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The cultural representation and politics of food in the modern world

Organisers: Henrice Altink and David Clayton


According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 1.5 billion adults over the age of 20 are overweight and 925 million people are undernourished. Over- and under-nutrition are one of the greatest threats to public health. Two approaches have been taken within the arts and humanities and social sciences to study these phenomena. The first, which blends economics, politics, history and bio-anthropology, makes inferences about the impact of the quantity and quality of food on the health of people. And the second, a more social and cultural approach, is concerned with eating habits and the symbolic importance of particular food items, the cultural patterns that they underscore and their influence on human behaviour.

Each approach has done much to enhance our understanding of the changing role of food in the modern world but it is only by bringing them together that they can help to inform future policy on over- and under-nutrition. This project not only brings these two different approaches together but also facilitates a conversation about the politics food in the modern world between scholars within the arts and humanities and social sciences on the one hand and natural scientists and policymakers on the other.

Future events

This seminar provides a framework for the other events. In the first half, the strand organisers will provide a summary of the scholarship on food in the arts and humanities and social sciences and a short manifesto on the role of scholars from within these disciplines in policy-making on food. In the second half of the seminar, attendants will be asked to critically engage with the manifesto. 

This seminar includes two papers, one by a historian and one by a literary scholar, each demonstrating the two different approaches that scholars within the arts and humanities have taken to the theme of the politics of food in the modern world.

According to the WHO, 925 million people in the world are undernourished and 1.5 billion adults over 20 are overweight. From the 19th century onwards, nutritional guidelines and standards have been devised to both counteract and measure these dual problems. In 1894

W. O. Atwater of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), for instance, drew up the first dietary standards for protein, total calories, fat and carbohydrates for the American population. Yet nutritional guidelines and standards have not only a long but also an evolving history. The USDA, for example, issued a food wheel in the 1940s that was gradually replaced by a food pyramid and more recently by a food plate, while major supermarkets in the UK have recently replaced the Guidelines Daily Amount (GDA) with traffic-light labels on their food products. And the history of nutritional guidelines and standards is contested, For example, with the rise in obesity levels, the Body Mass Index (BMI), which was first devised in the early 19th century, has increasingly come under attack as a useful means to measure obesity.

This one-day conference will explore the politics behind and the usefulness of past and present nutritional guidelines and standards across a variety of geographical settings by asking the following questions:

  •  What role does nutritional science play in dietary guidance?
  • How useful are nutrition surveys in the construction of nutritional guidelines?
  • What factors other than developments in nutritional science give rise to and lead to changes in nutritional guidelines and standards issued by national governments, supranational bodies such as the WHO, and national and international NGOs?
  • How do producers and distributors of food affect nutritional norms?
  • What effects do nutritional guidelines, including food labelling, have on population behaviour?
  • How useful are BMR, BMI and other nutritional diagnostic tools to assess the health and wealth of past and present societies?

Call for papers 3 July 2013 (PDF , 95kb)