An extended history of health foods that caught the eye

Times past: Wholewheat and wholegrain breads became a staple for the health conscious

Nutritional products asserting health-giving properties pre-date protein bars, and even this (160-year-old!) publication. And long before science would prove or disprove claims certain foods were associated with illness prevention and wellbeing.

Health foods became associated with the vegetarian movement which grew in popularity from the 1880s. In 1899 a Dublin Food Reform Society lecture attributed flesh-eating to disease; by adopting a meat-free diet, “health such as was never enjoyed before would be obtained, and the use of drugs become entirely unnecessary”. In December, 1905, a “new style Christmas dinner” was held at London’s Food Reform Restaurant: Among the dishes were nut-meat roast, cheese fritters and plum pudding; pine kernels, Brazil nuts, almond and cocoa-nut butter entered into the composition of the latter.

As white bread grew in popularity, wholewheat and wholegrain breads became a staple for the health conscious: “Hovis Bread contains three times as much bone-making material and twice as much muscle-forming material as the best ordinary or standard bread.” According to an article on food reform and bread in 1911, “the present movement originated in a letter written by Sir Oswald Mosley . . . who said he was milling his own flour on the old-fashioned ‘stones’ and thus obtained the ‘whole-wheat’ in his bread. His offer to send sample loaves to persons interested resulted in his receiving thousands of applications . . . Various trade firms then arranged, seeing the demand for them, to supply similar loaves, and public interest was awakened.”

Fruit was regarded as a natural health food. In 1891 the author of Household Hints noted: “Every one who values health and good digestion will eat at least one apple or orange daily, and see that their children do the same.”


Many early processed foods claimed to improve digestive health, such as Du Barry’s Arabica, or Bragg’s charcoal biscuits and chocolate to cure “acidity, flatulence, heartburn, impure breath”. Extracts of meat, malt and yeast, meanwhile, promised nutritional boosts. Evans’s Extract of Malt in 1873 described its “alimentary value” as “very nearly one-quarter of that of the beefsteak”. And Marmite became the “new food extract” of 1903, “endorsed by leading medical authorities”.

Oats and carageen were two native health foods. The seaweed was an ingredient in 19th century products that promised health benefits and it was marketed in the 1930s as “The Perfect Health Food”, by Gaeltacht Industries. An article praising oatmeal in 1881 noted: “It is far better for the blood and brain than cake, confectionary, and the score of delicacies on which many pale little pets are fed by their foolish, fond mothers.” In 1905, Miller’s Pride insisted their oatmeal “made from the famous Co Louth White Oats has more health features than any so-called foreign health food”.

However, despite its attributes, a national disinclination for oats was observed in 1926 by columnist Bluebird: "Dr Douglas Hyde once told me that the deterioration in the country districts since the old porridge pan was changed for the teapot was so evident that he tried to preach the seriousness of the change to the people everywhere he went. But it was of little avail, and the health food of Ireland is now seen on every breakfast table in the United States. In Ireland the health campaign has not yet been taken up by the local authorities."

Readers may have been swayed by the lure of other breakfast health foods, such as Shredded Wheat, said in 1903 to “give greater surface for the action of the digestive fluids than that given by any other food; by this perfect digestion and freedom from constipation are ensured”. Or Grape-Nuts, a cereal made from wheat and barley flours. One 1907 advertisement quoted an unnamed Sligo grocer: “I’m now, thanks to this food, quite free from constipation and piles, from which I suffered for many years. I am also free from mental depression, and in fact am quite buoyant.”

Health Recipes offered an insight into what foods were viewed “healthy” by different generations.

These from 1934 feature some modern favourites:

  1. A splendid tonic for anyone who has a poor appetite and is losing weight is the juice of one large orange, beaten up well with the yolk of an egg. If this tonic is taken separately and extra to one's ordinary food, it gives a splendid appetite, and helps to put flesh on very thin people.
  2. Uncooked tomatoes are excellent for people who are "liverish" and make a splendid breakfast dish. Grape fruit is also good for this purpose.
  3. Although too many fried dishes are still not good for health, the following recipe will be found nourishing and delicious: Fry some tomatoes and onions together, and serve with mashed potatoes. When they are fried with vegetable fat and marmite they are particularly tasty for a breakfast or dinner dish and not too rich.
  4. A light and nourishing meal for any time is easily prepared by cutting sponge cakes into halves and filling with very thinly cut or mashed bananas. As honey is good for the heart, add a little honey, if for a feeble or delicate child.
  5. A very healthful way of eating prunes is to put them to soak in hot water before breakfast one day, and on the following day, when they have absorbed most of the water, drain off the juice and drink it; and eat the prunes (now enlarged to their usual size) with white, or better still, brown bread and butter.
  6. When eating prunes, which are a gentle laxative, do not prevent their effect on the body by adding cornflour to them. Boiled rice (unpolished) or ordinary puddings or crust should be taken instead at dinner.
  7. Many people would not suffer from headaches or "nerves" if they would accustom themselves to using olive oil each day. A little olive oil beaten up with orange juice or lemon juice should be tried to acquire the taste . . . If is a habit so soothing to the nerves and healthful to the body that it is worth trying again and again. Olive oil, lemon and honey are also good for the voice.
  8. Cut up a lettuce very finely. Mix a teaspoonful of marmite into the chopped-up lettuce. Pour a small portion of olive oil over the whole, and eat with brown bread and butter. This is an ideal dish for health. (Do not add vinegar, as this prevents the fat nourishing you, and so wastes it.)