The Reality of Grandma's Cooking : Nutrition in Mid - Twentieth Century Aotearoa New Zealand

Figure 1: Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, New York: Penguin Books, 2009. 

In the ‘noughties’, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food helped to popularise an approach to eating framed around a central tenet – ‘Just eat what your great-grandma ate’, suggesting those in pursuit of perfect health should avoid consuming anything from a packet or a production line. 

As journalist and author, Pollan sought to disrupt understandings of nutrition and consulted a variety of different nutrition specialists to put together the book, as Pollan saw fit. As such, Pollan consulted Jewish and Italian grandmothers as expert diet authorities, alongside those with professional training in nutrition and dietetics, as well as doctors, nurses, and anthropologists. In an interview with the New York Times, Pollan recounted his favourite quote from the grandmothers he interviewed to research his book: “The whiter the bread, the sooner you’ll be dead”, these women reportedly advised Pollan.    

Pollan painted a romantic image of what previous generations ate, suggesting meals were home-cooked by Grandma, and comprised of fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed meats, and definitely not white bread. But was this reality? While Pollan was admittedly speaking from a United States perspective, the situation in New Zealand was markedly different. A close reading of dietary advice guides from New Zealand’s health authorities in the mid-twentieth century offers insight into the nutrition challenges facing New Zealanders, as well as an understanding of what previous generations of New Zealanders really ate.  

Dietary deficiencies 

In the early twentieth century, World War I brought renewed attention to the presence of dietary deficiencies and malnourishment affecting populations throughout the world. In New Zealand, goitre was a perennial problem, caused by the low levels of iodine occurring naturally in New Zealand’s soil. During World War I, military medical boards declared a large number of recruits to be unfit for service due to the high incidence of goitre amongst recruits, particularly in areas where soils were significantly defective in iodine.  Though iodised salt was introduced in 1925 to tackle the problem, New Zealanders were slow on the uptake. In 1940, leading nutrition experts Elizabeth Gregory, Elizabeth Malcolm and Dr Muriel Bell wrote that ‘mothers in some homes, and cooks in some boarding schools, fail to use iodised salt for cooking, though they may put it on the table.' Goitre incidence did not decrease significantly until the early 1950s, following extensive education efforts by the Health Department, and an increase in the amount of iodine added to ordinary table salt.   

Figure 2: Māori Woman with Goitre. Found in Muriel Bell, Elizabeth Gregory, and Elizabeth Malcolm, Good Nutrition: Principles and Menus, Wellington: Government Printer, 1940, 16. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

In New Zealand and internationally, other dietary deficiencies were common in the early twentieth century, including thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency, essential for prevention of beriberi, as well as a range of other conditions including muscle weakness, weight loss, and cognitive difficulties. Just as public health authorities had responded to the problem of goitre by adding iodine to salt – an ordinary food staple - this time, bread was considered as a means through which thiamine deficiency could be addressed. Britain and the United States responded by adding a synthetic form of thiamine to flour, but New Zealand took a slightly different approach, by enforcing higher extraction rates within flour production. Progress in milling techniques brought an increase in the thiamine content of bread, while retaining its ‘whiteness’ to please New Zealanders who overwhelmingly preferred white bread in the mid-twentieth century.  

Sugar, cakes, confectionary and ‘tinned foods’

New Zealanders’ diets were certainly deficient in some areas - in 1936, New Zealand’s Health Department reported that New Zealanders’ diets were poor quality, lacking in essential foods, and ‘ill-chosen’. But in other areas, according to the same report, New Zealanders displayed excessive eating habits, consuming far too much white bread, meat, ‘tinned and prepared foods’, all of which were expensive and inferior in nutritional value to ‘the home-grown article’.  

By the 1940s, not much had improved. The Health Department began to produce their own guide to nutrition and meal planning, appropriately titled Good Nutrition: Principles and Menus, which observed that New Zealanders ate sugar ‘in such large quantities’ that it ‘spoil[t] the appetite for harder foods that have to be chewed’, resulting in dental decay.  Good Nutrition also compared the dietary of New Zealanders to the recommendations recently put in place by the League of Nations, noting that New Zealanders ate three times as much meat and sugar as the recommendations had advised. Conversely, New Zealanders consumed far too little milk, cheese, eggs, green vegetables and raw fruit, according to Good Nutrition.   

Figure 3: Muriel Bell, Elizabeth Gregory, Elizabeth Wilson, Good Nutrition: Principles and Menus, Wellington: Government Printer, 1940. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

While dietary guidelines have changed over time, nutrition experts seem to have come to a consensus in recent years that processed foods have a negative impact on a vast array of health outcomes.  Yet at the same time, the examples above suggest that some processed foods – in this case, table salt and bread - have actually played a crucial role in providing New Zealanders with the essential vitamins and minerals that have historically been deficient in our diet. Times have changed, as salt consumption is now known to cause high blood pressure, and increase the risk of other cardiovascular diseases. Nonetheless, looking back into the past complicates our understandings of healthy foods, and re-evaluates romantic perceptions of how previous generations ate - at least within New Zealand. Throughout the twentieth century, health authorities faced a constant challenge in convincing New Zealanders to adopt healthier eating patterns, a problem that of course has persisted to the present day, regardless of changes to dietary guidelines. 

Author: Helen Morten

Helen is a PhD candidate in History at Waipapa Taumata Rau and the recipient of the Auckland Library Heritage Trust John Stacpoole Scholarship for 2023- 2024.

Her current PhD research explores the appeal of food faddists and diet trends in Aotearoa New Zealand from 1920- 1960, as a product of broader concerns regarding the nature of diet and disease during this period. 


Health Department Annual Report, Appendices to the Journal of the House of Representatives, H-31, 1936, 27. 

Muriel Bell, Elizabeth Gregory, and Elizabeth Malcolm, 'Good Nutrition: Principles and Menus', Wellington: Government Printer, 1940, 16. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Tara Parker-Pope, ‘Michael Pollan Offers 64 Ways to Eat Food’, New York Times, 8 January 2010. Accessible here. Accessed 1 March 2024.