Buy Healthy, Tasty, Pure! A Digital Text Analysis of Neoliberal Trends in Dutch Food Culture

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Pim Huijnen

    Utrecht University

  2. 2. Melvin Wevers

    Humanities Cluster - Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)

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Notion of what constitutes healthy eating, as well as healthy food are highly susceptible to medical, economic, political, and cultural forces (Kamminga and Cunningham, 1995; Beardsworth and Keil, 1997). A particular striking shift in western food cultures has been located in the second half of the twentieth century. Not only has it seen the finalization of the turn from a quantitative-based food culture to one based on qualitative aspects (like the extent to which food contains vitamins), which took off in the Interwar period (Apple, 1996; Huijnen, 2013). It is also the period in which the adage of “eat more” is replaced by the dictum of “eat less” (Nestle, 2002).
This particular trend has been studied in the light of the rise of neoliberalist thinking, understood here as the spread of market thinking to all spheres of life (Brown, 2005). Guthman and DuPuis have summarized the impact of neoliberalist thinking on food culture with the paradox that “[t]he worthy neoliberal citizen must want less while spending more” (Guthman and DuPuis, 2006: 445). Neoliberal thinking, in other words, underlies the western disciplining of bodies by creating societies that reward thinness above being overweight. It can, as such, be seen as an example of Foucauldian biopolitics that set in even before state administrations started adopting neoliberal policies in the 1980s (Guthman, 2009).

Research question and data
Since the neoliberal way of life impacted most western countries to more or lesser extent, the question is opportune whether similar changes in food culture can be localized in Dutch postwar notions of “good food”. This paper tries to locate these changing notions in the commercial food magazine

See, for the online historical archive of this magazine:

. After all, food companies, (chain) restaurants as well as retailers have played a vital role when it comes to the impact of neoliberal ideas on food culture. The industry is known to have adopted a number of strategies to impact the spending habits of customers, from undermining dietary advice to introducing food innovations (Schlosser, 2001; Nestle, 2002).

Allerhande was (and still is) published and distributed by retailer Albert Heijn, currently the largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands (its market share rose from 3 per cent in 1950 to 13 per cent in 1970 to more than 30 per cent after 2000). The aim of this paper is to see to what extent Albert Heijn as a commercial food enterprise appropriated the above-mentioned tendencies in its framing of the products it tried to sell. The proof of concept presented in this paper are based on the first 19
Allerhande volumes, from its initial issue in 1954 up until 1973. For the final paper, these will be supplemented with the volumes up until 2010. The volumes used here range from 100,000 to 300,000 words per year.

Related work
Although food history is a lively field of study in the Netherlands, the link with neoliberal discourse in this domain remains understudied. This paper, particularly, draws from frequentist text mining techniques that others have adopted to study the rise of a neoliberal discourse (Wiedemann, 2013; Moretti and Pestre, 2015). Also, it builds on experiences in creating text mining pipelines in the study of US American influences on Dutch public discourse (Huijnen and Wevers, 2015; Wevers, 2017) This paper is, consequently, not so much concerned with the introduction of novel text mining techniques for the study of food history, as it is with arguing how proven digital methods can help humanities scholars in bringing discursive patterns to the fore in large textual corpora.

First results and conclusion
When looking at adjectives associated with food, a striking discursive trend in the
Allerhande volumes 1954 to 1973 is the steady increase of the qualification “lekker(e)” (“tasty”) from 240 to 410 per million words. At the same time, the word gains a strong collocative association with both “gezond(e)” (“healthy”) and “slank(e)” (“slim”) after 1964. Part of the reason for this is the sharp rise in relative frequency of the word “slank(e)” from 1965 onward. While before mentioned about 32 times per million words annually, references to thinness are more than doubled afterwards: 76 per million words. Before slimness is quantified by stressing calories and nutrients (words like “kilocalorieën” (“kilocalories”) and “koolhydraten” (“carbohydrates”) start to sharply increase at the end of this period) it is, therefore, already gaining traction in a more qualitative discursive manner.

What does the dataset yield about what, then, is considered tasteful, healthy, and, by consequence, good for the human figure? “Vitamins” remain an important factor for this discourse throughout this period. Interesting, however, is how margarine is pulled into the slimness discourse. Although its relative frequency of about 190 per million words does not change considerably between 1954 and 1973 (the Netherlands had been an important margarine producer since the late nineteenth century), its collocative strength with words like “gezond(e)” and “slank(e)” does increase strongly after 1965. Initially branded as a low-priced alternative for “real” butter, in this period it gains traction as a healthy substitute—particularly thanks to its low level of saturated fats and variety of added vitamins. Striking are the associations within the same discourse of slimness-health-tastefulness with purity (“puur”, “pure”, “zuiver”). When it comes to margarine, purity is, after all, not an obvious qualification.
In sum, the
Allerhande played its part in changing the discourse around food from “eat more” to “eat less”, as becomes apparent in its rising emphasis on slimness. In line with the literature is the way
Allerhande’s increasingly stresses the association of slimness with health, but also with tastefulness and purity, while at the same time offering a platform for products like margarine that—not always in coherence with scientific viewpoints—brand themselves as such. The data for the remaining period will have to show whether this development will continue and, as expected, radicalize after 1973.


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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO