Okategoriserade Introduction Dietary reforms, ca 1850–1950. People, ideas, and institutions

In this special section, the histories of dietary reform have been approached and explored from different perspectives. The essays weave together threads of the history of dietary advice and nutritional standards with social history, women’s history and food history, covering the elements of life reform and women’s movements, the establishment of communist food ideology, etc.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:1-2, pp 105-107
Published on balticworlds.com on June 22, 2022

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Food has always occupied a prominent role in public and political discourse, which in its turn has historically been shaped by concerns about hunger, food security and safety. During the last two centuries or so, attempts to change the way people eat have consistently involved invoking different kinds of scientific arguments, co-opting authoritative experts, generating new knowledge and spreading it to the public.

In the period from the middle of the 19th century until World War I, nutrition research evolved and spread through North America and Western Europe to Scandinavia and the Russian empire. The period witnessed the institutionalization of nutrition science. The field began to acquire some of the common attributes of a scientific discipline, such as the establishment of specialized research institutes, professional societies and dedicated journals. Germany, Great Britain and the United States were central countries for nutrition research. Not by coincidence, these countries hosted organized and vibrant vegetarian movements and experienced far-reaching dietary reform efforts. Similar developments followed in other countries beyond the European continent.

19th century vegetarians and life reformers in Western Europe increasingly linked the consumption of meat to a range of ills, characteristic of modernity and often associated with urbanization, industrialization and societal change in general. By the end of the century, such thinking was joined by the latest scientific knowledge that stressed the role of proteins and calories in human nutrition. In the 20th century, knowledge about the value of vitamins in maintaining healthy bodies and preventing illness entered the scene. The emergence of modern nutrition science coincided with the development of the modern meat industry in its various national forms. Malnutrition in the lower classes became a special concern of governments. The political and scientific elite tried to reduce the level of protein deficiency in the population. Nutritional aspects of the “social reform question” and “class question” forced scientists to engage in debates and public education. Nutrition had eventually transformed into a field of both social and scientific action, as Corinna Treitel puts it.

Vegetarians were motivated by different imperatives, employed different forms of science, and used different strategies of enforcement and forms of persuasion. Those vegetarians who, for example, were opposed to eating animals for ethical or religious reasons, sometimes sought scientific support for their dietary choices, and the studies they initiated led to the production of new knowledge. Scientific evidence from the fields of anthropology, physiology, chemistry and statistics were used to support vegetarian arguments. Public debaters and critics also turned to science and medicine to demonstrate that an alternative diet could be healthful and nutritious, and that meat could be harmful. But health concerns were only part of the picture. In the wide-ranging account of vegetarianism, environmental reasoning was also part of the discussion. Vegetarians were also motivated by moral imperative. In all these approaches to diet, scientific rationales for vegetarianism were mixed with philosophical, ascetic and religious arguments, debates about the relationship between human and animals, between body and spirit.

An increasing number of scientific experts, health reformers and home economists went beyond their interest-based communities and were keen to bring the new knowledge of nutrition into the home, to inform women about the best way to feed their families and at the lowest cost. A woman’s contribution to society was to be measured by professional work and household management, but also by her adoption of modern nutritional knowledge and keeping her family healthy. Women’s magazines, newspapers and popular science journals of the period eagerly published the latest scientific discoveries and discussions on a cheap, healthy and nutritious diet for the benefit of their readers. Dietary experts, health reformers and vegetarian activists travelled around offering lectures to interested audiences and wrote textbooks for home economics classes and culinary courses.

The scientific literature on contemporary dietary reforms and vegetarian movements, their philosophical and sociological aspects, is rapidly expanding, while historical studies on the topic that focus on the Baltic Sea region and Eastern Europe, post-Soviet and post-communist parts of Europe are scarce. A historical assessment of this topic is particularly relevant nowadays given the widespread anxieties about the health and environmental footprint of the current patterns of consumption and production, the rise of food activism and the limits of the planet’s natural resources. Contemporary veg(etari)ans and food activists propagate new ways of eating and living, as they had been doing more than one hundred years ago.

Zooming in on the entangled histories of dietary reform in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, a topic which thus far has only been fleetingly assessed in previous research, the contributions in this Baltic Worlds special section seek to initiate a scholarly discussion on the historical perspectives on a topic that has become of great interest and public relevance.

The special section is a result of an online workshop on May 7, 2021. The workshop brought together scholars from the disciplines of history, cultural studies and ethnology to examine novel avenues for interdisciplinary and transnational research on the histories of dietary reform in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, through the lens of dissemination, circulation, fusion and motion. In scholarly literature, the period from the end of the 19th century until World War I has been called “the first era of globalization”, when border crossings became a mass-scale phenomenon and the flow of commodities, foodstuffs, knowledge and information across borders became commonplace. Dietary reform ideas and efforts were one of many transcultural and transnational phenomena embedded in the reformist cosmopolitan movements of the 19th and 20th century East Central Europe. These efforts, with their focus on scientific rationalism, health, physical strength and hygiene, or moral and ethical imperatives, and whether embraced by a wider public or not, reflected the spirit of “multiple modernities” in Europe.

In this special section, the histories of dietary reform have been approached and explored from different perspectives. The essays weave together threads of the history of dietary advice and nutritional standards with social history, women’s history and food history, covering the elements of life reform and women’s movements, the establishment of communist food ideology, etc. Three peer-reviewed articles focusing on the case studies of Estonia, Bulgaria and the Russian empire are built on previously untapped sources and offer original perspectives on the topic. As the contributions suggest, the entangled histories of dietary reform efforts proved to be a valuable and novel prism through which to study the region and the history of Europe in general.

Employing sociological framework, Julia Malitska analyses the All-Russian Vegetarian Congress, which took place in Moscow in 1913, uncovering the forces and rationales behind its organization and convocation. The study unfolds the ideological underpinnings that were prioritized at the congress and suggests why this was the case, as well as discusses the possible effects of the results of the congress on vegetarian activism in the empire. The congress resolutions failed to represent the whole spectrum of vegetarian thought, including aspects of hygiene and health, environmental and economic deliberations, which were publicly discussed and academically developed at the time. Instead, it favored the ethical strand of vegetarianism and aimed at life reform in a broader sense. An ethical vegetarianism with some Christian religious undertones was decreed to be a priority for vegetarian activism in the Russian empire. This was largely due to the activity and dominance of certain resourceful activists, who seemed to monopolize the symbolic space of the event to promote their agenda and views on vegetarianism.

Anu Kannike and Ester Bardone explore the evolvement and spread of the idea of vegetarianism, as well as the variety of educational initiatives, practices and agents related to it in Estonia. The attempts to reform Estonian food culture aimed at modernizing the Estonian nation. The study uncovers the changing trajectories of cultural influences and cultural transfer in the attempts to modernize Estonian food culture, discovering a shift from Baltic German cultural influences towards the Nordic countries, and specifically Finland. By the early 20th century, Finland had become an important destination for Estonian women seeking inspiration about the promotion of vegetarian food and acquiring a professional home economics education. Since the 1910s, Estonian female home economics teachers who trained in Finland started to play a crucial role in modernizing the food culture in Estonia and educating the nation about a healthy and nutritious diet. A network of home economics schools and cooking courses established by female pioneers praised local products, a seasonal diet and promoted lacto-vegetarianism. By the end of the 1930s, as the study suggests, educational efforts through the media, printing matter, educational activities, as well as the general economic growth of the country, resulted in a more varied and balanced diet for population, yet the vegetable consumption was still relatively low.

Albena Shkodrova examines the continuities and ruptures between the ideas of “rational nutrition” and science-based diet in early communist Bulgaria with pre-communist food ideologies and the ideas about a healthy diet that were promoted by the vegetarian movement that flourished in the country in the 1920s and 1930s. The study reveals that communist dietary advice built on the legacy of the period prior to World War II in Bulgaria to a greater extent than the communists acknowledged themselves, and more than was acknowledged by previous research. It would appear, Bulgarian nutrition experts – Ivan Naydenov, Tasho Tashev and Nikolay Dzhelepov – were torn between – and thus negotiated – the pre-communist nutrition advice promoting a meatless diet and a high consumption of vegetables on the one hand, and meat-centered protein-rich diet promoted by Soviet nutrition teachings on the other. The article challenges earlier assumptions that communist nutrition advice consistently disregarded vegetarianism. Nevertheless, what the communist regime brought to Bulgarian nutrition science and the notion of healthy nutrition was the centrality of meat in the human diet.

Those articles are followed by an interview with Corinna Treitel, whose work on the history of German efforts to invent more “natural” ways to eat and farm at the end of the 19th and 20th centuries had a profound impact on the field of study represented by the essays in the section. The developments in Germany regarding both the development of scientific knowledge about diet, nutrition, as well as environmental thinking and life reform movements, had centripetal effects on the neighboring countries and communities.

Taking a slightly different approach, Paulina Rytkönen’s essay addresses the foundation of a modern food system in Sweden from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th century against the backdrop of modernization and societal change, as well as the industrialization of the agro-food sector, technological development in the country, the consequences of the two world wars and the rise of the welfare state.

It is my hope that this special section will generate a further discussion on the intertwined histories of science, politics, food and the environment in the Baltic Sea region and Eastern Europe.

Acknowledgements: I would like to express my gratitude to my fellow colleagues at Södertörn University – Christopher Collstedt, Christina Douglas, Yulia Gradskova, Helena Bergman, Irina Sandomirskaja and Norbert Götz – who made an immense contribution to a stimulating discussion during the workshop in May 2021. 


  1. Elizabeth Neswald, David F. Smith, and Ulrike Thoms, eds. Setting Nutritional Standards: Theory, Policies, Practices (University of Rochester Press, 2017), 13—14, 5.

  2. David Cantor, Christian Bonah and Matthias Dörries, eds. Meat, Medicine and Human Health in the Twentieth Century (London
    and New York: Routledge, 2016), 12—14.

  3. Corinna Treitel, “Nutritional Modernity:
    The German Case,” Osiris 35.1 (2020): 203.

  4. Eric Lohr, Russian Citizenship: From Empire to Soviet Union (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 5.

  5. Shmul Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities in the Era of Globalization,” Daedalus 129, 1 (2000):1—29.
  • by Julia Malitska

    Received her PhD in History in 2017 with the dissertation Negotiating Imperial Rule: Colonists and Marriage in the Nineteenth-Century Black Sea Steppe. PhD in History and a project researcher at Södertörn University, Sweden. She currently completes her project on the history of dietary reform and vegetarianism in the late Russian empire. Her current research interests include imperial, post-imperial and new imperial histories of Ukraine and Eastern Europe, as well as intertwined histories of science, politics, food and environment.

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