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Nutrition, Health and the Organic Farming Movement

Farmer woman holding wooden box full of fresh raw vegetables. Getty Images


From the 1940s on, concern about nutrition and health has been an integral part of the organic farming movement. The American edition of Sir Albert Howard’s second book on organic farming was called The Soil and Health, and Lady Eve Balfour framed her 1943 book The Living Soil around the topic of soil, plant, animal and human health.

One group that was especially interested in the connection between diet and health was the Cheshire Medical Committee, a group of 600 physicians from Cheshire County, England. In 1939 this committee published a brief but widely read document called the “Cheshire Medical Testament,” which sought to assess the health of the British population.

Advances in medical care over the past twenty-five years had helped treat many illnesses, decreasing childhood mortality and raising the general life expectancy. But the Medical Committee noted that modern medicine had not made much progress toward preventing sickness and disease. In fact, chronic illnesses related to nutritional deficiencies — like dental decay, rickets, anemia and constipation — were still causing suffering and lowering the quality of life for many people.

The problem, these doctors believed, was not one of insufficient medical care. It was a matter of poor nutrition. “We conceive it to be our duty in the present state of knowledge to point out that much, perhaps most, of this sickness is preventable and would be prevented by the right feeding of our people,” the Medical Testament concluded.

This idea that diet had a direct effect on human health, and that some diets were healthier than others, was based on cutting-edge nutritional research — like the discovery of vitamins.

Deficiency Diseases

Medical science in the late 19th century was caught up in an euphoria of new discoveries. Scientists discovered that microorganisms were responsible for causing most of the deadly diseases of the time — cholera, typhus, influenza, and tuberculosis. Because they were caused by microorganisms, these diseases could be prevented and treated by killing the offending microbes. Many scientists believed that all human health ailments were caused by one pathogen or another, and that the key to health and happiness lay in sterilization and sanitation.

But the germ theory of disease, useful as it was, fell short of explaining every human ailment. There were several diseases that could not be linked to a specific causal organism — mysterious but deadly conditions like beriberi, scurvy, and pellagra. Meanwhile, nutritionists believed that the only important factors in food were protein and energy; low-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables were considered unimportant. Diet was not considered to be a factor in any kind of disease.

Such was the prevailing medical opinion when a scientist named Christiaan Eijkman was commissioned to search for the cause of beriberi, a disease that became a serious problem in the Dutch East Indies starting in the 1880s, especially among sailors. Beriberi, also known as “polyneuritis,” caused weakness and loss of feeling in the legs, breathlessness, edema, and heart failure.

Assuming that beriberi was caused by a pathogen, Eijkman set about trying to isolate the causal organism. He acquired some chickens, divided them into two flocks, and injected half of them with blood from hospital patients suffering from beriberi. Sure enough, some of those chickens started exhibiting symptoms of polyneuritis. But, very strangely, an equal number of the control birds were infected as well. Then, unexplainably, both flocks recovered and showed no symptoms at all.

In an attempt to figure out what might have caused these unexpected results, Eijkman questioned the man who had been feeding the chickens. He discovered that during the period when the birds had suffered from polyneuritis, his caretaker had been feeding them leftover cooked white rice from the local hospital. After a while, the hospital cook complained that he wasn’t going to give “military rice to civilian chickens,” forcing the caretaker to buy cheap brown rice to feed the chickens instead. Soon afterward, the birds recovered.

With this new information, Eijkman changed his experiment to a feeding trial and quickly discovered that white rice caused polyneuritis in chickens, but brown, unpolished rice did not. After Eijkman returned to the Netherlands, his successor, Gerrit Grijns, confirmed that rice bran contained a substance that he called the “anti-beriberi factor.”

Other scientists all over the world began performing similar types of experiments. They discovered that scurvy, a common ailment on shipboard when sailors ate only salt meat and hardtack, could be prevented by an “antiscorbutic factor” that was found in citrus fruits and fresh vegetables. A fat-soluble “accessory factor,” especially rich in cod liver oil, was found to be important for preventing night blindness and other eye problems.

By 1912, the fact that beriberi and scurvy were caused by deficiencies of certain vital nutrients (sometimes called “accessory food factors,” “advitants,” “nutramines,” or “auximones”) had become widely accepted by the scientific community. The Polish scientist Casimir Funk proposed calling all of these substances “vitamines.” In 1920, the British physiologist Jack Cecil Drummond dropped the “e,” and the resulting word “vitamin” proved to be so popular that it is still in use today.

Protective Foods

During this age of vitamin discovery, there was a flurry of work done on how to best ensure that the general public consumed adequate amounts of all the known and unknown vitamins. The most practical solution was for everyone to eat what the vitamin researcher Elmer McCollum called “protective foods” — foods known to contain high amounts of vitamins A, B, and C. As time went on, more vitamins were discovered, but the list of protective foods did not change significantly because the new vitamins were often found in the same foods as the first three.

What were these magical protective foods that would prevent deficiency disease? They fell into three main categories, based on the first three known vitamins. To provide vitamin A and protect against eye problems, protective foods included whole milk, butter, eggs, cod liver oil, and animal livers. Vitamin B to protect against scurvy was found in whole grains and beans. Protective foods against both scurvy and vitamin A deficiency included fresh fruits and vegetables, especially yellow and leafy green vegetables.

By the 1920s, there was widespread agreement that a diet rich in whole milk, whole grains, leafy green and yellow vegetables, and animal livers would supply all of the vitamins needed for good health. There was some debate as to whether meat was a protective food or not; McCollum and some other nutritionists felt that some animal organs, like livers, were protective but that muscle meat was merely a good but expensive source of protein.

It quickly became obvious to nutritionists that the typical “Western” diet, high in white flour and sugar but low in almost all of the protective foods, was seriously deficient in vitamins. In fact, poor diet was a primary cause of many common ailments afflicting American and British citizens — gastrointestinal disorders, heart problems, dental caries, rickets, and enough other non-infectious ailments to fill a medical encyclopedia.

At the same time, nutritionists became increasingly aware of the fact that many so-called “primitive” people in other parts of the world, who still ate their traditional diets, were remarkably free from these disabling conditions that took up so much of the time of English and American doctors. This inspired many researchers to literally travel to the ends of the earth to see what exactly was different about these people’s diets from those consumed in English-speaking countries. And perhaps the most ambitious of all these world-traveling researchers was the American dentist Weston A. Price.

Nutritional Anthropology

Weston A. Price (1870-1948) studied dentistry at the University of Michigan, graduated in 1893, and started his own dental practice in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He soon moved his office to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became very interested in trying to determine the cause of dental caries. Consistent with the prevailing medical opinion of the time, he assumed that tooth decay was caused by some type of pathogenic organism, so he conducted experiments like implanting decayed teeth into rabbits to see if they developed dental cavities.

But when this work failed to point to a causative organism, Price started to rethink his original hypothesis. “After spending several years approaching this problem by both clinical and laboratory research methods, I interpreted the accumulating evidence as strongly indicating the absence of some essential factors from our modern program, rather than the presence of injurious factors,” he wrote in his the 1945 edition of his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.

To prove this hypothesis, Price had to find a “control group” of humans who were getting the essential factors that modern Americans were lacking. The assumption was that such people would have healthy teeth with very little, if any, decay. And so Price set off on a worldwide quest to find out why modern Americans were so susceptible to tooth decay. In his 2012 UC-Santa Cruz Ph.D. dissertation, “Conservative Nutrition: The Industrial Food Supply and Its Critics, 1915-1985,” Martin Renner calls Price’s global journey “nutritional anthropology.”

Price traveled from the Eskimos of the frozen Arctic to the Melanesians and Polynesians of the South Pacific, from Switzerland to Australia, New Zealand to Peru. He looked at people’s teeth, took hundreds of photographs, collected samples of their native diets, and compared the dental health of those who were eating their traditional foods to those who had adopted the “white man’s diet.” Finally, after several years of this thorough study, Price published all the results in a remarkable volume, complete with photographs, titled Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. His conclusion: Dental disease was caused, first and foremost, by a deficient diet.

Price started his journey in Switzerland, where residents of the Loetshental Valley subsisted mainly on whole grain rye bread, cheese, and goat’s or cow’s milk, along with meat once a week and a few vegetables in season. The inhabitants of this remote valley were extremely healthy and had only one carious tooth for every three people. When they went to a city and ate the standard urban fare of white flour, sugar, and canned foods, they suffered from tooth decay; but when they returned to their native homes and diets, the decay ceased.

From Switzerland, Price went next to the Islands of the Outer Hebrides, in the Atlantic Ocean northwest of Scotland. These islanders ate mainly oats, in porridge and cakes, and food from the sea — fish, lobsters, crabs, oysters, and clams. But they were strong and healthy and had little tooth decay — as long as they ate their native diet. In communities that were less isolated and ate “modern” foods (angel food cake, white bread, canned vegetables, marmalades, sweetened fruit juices, jams, and confections), they suffered not only from dental caries but also from tuberculosis.

Price’s next voyage was to the Eskimos of northern Canada and Alaska. These people, who lived in one of the harshest environments on Earth, were extremely strong and healthy — as long as they ate their native diets. They lived on fresh and dried salmon, large quantities of seal oil (very high in vitamin A), fresh and dry fish eggs, caribou, ground nuts, kelp, cranberries and other berries, flower blossoms and sorrel grass preserved in seal oil, frozen fish, and the skin of a whale that was very high in vitamin C. But they suffered from dental cavities and other degenerative diseases when they ate the white man’s flour, sugar, and canned foods.

Everywhere he went in the world, Price made similar observations. Native people ate an extremely wide diversity of foods, depending on the local climate. Melanesians and Polynesians on Pacific islands ate a wide variety of plant foods and seafood. The Masai of northern Africa lived primarily on milk, blood and meat, with some vegetables. Australian Aborigines ate roots, stems, leaves, berries, seeds of grasses, a native pea, kangaroos, wallabies, rodents, insects, beetles, grubs, birds and birds’ eggs. The Maori in New Zealand ate a wide variety of foods, including shellfish and kelp. The Quechua in Peru ate fish eggs, dried kelp, and guinea pigs in addition to a wide variety of vegetable foods.

In all of these places, Price observed that as soon as the native people started eating the “white man’s diet” of white flour, sugar, and canned foods, their health declined and tooth decay became rampant. Some of the worst teeth he found were in the mouths of white settlers, who refused to eat native foods. This made Price conclude that good health and resistance to tooth decay was not genetic; it was a matter of diet.

After completing this impressive tour of the world, Price analyzed the food samples that he had collected and discovered that most of them contained about four times as many minerals and ten times as many vitamins as the typical “white man’s diet.”

Price drew two conclusions from this data. One was that there wasn’t inherently anything wrong with eating grains; it was the milling and refining process that made white flour so unwholesome. Whole grains were healthy; white flour or polished rice caused deficiency disease because the protective vitamins had been removed.

Price’s second conclusion from looking at these diets was that all of them used some animal products. They did not all eat much meat, but if they didn’t they ate large amounts of dairy products or seafood. “As yet I have not found a single group of primitive racial stock which was building and maintaining excellent bodies by living entirely on plant foods,” he noted. Some of the people groups he visited could be considered vegetarians, but none were vegans.

Back in Cleveland, Price decided to test his hypothesis about the connection between diet and tooth decay by offering malnourished local children a meal every day, consisting of tomato or orange juice, “a pint of a very rich vegetable and meat stew,” cooked fruit, whole wheat rolls, “high-vitamin butter” made from the milk of cows grazing fresh grass, and whole milk. After a few weeks on this diet, the change in the children was marked. Not only did their dental health improve significantly, but schoolteachers told Price that some of the children in the program had improved their academic performance.

Nutrition and Health

By the time Weston Price completed his “nutritional anthropology” and started his feeding experiment in Cleveland, the connection between nutrition and human health was quite well established. Other researchers studied other isolated people groups and came to similar conclusions as Price. One other often-cited example was the islanders of Tristan da Cunha, who were cut off from civilization and thus ate little white flour or sugar. They subsisted mainly on potatoes, the eggs and meat of seabirds, milk, and some vegetables — and had healthier teeth than the average American or British citizen.

The doctors of the Cheshire Medical Committee used the information gained from the work of the vitamin researchers and nutritional anthropologists in their medical practices. They advised their patients to avoid white flour, sugar, and canned foods and eat whole wheat bread, oatmeal porridge, raw milk, cheese, butter, eggs, fish, liver, salads, green leafy vegetables, and lots of fruit instead. In his 1949 book Nutrition and Health: Thoughts on Feeding, LionelPicton cited dozens of case studies where patients’ health improved markedly when they switched from processed to protective foods. What was true of every other people group in the world was true of the English as well: People were healthier when they ate natural, unprocessed foods.

Anneliese Abbott is a graduate student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a B.S. in plant and soil science from The Ohio State University and is the author of Malabar Farm: Louis Bromfield, Friends of the Land, and the Rise of Sustainable Agriculture. She can be contacted at amabbott@wisc.edu.”