.

Emily: I’m always fascinated by how writers organize their books, and yours is both elegant and efficient. Chapters progress chronologically as they explore four wonder foods that each represent the nutritional fascinations of particular historical moments: Gail Borden’s meat biscuit (1840s-1860s), Benger’s self-digestive gruel (1870s-1890s), John Harvey Kellogg’s health-food breakfast cereal (1890s-1920s), and Fleischmann’s yeast (1920s-1940s). How did you come to this structure and to select these particular products to chart this wonder foods history?

Lisa: The idea to structure the book around products came partly from the exposure I’ve had in the past to museums, exhibitions, and teachers in the history of science and medicine who liked to think with things. Material objects and experimental setups shape the production of knowledge, which is a lesson that struck me as a graduate student. In the book, I show how nutritional products were not just commercial applications of nutritional knowledge produced elsewhere. They were an integral part of wrestling with big nutritional questions such as how does food nourish, where exactly does digestion happen, how can sufficient food be produced for a growing number of people, and so on.

I also liked the narrative structure that a focus on particular products brings with it; it introduces readers to seemingly-marginal objects and then takes them on a journey through the world these products inhabited. This creates a reading experience that’s absorbing and playful rather than laborious, which was important to me.

At the outset, I looked for products that were important at the time and represented larger trends in nutrition. I found them at large exhibitions, where products were discussed and rewarded with prizes, and where they were also referred to with language that marked them as extraordinary, such as “special foods,” “protective foods,” or “health foods.” The choice to focus on products made in Britain and the United States allowed me to follow the epicenters of empire, industrialization, and nutrition science from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Together, the products chart a chronological arc that follows the development of the relationship between the nutrition sciences and nutritional entrepreneurship, from their initial use in military, imperial, and industrial contexts to their broader application in growing consumer markets and global health contexts.

Emily: What are the key lessons you hope readers take from Wonder Foods? Perhaps this is a two-part question: what does your book contribute to the history of nutrition, but also how do these historical insights help us to understand our food culture (and food marketplace) today?

Black and white head shot of Lisa Haushofer.
Lisa Haushofer, author of Wonder Foods. (Courtesy Lisa Haushofer and Black Edge Productions)

Lisa: The book wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing work of so many of my colleagues working on the history of nutrition and food studies (such as yourself!) who have shown the degree to which nutrition science was intertwined with culture and politics. My book builds on their work and emphasizes the close connection between the formation of the nutrition sciences and the commercial and imperial cultures in which they were embedded from the start. Our nutritional ideas and language have not just become more “scientific” but reflect the very specific economic and extractivist contexts that produced them. And this has consequences for how we still relate to food today. We relate to food and our bodies through metaphors of accumulation, extraction, and optimization. This not only steers our nutrition science in somewhat narrow directions but eclipses other relationships to nutrition we might form.

I also hope to direct readers’ awareness towards the violence, racism, knowledge appropriation, and ecological extractivism that are a feature, not a bug, of our modern food culture. Food Studies is, to this day, often misunderstood as a purely “fun” field of inquiry that deals with marginal, amusing curiosities. And of course, there is joy in studying food. And joy is a very valid emotion to mobilize in our academic work. But we should be under no illusion that in dealing with the histories of food and nutrition, we are dealing with some of the most violent, most exploitative, most haunting developments that have shaped our present world. The writing choices I’ve made in the book are an attempt to capture this peculiar side-by-side of the entertaining, the curious, the ridiculous, on the one hand, and the brutal, on the other.

Emily: Lastly, how has your training and experience as both a physician and a historian of science shaped your scholarship in this book, and perhaps your future projects, too?

Lisa: One thing that struck me back when I was a medical student and worked as a physician was how little emphasis was placed on nutrition in medical education, and at the same time, how often the topic was brought up by patients, even with diseases that had little or nothing to do with nutrition. By contrast, when I began learning about the history of medicine and science, I was confronted with a past in which food constituted a central tool in a physician’s diagnostic and therapeutic arsenal. So the book is also an attempt to understand how nutrition was expunged so thoroughly from medical education and practice, and pushed instead into a parallel space, under regulated and dominated by commercial interest.

My medical background and my historical training also fuel my keen interest in the history of cure more broadly. Looking at changing ideas about cures and curing can tell us a lot about how we imagine and approach the underlying problems, and can also show us alternative approaches that we might have missed. Nutritional products make visible how the solutions we devise for particular health problems are embedded in the social and cultural contexts of their times. My new project extends these ideas. It looks at the history of symptomatic treatments in modern medicine. Our modern biomedical culture is closely entwined with the idea that biomedical science can locate the infectious or pathological causes of disease and develop specific remedies that will act to remove the cause. But in reality, very few treatments in modern medicine have lived up to this promise. My research examines the historical processes at the heart of this tension.

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