Back to Blog
Nutritional Transition as Dietary Dispositif : An Inquiry on the Advent of Meat-Based Diet in the Nineteenth-Century West.
In the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, traditional diets, based mainly on starchy staples,
underwent a fast revolution revolving around meat, especially red meat. The growing importance of
meat and its increased production and consumption marked what is today known as the nutritional
transition in Western Europe and in North America and Australia. Meat was considered the food of
the progress, «the food of the future», as contemporaries said. But what produced this transition?
And, most of all, what so special about meat?
In the literature, such transition is rightly related to the economic and social changes brought by
the industrial revolution: population growth, urbanization, increasing productivity of agriculture…
However, this descriptive account naturalizes the transition as a direct outcome of these factors,
drawing a straight line between “more people” and “more meat”. It does not explain why exactly
meat was to have this role, that is, what was the structural dynamics related to capitalist society that
brought to the reorganization of meat production and consumption, to the commodification of meat.
In my paper, I address these questions drawing on a Marxian-Foucauldian hybrid approach. My
claim is that the nutrition transition is best understood in terms of what I call dietary dispositif, i.e.
the network of institutions and mixed practices, authorized by correlated scientific knowledges,
with subjectivation effects that makes it possible the exploitation of nonhuman animals for human
feeding. Its most distinctive elements are centralized slaughterhouses and intensive farming. Other
knots of the network are the state with its government regulation and public health reforms, the
market, family, zootechnical practices, culinary practices together with the practices connected to
nutrition science and dietetics; and on the side of individuals, related practices of responsible self-
regulation through consumer choices.
First, I will analyze the context of the formation of this dispositif, thus answering the task of
connecting the advent of meat-based diet to structural characteristics of the capitalist social
formation. Then, I will focus on a major knowledge involved in the dispositif and its role in
underpinning the dietary change, i.e. the emergence of nutrition science in the mid-nineteenth
century and the consequent process of «nutritionalisation of modern food system» (Dixon 2009),
which was based at the time on the role of protein as the “master nutrient”. The idea of nutrition
transition that we speak of today is itself a product of this process. As my perspective will make
clear, the meat-based diet transition is an outcome of a specific trajectory, involving different
elements within specific sets of power-knowledge relations and not at all a neutral and natural
outcome of “more people demanding more meat”.
(Transcultural Studies in Humanities, University of Bergamo)