Please login or create an account to join the discussion.
collage of historical adverts for protein foods

Primed for power: a short cultural history of protein. Section 5: Protein fiasco

5. Protein fiasco

In 1933, Cicely Williams, a doctor in the British Colonial Medical Service posted to the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), had published a paper describing a disease afflicting children in her care. The disease caused oedema (swelling), wasting, diarrhoea, sores, discolouration and loss of patches of skin, and eventually death. It typically affected children a short while after weaning, particularly in cases where the child was mainly living on maize. Williams suspected the cause was dietary and had been giving an inpatient treatment diet including Marmite, fruit, cod-liver oil, tinned milk and malt. Her impression was that “the most important elements in the treatment” were the cod-liver oil and milk, and she recommended treatment with Nestlé’s sweetened condensed milk.168 Commenting on the association with a maize diet she cautiously stated only that “some amino acid or protein deficiency cannot be excluded as a cause.”169 Two years later she published a further paper rebuffing criticism170 that she was just misdiagnosing pellagra (vitamin B3 deficiency) and naming the condition kwashiorkor, a term borrowed from the Gã language which she explained “indicates the disease the deposed baby gets when the next one is born.”171

Williams’ work didn’t get much attention at first. Few other scholars cited her papers or used the term kwashiorkor, and in 1936 she was transferred to Malaya.172 Other scholars continued to study the disease but accepted neither Williams’ name for it nor the suggestion that it was due to an amino acid or protein deficiency — instead, they explored the idea that this was a peculiar infant presentation of pellagra or that malnutrition was just one component of a complex of causes.173 The choice of name may have undermined her credibility — as her identities as a woman and as a medical practitioner rather than a researcher certainly did. But after the war, this was to change.

In 1949, the newly-founded World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), picking up the role of the LNHO, met to co-ordinate their work on nutrition. One item on the agenda was “a syndrome at present ill-defined” but “[o]ne of the most widespread nutritional disorders in tropical and sub-tropical areas”, particularly affecting infants and young children in “some parts of Africa”.174 The committee listed a series of names used for this syndrome but gave the agenda item the heading “Kwashiorkor” (in quotation marks). They offered no definitive account of its aetiology, mentioning cirrhosis of the liver, the diets of mothers and children, and tropical parasitism as points on which to focus further research. In their next agenda item, however, they discussed problems of malnutrition in young children after weaning “in some countries” more broadly, and emphasised that they believed these were particularly due to lack of (cows’) milk.175

The inverted commas around the word kwashiorkor, the list of other possible names and lack of a singular diagnosis show that expert opinion had yet to settle: the reader gets the impression that the choice of the name ‘kwashiorkor’ (and not, for example, ‘polydeficiency disease’) for the heading was arbitrary. However, a focus on this particular presentation of poor infant health and a set of associations with milk and inferred specific nutrient deficiencies were clearly developing. Over the following few years, various WHO and FAO studies added to the impression that kwashiorkor was a widespread problem — not only in children but also in adults, and not only in Africa but also in South America and India.176 Just as Cicely William’s work had before the war, many of these studies focused on the ‘exotic’ diets of the populations under study, with high consumption of maize and starchy roots and low consumption of animal proteins. Quickly, the consensus shifted towards seeing kwashiorkor as the result of protein deficiency. Particularly influential was a 1952 study by J. F. Brock (of the WHO) and M. Autret (of the FAO) entitled ‘Kwashiorkor in Africa’, which concluded that none of the traditional foodstuffs of the areas they had studied contained enough protein to meet the needs of newly-weaned infants,177,178 and that the only ethnic groups that did not suffer from the disease were those who consumed large quantities of cows’ milk.179 The sense of alarm around kwashiorkor grew, and in 1955, the WHO’s Nutrition Section stated that “kwashiorkor is without doubt the most important nutritional public health problem of the present time”.180 In the same year, the UN established a special Protein Advisory Group.181 The stage was thus set for nearly two decades of myopic focus on protein in international development.

An important concept informing discourse through this period was that of the ‘protein gap’: the gap between the amount of protein needed to maintain the world population in good health and the amount actually being produced. Part of this was a projection into the future: current agriculture would not be able to produce enough protein to feed everyone as the world population expanded. But it was rooted in beliefs about current, endemic undernutrition. Even if it was acknowledged that some communities were straightforwardly short of food rather than eating the wrong foods, it was argued that the best way to solve both problems concurrently was by producing more protein: after all, this would also entail producing more calories.

This was world hunger understood through the frame of nutritional science — not as a social problem in need of a political response, but as a scientific problem in need of a technological solution. Initially, it seemed that this technology might be milk. Williams had identified tinned milk as a possible cure for kwashiorkor from the beginning, and even those who believed there was more to the disease than simple protein deficiency recommended skimmed milk powder as treatment.182 Interest developed in protein quality, and milk was proposed as the reference protein for determining amino acid requirements in young children at the second conference on protein malnutrition in 1955.183 UNICEF had already been distributing skimmed milk powder as part of work to alleviate postwar hunger in Europe, so increasing consumption of skimmed milk seemed like the ideal cure.184 In countries like the UK and US, milk still had great symbolic power as the vehicle of feminine domestic care (Milk Marketing Board slogans at the time included “is your man getting enough?”185) — given that kwashiorkor was often framed as a maternal failing, it seemed an apt solution. However, WHO and FAO policymakers quickly concluded that increasing dairy production in Africa was impractical, and the population in need was too poor to afford imports. What was needed was a protein-rich food that could be made cheaply, from local ingredients.186 A founding aim of the Protein Advisory Group was to help find “new protein foods”,187 and in 1960 it established the Committee on Protein Malnutrition (funded to the tune of $880k by UNICEF and the Rockefeller Foundation) to focus on furthering this goal.188 The Group put out calls for research into unconventional sources of protein for human consumption during the 1960s,189 but national governments, UN agencies and private companies had started exploring possible new technologies from an even earlier point.

In the late 1950s, the Chilean and South African governments pursued a project to create a flavourless protein flour from fish. This involved drying and powdering huge quantities of small fish, and removing the fat by centrifuge and by extraction using ethanol and hexane. The resulting meal could be added in small quantities to bread flour. This was done in South Africa at government expense from 1956 to 1959, but stopped when it was realised that the population at risk from kwashiorkor ate very little bread. The Chilean government project was then abandoned in 1961 due to engineering problems, without ever reaching the distribution stage.190 The US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries pursued a similar project throughout the 1960s, even building a pilot plant and then a production plant — but eventually abandoned it, both due to regulatory barriers and because the fish stocks the project relied on collapsed.191 None of the US-produced fish flour was ever distributed.


Other techno-protein projects focused on culturing yeasts, bacteria and fungi. The idea was that this ‘single-cell protein’ (SCP) could be grown on a feedstock that was indigestible to humans—or at least was abundant and low in protein—and thus very cheap. The technology for growing SCP on various crude oil and petroleum derivatives was developed in France in the late 1950s by British Petroleum, and many commercial projects followed. The names alone tell the strange story of the era: ‘Toprina’ by BP in France and the UK, ‘Topriana’ and ‘Liquipron’ in Italy, ‘Roniprot’ in Romania, ‘Torutein’ in the US — all based on strains of candida yeasts. ‘Fermosin’, ‘Probion’, ‘Pruteen’ and ‘Norprotein’ based on various bacteria in Germany, the UK and Norway/ Sweden.192 However, after the 1973 oil crisis the price of crude oil was too high for growing SCP on petrochemicals to make economic sense.193 Other SCP projects grew their putatively edible microbes on different substrates: waste woodchips and sawdust from forestry, waste liquor from paper mills (an important example was Finnish ‘Pekilo’194), waste sugar from confectionary production (by Tate & Lyle in the UK195), molasses as a by-product of sugar refinement, whey as a by-product of dairy processing, and ethanol from various sources.196

Specimen of “Toprina” single cell protein, 1977, as produced by B.P. Ltd. at Grangemouth; in argon-filled sealed glass flask

Specimen of “Toprina” single cell protein, 1977, as produced by B.P. Ltd. at Grangemouth; in argon-filled sealed glass flask (Science Museum Group Collection Online, 1977-438)

Some of these projects did achieve a significant scale, both in the West and the USSR — by the 1980s, the Soviet Union was reporting production of over a million tonnes of SCP per year.197 What they did not do was solve world hunger or the protein gap. Many SCPs have a higher proportion of nucleic acids than other proteins, and it turned out that humans lack the digestive enzyme possessed by other mammals needed to process nucleic acids in large quantities.198 This puts a limit on the proportion of dietary protein that can come from SCPs. On top of this, many SCPs were found to produce allergic reactions in a substantial minority of human test subjects. Aside from the health concerns, SCP production required a level of sterilisation and contamination control that challenged contemporary engineering — these were not technologies suited to low-cost expansion to poor areas.199 As a result, the vast majority of SCP was used as an additive in animal feed in developed countries, not as food in developing countries.

One partial exception was Quorn, a British brand of mycoprotein derived from the fusarium venenatum fungus200 and developed in a collaboration between Rank Hovis McDougall and Imperial Chemical Industries building on infrastructure from ICI’s ‘Pruteen’ process.201 Development of Quorn started in 1964 in response to concerns about the protein gap and it remains a highly successful brand of vegetarian meat substitute today, especially in the EU and UK. However, in two senses, this was the exception that proved the rule: it was not grown on cheap waste products but on wheat;202 and it did not come to market until 1985, after international interest in protein had waned.203

Other techno-protein projects included oilseed flours, peanut flour, peanut milk, soybean flour, fortified chocolate soy milk, cottonseed flour, leaf protein concentrate, synthetic amino acids and lysine-enhanced wheat, maize and rice flours, as well as various projects involving skimmed milk.204 Not all of these ventures were completely without results, but none had any substantial effect on hunger in developing countries or on infant malnutrition. A post-mortem co-written by one of the scientists involved in the US work on fish flour205 suggests several reasons for these failures. For one thing, the incentives were not well aligned, with US and European entrepreneurs favouring projects with the potential to be profit-making and US and European government agencies favouring projects which made for good publicity. Both of these groups were keen to find profitable uses for surplus Western produce — particularly fish and milk.206 In the case of fish and petroleum derivatives, projects were built on assumptions about the abundance of inputs that turned out to be wrong. In almost all of these cases, foods were being designed with no reference to the food cultures of the people they were supposed to help, and little reference to economics or the availability of infrastructure for delivery. It is important to note that none of this is to imply that these projects were carried out under false pretences. Scientists and engineers, aid workers and their institutional backers, entrepreneurs and those in corporate governance — all were urgently trying to respond to real and affecting humanitarian need. Rather, systemic and cultural forces channelled these efforts into ineffectual and even irrelevant projects.

Some protein technologies developed in this period did achieve lasting success, even if they did little to solve the problem of world hunger. In 1965, the Archer Daniels Midland company filed a patent for a dried, textured protein food made from soybeans207 which they would later trademark TVP (‘textured vegetable protein’).208 In the same year, the company took on new leadership in the person of Dwayne Andreas, previously an executive in soy oil processing. Andreas had the “zeal of a missionary for bringing cheap protein to consumers” and liked to “talk about protein shortages and world food problems”.209 He sold Archer Daniels Midland’s $65m chemical division to free up capital and concentrate on soy processing, a decision that would prove lucrative; importantly, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service would approve the use of TVP to bulk out or replace meat in US school lunches in 1971, creating a huge domestic market.210 Another soy derivative, ‘spun soy protein’ from General Mills, had been trademarked ‘Bontrae’ a few years earlier,211 although it would not achieve the same degree of lasting commercial success.

These companies presented new protein foods not merely as commercial ventures but as vehicles of social good. If nothing was done then “many millions yet unborn [would] die from the consequences of malnutrition”, but since “even starving people are funny about food," inventions were needed to make cheap proteins resemble familiar foods212 — specifically, to create analogues of meat.213 Private enterprises of this type were lauded by government actors, operating on the assumption that domestic commercial success was the necessary precursor to wider impact.214 A huge range of textured vegetable proteins are still produced for use in meat substitutes and as meat extenders; indeed, Archer Daniels Midland (now styled ADM) is still a major producer. But these products did not play a major role in food aid or efforts to address world food security.

The focus on protein and the story of the impending protein gap had cultural resonance beyond the politics of international development. One event of particular relevance for current debates about protein and sustainability was the publication of Diet for a small planet by Frances Moore Lappé in 1971.215 This book — an international bestseller at the time whose influence remains important half a century later — was one of the first to make an environmental argument against eating meat. Lappé highlighted the land use inefficiency of animal agriculture as a means of producing calories and protein, arguing that contemporary world hunger and the protein gap created by expected population growth could be solved by shifting to vegetarian diets. In retrospect, it is this argument that represents the book’s lasting contribution — but much of the text was focused on ‘protein combining’ and the supposed difficulty of getting enough protein with the right balance of amino acids without eating meat. In her later writing Lappé would note that the suggestion that it was possible to eat enough protein without eating meat seemed like “heresy” in 1971,216 an observation that 19th century proponents of vegetarianism might have found familiar.

However, by the mid-1960s, new scientific findings had started to complicate the protein gap story: the best estimates of infant dietary protein requirements had come down. Where in 1936 the League of Nations had estimated that a one-year-old infant needed 3.5g of protein per 1kg of body weight per day for healthy growth, and Brock & Autret’s report in 1952 had suggested a rate as high as 3.8g/kg/day, official FAO/WHO publications from 1965 onwards consistently estimated rates below 1.5g/kg/day217 (see Figure 7). If the ratio of protein needed to calories needed was lower, this challenged the medical understanding of kwashiorkor: was it really caused by simple protein deficiency? Even if it was, the structural account of the problem was even harder to maintain. The argument of the ‘protein gap’ was that, from a population perspective, kwashiorkor was caused by an insufficient supply of protein even though enough calories were available. Lower protein requirements undermined this, implying that protein deficiency might be a consequence of general lack of food—if enough calories were supplied, enough protein would be also. At the same time, evidence was mounting that, in clinical practice, it was hard to distinguish kwashiorkor from other forms of malnutrition. In a population of children of the same age eating the same diet, some might show symptoms of kwashiorkor and some more general starvation (marasmus).218

This initially led to little more than a change of terminology: where previously kwashiorkor and “protein malnutrition” had been identified as the problem, now the phrases “protein-calorie malnutrition” or “protein- energy malnutrition” were used. Yet the rhetoric and the policies remained broadly similar for some time,219 with UN reports entitled “Feeding the Expanding World Population: Action to Avert the Impending Protein Crisis” (1967) and “The Protein Problem” (1968). As late as 1972, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution stating that “protein-calorie malnutrition is the primary cause of high infant and child mortality, reaching from 25 to 30 per cent in many developing countries.”220

But, just as with falling estimates of adult protein requirements in the run-up to the First World War, the gap between the scientific evidence and the general wisdom could not last forever — and just as before, when the consensus changed, it changed quickly. In 1974, Donald McLaren, a nutritionist who had worked with starving children in India, Tanzania, Lebanon and Jordon,221 published an article in the Lancet under the provocative title “The Great Protein Fiasco”.222 In this he argued that the importance of protein as both problem and solution had been wildly overestimated for 20 years. It simply wasn’t the case that all or most childhood malnutrition was kwashiorkor, or that kwashiorkor was straightforwardly protein deficiency; there was no longer any good reason to believe that there was a gap between protein production and demand above and beyond the gap between general food production and demand;223 and projects to create innovative sources of protein had not and were never going to offer effective solutions to world hunger. The World Food Conference in November of that year focused on an ongoing famine in Bangladesh that had killed 1.5 million people: the Protein Advisory Group (at this point already renamed the Protein-Calorie Advisory Group) was not consulted for the conference and protein featured little in the proceedings.224 One year later, in spite of strident criticism of McLaren,225 a review article in Nature concluded that the concept of a worldwide protein gap was no longer viable.226 Three years on, the Protein-Calorie Advisory Group was disbanded.

There had been voices speaking out against the focus on protein and kwashiorkor throughout these two decades. In McLaren’s paper, Cicely Williams, the ‘discoverer’ of kwashiorkor as protein deficiency, is quoted: “For the last 20 years I’ve been spending my time trying to debunk kwashiorkor.”227 McLaren later called out other researchers whose work had pushed back against the consensus, including Indian statistician P. V. Sukhatme.228 So why had the focus of international bodies including the WHO and FAO been so narrow?

Widespread protein deficiency had been an appealing diagnosis for the problem of world hunger. A more complex understanding of the situation, allowing very different stories in different places, would have required reliance more on subjective forms of evidence: appeals to personal experience, culture, context or politics. The protein gap and prevalent protein deficiency, by contrast, had the ring of objectivity: an explanation with scientific authority, backed by quantitative and experimental evidence, suited the cultures of science and government229 and fitted well into an optimistic, technocratic approach to public health led by nutritional scientists.230 Although no-one had designed it to be so, the profession of nutritional science was structured to favour single-nutrient explanations of problems, since individual scientists tended to be experts in a specific nutrient, and because such explanations were easier to explain to policy makers.231 Kwashiorkor itself had the advantages of a visually striking presentation and of mostly affecting babies and children, the most sympathetic victims when building public support for aid. The structures of corporate and (inter)national power that impoverished half the world were manifold, and a diagnosis that made the problem of hunger solvable without the need to challenge them head-on could recruit the largest number of stakeholders in support. In retrospect this period was characterised by a huge waste of effort and money by the organisations trying to tackle world hunger, with systemic factors pulling the focus of many well-intentioned actors towards an explanation and solutions that were later revealed to be not just illusory but arguably counterproductive, since they distracted attention from the real causes of hunger and malnutrition.

At the same time, that it was again protein that had risen to the place of most important nutrient appears to be part of a longer-term historical pattern. Beliefs about protein, meat and race first developed in the 19th century had never really left the public imagination, even though scientific consensus had moved on — this made a scapegoat of the ignorance of poor black and brown mothers about the importance of protein in their children’s diets. The assumption that child growth was the single best indicator of a healthy diet was methodologically defensible (it is a uniquely convenient, object measure), yet it was bound to put special emphasis on the dietary role of protein. Add to this the beliefs about cow’s milk as the ‘perfect food’ that were current among nutritionists at the time and had been reinforced by successful nutritional policies during the Second World War, and the idea that the solution to world hunger was more protein seemed intuitively plausible. Institutions and infrastructures were then shaped by this understanding, creating a network of vested interests that sustained the same approaches long after the evidence had changed.

Figure 7: Recommendations for daily protein intake for 1yo infants by body weight by year, trend shows an overall decrease from 3.5-4 g/kg/day in the 1940s to around 1 g/kg/day in 2010

Figure 7: Recommendations for daily protein intake for 1yo infants by body weight by year; the shaded area shows the Second World War232

168  Cicely D. Williams, ‘A NUTRITIONAL DISEASE OF CHILDHOOD ASSOCIATED WITH A MAIZE DIET’, Archives of Disease in Childhood 58 (1933): 559.

169  Williams, 559.

170  H. S. Stannus, ‘A Nutritional Disease of Childhood Associated with a Maize Diet--and Pellagra’, Archives of Disease in Childhood 9, no. 50 (1 April 1934): 115–18,

171  Cicely D. Williams, ‘KWASHIORKOR’, The Lancet 226, no. 5855 (November 1935): 1151–52,

172  Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 142–45; Joshua Nabilow Ruxin, ‘Hunger, Science, and Politics: FAO, WHO, and Unicef Nutrition Policies, 1945-1978’ (Ph.D., London, University College London, 1996), 37; Kimura, Hidden Hunger, 23.

173  Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 145–49; Nott, ‘“No One May Starve in the British Empire”’, 566.

174  Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition, Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition: Report on the First Session, Geneva, 24-28 October 1949. (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1950), 15.

175  Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Nutrition, 16.

176  Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 149; Richard D. Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism 69, no. 2 (2016): 80,

177  J. F. Brock and M. Autret, ‘KWASHIORKOR IN AFRICA’, Bulletin of the World Health Organization 5 (1952): 1–71 particularly cf. 49.

178  Indeed, even human breastmilk was judged too low in protein for infants—which in retrospect should perhaps have rendered the results suspect. Apparently the idea that it was normal good practice to supplement infant feeding with (higher protein) cow’s milk was so deeply accepted that this passed without comment.

179  Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, 80.

180  Ruxin, ‘Hunger, Science, and Politics: FAO, WHO, and Unicef Nutrition Policies, 1945-1978’, 72.

181  Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, 81.

182  Brock and Autret, ‘KWASHIORKOR IN AFRICA’, 29.

183  Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, 80.

184  Kimura, Hidden Hunger, 24; Richard D. Semba, ‘The Historical Evolution of Thought Regarding Multiple Micronutrient Nutrition’, The Journal of Nutrition 142, no. 1 (1 January 2012): 148S,

185  Lindsay Hamilton, Marylyn Carrigan, and Camille Bellet, ‘(Re)Connecting the Food Chain: Entangling Cattle, Farmers and Consumers in the Sale of Raw Milk’, The Sociological Review 69, no. 5 (September 2021): 1107–23,; it is also interesting to note that the ‘Special Milk Program’ began distributing milk to school children in the US in 1954 - Susan Levine, School Lunch Politics: The Surprising History of America’s Favorite Welfare Program, Course Book (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 93.

186 Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 152–53.

187  Protein Advisory Group, ‘Lives in Peril: Protein and the Child’, World Food Problems (FAO/WHO/UNICEF, 1970).

188  Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, 81.

189  Pauline K. Marstrand, ‘Production of Microbial Protein: A Study of the Development and Introduction of a New Technology’, Research Policy 10, no. 2 (July 1981): 168,

190  Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 163–64.

191  Carpenter, 165–68; Ernst R. Pariser et al., Fish Protein Concentrate: Panacea for Protein Malnutrition?, International Nutrition Policy Series 3 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1978).

192  Richard Westlake, ‘Large-scale Continuous Production of Single Cell Protein’, Chemie Ingenieur Technik 58, no. 12 (1986): 934–37,; I. Y. Hamdan and J. C. Senez, ‘The Economic Viability of Single Cell Protein (SCP) Production in the Twenty-First Century’, in Biotechnology: Economic and Social Aspects, ed. E. J. DaSilva, C. Ratledge, and A. Sasson, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1992), 142–64,

193  Marstrand, ‘Production of Microbial Protein’.

194  Juha Koivurinta, Rakel Kurkela, and Pekka Koivistoinen, ‘Uses of Pekilo, a Microfungus Biomass from Paecilomyces Varioti in Sausage and Meat Balls’, International Journal of Food Science & Technology 14, no. 6 (December 1979): 561–70,

195  A. J. Forage, ‘III Utilization of Agricultural and Food Processing Wastes Containing Carbohydrates’, Chemical Society Reviews 8, no. 2 (1979): 309,

196  Hamdan and Senez, ‘The Economic Viability of Single Cell Protein (SCP) Production in the Twenty-First Century’; M. García-Garibay et al., ‘SINGLE CELL PROTEIN | Yeasts and Bacteria’, in Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology (Elsevier, 2014), 431–38,

197  Hamdan and Senez, ‘The Economic Viability of Single Cell Protein (SCP) Production in the Twenty-First Century’, 146; García-Garibay et al., ‘SINGLE CELL PROTEIN | Yeasts and Bacteria’, 431.

198  Specifically, humans and some related primates have lost the ability to produce urate oxidase. As a result, purines, including adenine and guanine which are components of DNA, are only metabolised into uric acid in humans instead being further oxidised. High blood levels of urates are then associated with gout and kidney stones. X W Wu et al., ‘Urate Oxidase: Primary Structure and Evolutionary Implications.’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 86, no. 23 (December 1989): 9412–16,; Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 176.

199  Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 175–77.

200  Mycoprotein derived from Fusarium venenatum has now even been suggested as the new standard for high quality dietary protein against which other sources should be judged. The species name—Fusarium venenatum is Latin for ‘venomous spindle’—seems a little ironic in retrospect. D Joe Millward, ‘Milk Protein Loses Its Crown?’, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 112, no. 2 (1 August 2020): 245–46,

201  Jack A. Whittaker et al., ‘The Biotechnology of Quorn Mycoprotein: Past, Present and Future Challenges’, in Grand Challenges in Fungal Biotechnology, ed. Helena Nevalainen, Grand Challenges in Biology and Biotechnology (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2020), 59–79,

202  Note that Quorn Foods Ltd. claims that their process creates more protein per tonne of wheat than was contained in the wheat: thus quorn as a technology could theoretically still increase the availability of protein, even though it is grown on feedstock that humans could eat. I have not been able to precisely reproduce these calculations, however. Quorn Foods Ltd., ‘Quorn Sustainable Development Report 2017’ (Stokesley, North Yorkshire, 2017), 14–15,….

203  Anthony P.J. Trinci, ‘Myco-Protein: A Twenty-Year Overnight Success Story’, Mycological Research 96, no. 1 (January 1992): 1–13,; T. Sharp, ‘Quorn Myco-Protein: The Development of a New Food and Its Contribution to the Diet’, in Food and Nutrition Policy in Europe (The Second European Conference on Food and Nutrition Policy, The Hague 21 - 24 April 1992, Wageningen: Pudoc Scientific Publishers, 1993), 149–54.

204  Aaron M. Altschul, Combating Malnutrition: New Strategies through Food Science, Remarks of Aaron M. Altschul, Special Assistant for International Nutrition Improvement to Secretary of Agriculture, to 2nd Joint Meeting of American Institute of Chemical Engineers and Institute de Ingenieros Quimicos de Puerto Rico, Tampa, Fla., May 21, 1968 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 1968); Carpenter, Protein and Energy, 161–78; Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, 82–84.

205  Pariser et al., Fish Protein Concentrate.

206  Pariser et al., 52, 225–29; Edward Clay, ‘Book Review Article: Forty Years of Multilateral Food Aid: Responding to Changing Realities’, Development Policy Review 20, no. 2 (2002): 203–7; Kimura, Hidden Hunger, 24.

207  Francis E Calvert and William T Atkinson, PROCESS FOR THE PREPARATION OF HYDRATABLE PROTEIN FOOD PRODUCTS, United States Patent and Trademark Office US 3498794 A, filed 25 January 1965, and issued 3 March 1970.

208  Archer Daniels Midland Company, TVP, United States Patent and Trademark Office 81014793 (Decatur, Illinois, filed 19 October 1973, and issued 1 July 1975),….

209  Ross Irwin, ‘Dwayne Andreas’s Bean Has a Heart of Gold’, Fortune, October 1973, 138.

210  USDA ARS, ‘Textured Vegetable Protein Products (B-1), FNS Notice 219’, 1971,….

211  General Mills Inc., Bontrae, 72459090 (MINNEAPOLIS MINNESOTA, filed 1 June 1973, and issued 26 March 1974).

212  Duane C. Wosje, ‘TEXTURED VEGETABLE PROTEINS TO ALLEVIATE WORLD FOOD PROBLEMS’, Journal of Milk and Food Technology 33, no. 9 (1 September 1970): 405, 407,; cf. also Kenneth M. Wolford, ‘Beef/Soy: Consumer Acceptance’, Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 51, no. 1Part2 (January 1974): 131A-133A,

213  A cynic might note that the poor populations at risk of protein malnutrition were generally already accustomed to eating pulses, so new ways of making soybeans more palatable were most relevant for markets in the global north.

214  Aaron Altschul, Special Assistant for International Nutrition Improvement to the Secretary of Agriculture, stated in 1968 that “[m]ost of these new foods will be available first to people who probably do not need them [...] but [...] the first thing to do with a new food is to establish it in the marketplace”. Altschul, Combating Malnutrition: New Strategies through Food Science, Remarks of Aaron M. Altschul, Special Assistant for International Nutrition Improvement to Secretary of Agriculture, to 2nd Joint Meeting of American Institute of Chemical Engineers and Institute de Ingenieros Quimicos de Puerto Rico, Tampa, Fla., May 21, 1968, 13.

215  Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet (New York: Friends of the Earth / Ballantine Books, Inc., 1971).

216  Frances Moore Lappé, Anna Lappé, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, Hope’s Edge: The next Diet for a Small Planet (New Delhi: Viveka Foundation, 2005), 56.

217  For context, Millward & Jackson (2007) estimated that a one-year-infant required only 0.875g protein per kg of body weight per day.

218  J. C. Waterlow and P. R. Payne, ‘The Protein Gap’, Nature 258, no. 5531 (November 1975): 113, This is not the place to go into the unsolved debate around the aetiology of kwashiorkor in detail. Protein deficiency remains a major possibility, with suggestive evidence from recent work on blood albumin levels, but the epidemiological evidence speaks against an association between dietary protein intake and developing kwashiorkor. A non-exhaustive list of other explanations put forward includes deficiency of the sulphur amino acids (perhaps in combination with high intake of cyanogens from cassava), exposure to aflatoxins (produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus), changes in gut microbiota, and oxidative stress resulting from sequential infections in combination with low micronutrient intake. In contrast to the great attention kwashiorkor received during the 1960s and 70s, researchers now describe it as an ‘orphan disease’, subject to little medical or epidemiological research in spite of the fact that it still affects hundreds of thousands of people per year. André Briend, ‘Kwashiorkor: Still an Enigma – the Search Must Go On’, CMAM Forum Technical Brief (CMAM Forum, December 2014), 25 and passim,…; Edem M. A. Tette and Juliana Yartey Enos, ‘Letter to the Editor Aetiology of Kwashiorkor Then and Now–Still the Deposed Child?’, Asian Journal of Dietetics 2, no. 1 (2020): 41–42; Malcolm G. Coulthard, ‘Oedema in Kwashiorkor Is Caused by Hypoalbuminaemia’, Paediatrics and International Child Health 35, no. 2 (13 May 2015): 83–89,; Thi-Phuong-Thao Pham et al., ‘Difference between Kwashiorkor and Marasmus: Comparative Meta-Analysis of Pathogenic Characteristics and Implications for Treatment’, Microbial Pathogenesis 150 (January 2021): 104702,

219 Cannon, ‘Nutrition’, S485.

220 UN General Assembly, ‘Protein Resources [A/RES/2848]’, in Resolutions Adopted by the General Assembly during Its 26th Session, 21 September-22 December 1971, 1972, 68–70.

221 Donald S. McLaren, ‘To the Editor’, Food and Nutrition Bulletin 20, no. 3 (January 1999): 369–70,

222 Donald S. Mclaren, ‘THE GREAT PROTEIN FIASCO’, The Lancet 304, no. 7872 (July 1974): 93–96,

223  From 1974 on, attention began to be paid to notions of ‘food security’ (and later ’food sovereignty’) that moved beyond a simplistic understanding of malnutrition as the individual consequence of societal under-production of food. These newer frameworks engaged with questions of food distribution, access, affordability, reliability and safety, cultural preferences, dietary balance, and the loci of political and economic control over the food system. In this more complex picture, it might not make any sense to try to ‘diagnose’ a problem with the food system by looking for an imbalance between the dietary needs of the world population and global food production: more than enough food can be produced, yet people can still go hungry. For more discussion of food security and food sovereignty, see Walter Fraanje, Samuel Lee-Gammage, and Tara Garnett, ‘What Is Food Security?’ (Food Climate Research Network, 12 March 2018),; Rachel Carlile, Matthew Kessler, and Tara Garnett, ‘What Is Food Sovereignty?’ (TABLE, 25 May 2021),

224  Semba, ‘The Rise and Fall of Protein Malnutrition in Global Health’, 84.

225  Donald S. Mclaren, ‘THE GREAT PROTEIN FIASCO’, The Lancet 304, no. 7888 (November 1974): 1079,

226  Waterlow and Payne, ‘The Protein Gap’.

227  Mclaren, ‘THE GREAT PROTEIN FIASCO’, July 1974, 93.

228  P. V. Sukhatme, ‘Incidence of Protein Deficiency in Relation to Different Diets in India’, British Journal of Nutrition 24, no. 2 (June 1970): 477–87,; Donald S McLaren, ‘The Great Protein Fiasco Revisited’, Nutrition 16, no. 6 (June 2000): 464–65,

229  Willem Halffman, ‘Frames: Beyond Facts versus Values’, in Environmental Expertise: Connecting Science, Policy and Society, ed. Esther Turnhout, Willemijn Tuinstra, and Willem Halffman, 1st ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2019), 36–67,

230  Cannon, ‘Nutrition’; Kimura, Hidden Hunger; Nelson, Nisbett, and Gillespie, ‘Historicising Global Nutrition’.

231  Rivers, ‘The Profession of Nutrition—an Historical Perspective’; Carpenter, ‘The History of Enthusiasm for Protein’.

232 Technical Commission of the Health Committee, The Problem of Nutrition, II: Report on the Physiological Bases of Nutrition:15; Cannon, ‘Nutrition’, S485; Waterlow and Payne, ‘The Protein Gap’, 114; Passmore et al., Handbook on Human Nutritional Requirements, 20; Joint FAO/WHO/UNU Expert Consultation, ‘Energy and Protein Requirements’, 104–5; D Joe Millward and Alan A Jackson, ‘Protein/Energy Ratios of Current Diets in Developed and Developing Countries Compared with a Safe Protein/Energy Ratio: Implications for Recommended Protein and Amino Acid Intakes’, Public Health Nutrition 7, no. 3 (May 2004): 387–405,


< Previous: Section 4                                                                                              Next: Section 6 >

Post a new comment »

Login or register to comment with your personal account. Anonymous comments require approval to be visible.