How the Nutrition Education Bureau lost the battle for our waistlines
Starting in the 1950s, the Nutrition Education Bureau (Voorlichtingsbureau voor de Voeding) attempted to swim against the tide of post-war abundance and offer guidance to ensure healthy, moderate food consumption. Unfortunately, the agency itself was forced to conclude in the 1970s that its influence was unclear, and that citizens had only grown fatter. This story is explored in a publication by historian Jon Verriet of Radboud University set to be published in Bijdragen en Mededelingen betreffende de Geschiedenis der Nederlanden (BMGN) on 24 March.
The Nutrition Education Bureau, a forerunner of the current Netherlands Nutrition Centre, was established in the Netherlands during the heat of the Second World War. The agency had to teach the population to cook as healthy as possible in times of food shortage. However, during the post-war decades, the problem arose in an inverted form: a veritable excess of food.
“Discussions about overnutrition were already underway within the agency as early as the late 1940s. Management feared that this would become a major problem. And their fears proved well founded”, says historian Jon Verriet. “People in those years believed they knew what was and was not healthy, but how do you ensure that your population really eat healthily as well?” This form of health communication became the primary mission of the Nutrition Education Bureau throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
New forms of communication
In the 1950s alone, the agency distributed millions of leaflets, often containing its famous Schijf van Vijf (equivalent to the Food Pyramid). But it also adopted all kinds of new modes of communication that migrated from the United States, such as films and animations. Truly cutting edge for the times. Numerous countries then sought out the agency to learn from the Nutrition Education Bureau: from Thailand and Iran to Zimbabwe. They all sought to make their populations just as food-minded as the agency’s Dutch population.”
This period also coincided with food multinationals becoming increasingly powerful and a battle soon ensued with the food industry, which started producing ever more food with high fat and sugar content. “For instance, the Nutrition Education Bureau initiated a fight against Liga biscuits. The producer touted them as just as good as milk for toddlers, even though the biscuits consisted mostly of sugar. The Nutrition Education Bureau even recorded a video (‘Was de koek maar op!’), but in the end it still came up short.
The brochure Van overgewicht naar goed gewicht (from overweight to normal weight) from 1958. © Netherlands Nutrition Centre
Throwing in the towel
Although campaigns were run where the agency was more successful – their campaign for dental care can be deemed successful – in the 1970s, it was forced to conclude that its attempts to keep Dutch citizens weight in check had failed. “At one meeting, a member of the advisory board sighed in frustration: ‘Why don't people act on the information we put out?’” Moreover, internal complaints arose that the government budgeted too little money for the agency’s campaigns.
“The Nutrition Education Bureau therefore slowly withdrew from the fray and claimed that citizens were responsible for their own diet: a new, more liberal mentality. In doing so, they ignored the fact that there were also ever more temptations that citizens did not have the willpower to resist: increasing prosperity led to unhealthy products becoming cheaper.”
In the end, the question remains as to what the Nutrition Education Bureau could have done. “Is it their fault? Should they have done something differently? Influencing a nation’s lifestyle is notoriously difficult, so I don’t think they had a real hope of turning the tide. But you could say that they did leave consumers to the whims of the market. In fact, Dutch nutrition policy has had more effect on our collective guilt about unhealthy choices than on our body weight.”
Historian Jon Verriet conducted his research into the history of the Nutrition Education Bureau on the basis of meeting reports, internal guidelines, polls, press releases, annual reports and promotional materials.
Want to know more? Please contact
- Jon Verriet, email@example.com
- Science Communication at Radboud University, firstname.lastname@example.org, 024 361 6000