Why did the industrial diet triumph?

August 21, 2019 | Blog
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by Fernando Collantes (University of Zaragoza and Instituto Agroalimentario de Aragón)

This blog is part of a larger research paper published in the Economic History Review.


Harvard food pyramid. Available at Wikimedia Commons.

Consumers in the Northern hemisphere are feeling increasingly uneasy about their industrial diet. Few question that during the twentieth century the industrial diet helped us solve the nutritional problems related to scarcity. But there is now growing recognition that the triumph of the industrial diet triggered new problems related to abundance, among them obesity, excessive consumerism and environmental degradation. Currently, alternatives, ranging from organic food and those bearing geographical-‘quality’ labels, struggle to transcend the industrial diet. Frequently, these alternatives face a major obstacle: their relatively high price compared to mass-produced and mass-retailed food.

The research that I have conducted examines the literature on nutritional transitions, food regimes and food history, and positions it within present-day debates on diet change in affluent societies.  I employ a case-study of the growth in mass consumption of dairy products in Spain between 1965 and 1990. In the mid-1960s, dairy consumption was very low in Spain and many suffered from calcium deficiency.  Subsequently, there was a rapid growth in consumption. Milk, especially, became an integral part of the diet for the population. Alongside mass consumption there was also mass-production and complementary technical change. In the early 1960s, most consumers only drank raw milk, but by the 1990s milk was being sterilised and pasteurised to standard specifications by an emergent national dairy industry.

In the early 1960s, the regular purchase of milk was too expensive for most households. By the early 1990s, an increase in household incomes, complemented by (alleged) price reductions generated by dairy industrialization, facilitated rapid milk consumption. A further factor aiding consumption was changing consumer preferences. Previously, consumers perceptions of milk were affected by recurrent episodes of poisoning and fraud. The process of dairy industrialization ensured a greater supply of ‘safe’ milk and this encouraged consumers to use their increased real incomes to buy more milk. ‘Quality’ milk meant milk that was safe to consume became the main theme in the advertising campaigns employed milk processers (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Advertisement by La Lactaria Española in the early 1970s.

Collantes Pic
Source: Revista Española de Lechería, no. 90 (1973).


What are the implications of my research to contemporary debates on food quality? First the transition toward a diet richer in organic foods and foods characterised by short food-supply chains and artisan-like production, backed by geographical-quality labels has more than niche relevance. There are historical precedents (such as the one studied in this article) of large sections of the populace willing to pay premium prices for food products that in some senses are  perceived as qualitatively superior to other, more ‘conventional’ alternatives. If it happened in the past, it can happen again.  Indeed, new qualitative substitutions are already taking place. The key issue is the direction of this substitution. Will consumers use their affluence to ‘green’ their diet? Or will they use higher incomes  to purchase more highly processed foods — with possibly negative implications for  public health and environmental sustainability? This juncture between  food-system dynamics and  public policy is crucial. As Fernand Braudel argued, it is the extraordinary capacity for adaption that defines capitalism.  My research suggests that we need public policies that reorient food capitalism towards socially progressive ends.


To contact the author:  collantf@unizar.es