Food for thought: nutrition

Many people pass through life with a closed mind and an open mouth; and when it comes to food it is never too late to start or restart learning." (Corene Walker M.D., quoted in Vegetarian living NZ, vol.76: no.3, 2020.)

One of the goals of our Food for Thought exhibition was to encourage critical thought around what and how we have eaten in Aotearoa and Tāmaki Makaurau. 

"Very much to the fore in public thought today is the matter of healthy living." (Elizabeth Gregory and Elizabeth C.G. Wilson, from Good nutrition, 1940.)

This is just as true today as it was 80 years ago. We now live in a world where nutrition information panels are required by law to be on food labels. We think both about what is desirable to eat not only from a culinary point of view but from the nutritive properties of the food too. 

Rather than trying to provide a history of nutrition in Aotearoa, I attempted to select a few items from our collections which reflected ideas of the time about nutrition. Not all made the cut for the exhibition, including a pair of important publications which were much more interesting for their informational content rather than their visual appeal: The Bulletin of the New Zealand Women's Food Value League and Dr. Muriel Bell’s great, small book Nutrition in New Zealand : forty years history, 1920-60

In Nutrition in New Zealand Bell talks about the lack of naturally occurring iodine and fluoride and how the shortage of these two nutrients – both halogens – led to a widespread disorder of human health. Whilst researching for the exhibition I was rather astonished to discover the high incidence of goitre in Te Waipounamu. Of 15,000 school children surveyed in Canterbury and Westland in 1920 32% had a marked enlargement of the thyroid and a further 29% had palpable and visible enlargement. When I mentioned this to my father, who grew up in North Canterbury in the middle of last century, he said that two of his aunts had it.

Image: For Prevention of Goitre Always use Iodised Salt  Issued by The New Zealand Department of Health. Archives New Zealand

Another important title was The Bulletin of the New Zealand Women’s Food Value League, a society started in 1937 to investigate the nutritional value of New Zealand foods. It was formed as a women's group because they were the ones who bought and cooked the food for households. The League stated that, while there was no “actual hunger” in New Zealand, children were fed “lower grade filling foods” rather than “high grade protective foods.” They stressed the importance of eating fresh fruit and vegetables and wholegrain cereals especially. Wartime rationing and food shortages - which continued long after the war itself ended - meant that accurate information about food content became even more important. The League disbanded in the late 1940s, as the Department of Health and Plunket nurses gradually took over public education about nutrition.

Image: The Bulletin of the N.Z. Women’s Food Value League, Vol. 1, no. 1, December 1937.

The prime example of a book used by the Department of Health to educate the public is Good nutrition : principles and menus by Elizabeth Gregory and Elizabeth C. G. Wilson and edited by Muriel Bell. It was first published in 1940 and in the next decade and a half ran through five editions as a well as different impression and a reprint.

Good nutrition covers the requirements for an adequate diet, nutritional values in common food, League of Nations’ recommendations as well as the preparation, cooking and digestion of food.

In the foreword to the first edition, then Minister of Health Peter Fraser, writes, “If… we are to develop into a strong and virile people it is important that the principles of sound nutrition be widely known and followed.”

The authors define commonly used terms such as calories, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and provide shopping lists, recipes and seasonal menus. Generally, they recommend less meat, sugar and refined foods; more fish, dairy and raw fruit and vegetables. Gregory and Wilson come down firmly on the side of science and against faddism or cranks. They warn that “it is necessary to be on guard against perverted notions on diet which are prevalent. Beware of false prophets…” 

Image: Elizabeth Gregory & Elizabeth C. G. Wilson. Good nutrition: principles and menus. Wellington: New Zealand Dept. of Health, 1940.

There is a long history of health food companies in New Zealand profiting from our desire to eat healthily, with Sanitarium and Healtheries, both founded at the turn of the twentieth century, the most well-known.

Consumption of vitamin, mineral and herbal food supplements became increasingly popular as the century went on. This was variously blamed on the stresses and tensions of modern life as well the overabundance of processed food. 

Published on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Auckland company, the pamphlet states they were producing over one hundred different supplements in 1979 and had become a global exporter.

Image from: Healtheries 1904-79. Auckland: Healtheries of New Zealand Limited. 1979.

Author: Andrew Henry


Optimum Health by Eating Well, written by Corene Walker, M.D. for a 1993 issue of the New Zealand Vegetarian - quoted in Vegetarian living New Zealand (vol.76:no.3) Autumn 2020, p.13.

Good nutrition, by Elizabeth Gregory and Elizabeth C.G. Wilson, New Zealand Department of Health, 1940, p.5.

Ray Bailey with Mary Earle. Home cooking to takeaways : changes in food consumption in New Zealand during 1880-1990.

Muriel Bell. Nutrition in New Zealand: forty years history, 1920-1960.

Elizabeth Gregory and Elizabeth C.G. Wilson. Good nutrition : principles and menus. 

The bulletin of the N.Z. Women's Food Value League.

Further reading

Nicholas Bauch. A geography of digestion : biotechnology and the Kellogg cereal enterprise.

Diana Brownv. The unconventional career of Dr. Muriel Bell.

Gerald Carson. Cornflake crusade.

Howard Markel. The Kelloggs : the battling brothers of Battle Creek.

Report of the committee on the dietetic profession. Report series (New Zealand. Board of Health) ; no. 19. (1973)


  1. So interesting to see the history of nutrition, food supplements, etc. We have made a lot of progress, but we still have a long way to go.


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