Protein Powders and Pastes: Muscle Foods for the Twentieth Century Man

Rafael Hernandez, Oklahoma State University

2 October 2020

A 1911 full-page advertisement for Eugen Sandow’s Health and Strength Cocoa features a unique take on the modernist manifesto:

The most serious problem which confronts the world to-day is that of Food. Almost imperceptively the stress of modern life has increased to such an extent that ordinary food-stuffs have ceased to be equal to the demand of body, brain, and nerve for adequate nourishment. This demand can only be satisfied by the production of foods containing a higher percentage of easily-digestible nourishment; and that nourishment must be of the highest possible efficiency. Work has become a science. Feeding must become a science too.[1]

As a strongman and physical culture pioneer, Sandow understood nutrition’s importance to bodybuilding; and as a master advertiser, he knew how to sell it. By 1911, when Sandow published ‘The Manifesto’, food production was growing increasingly mechanised. Canned, dehydrated, processed, and powdered foods became new household staples. As Lesley Steinitz (University of Cambridge) has shown, early twentieth century urban congestion fuelled a need for foods that were both nutritious and could be mass produced.[2] Various perceived crises—of the body, the nation, and the race—lead to the kinds of technological solutions Sandow addresses in his manifesto. Protein-rich health foods like Bovril, Plasmon, and various cocoa powders became widely available and, though they were marketed to the common man, were often associated with royalty, athletes, and adventurers. In a diary detailing his South Pole expedition, for instance, Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton notably wrote that he brought along ‘Bovril, chocolate and Plasmon’ to sustain him during the adventure.[3]

In the nineteenth century, dietary protein came to be understood as an essential nutrient to fight illness and racial decline. After studying the diets of soldiers, German scientist Justus von Liebig hypothesised a correlation between protein insufficiency, internal degradation, and pathological imbalances.[4] Following Liebig’s study, the demand for protein quickly became a feature of the commodity-rich landscape of late-Victorian Britain. Liebig himself would later promote the use of beef extracts, even lending his name to the Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company. Both Liebig’s and the ever-popular Bovril relied greatly on print culture and advertising, shaping their products as scientific, masculine, invigorating, and nationalistic.[5] In a 1916 testimonial advertisement (Figure 1), Bovril is marketed as a food product for the working man. The advertisement features two photographs of an English munition worker wielding Bovril in one hand and sledgehammer in the other, and two other photographs show the worker flexing his stomach muscles and swinging his sledgehammer. The advertisement touts the ‘body-building power of Bovril’ and asks viewers to ‘give your best to the nation’, linking the dual project of body-building and nation-building, cohered in the body of the English working man.

The national and racial greatness promoted in Bovril’s advertising campaigns recall the eugenics discourses gaining popularity in Europe at the time—and the origins of the Bovril name. Where ‘bo’ indicated the product’s ‘bovine’ origins, ‘vril’ stemmed from the ‘Vril-ya’ people, a superior master race featured in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s science fictional novel, The Coming Race (1871). In their technologically advanced utopia, the Vril-ya civilisation exploit ‘vril’, an ‘all-permeating fluid’ and ‘great sustainer of life’ which gives those who consume it ‘invigorating powers’, a fantastical version of the health and race-based improvements promised by high protein commodities like Bovril.[6]

Though it remains a common item on grocery store shelves, bodybuilders today are hardly mixing up Bovril for their post-workout protein hit. More akin to those we know today are the early powdered proteins like Plasmon. Likely the first mass-produced whey protein concentrate, milk-derived Plasmon was incorporated into biscuits, oats, and cocoa products. Advertisements for Plasmon celebrate the nuclear family and the importance of children’s nutrition; and, much like Bovril, the visual culture surrounding Plasmon represented various masculine ideals. In one Plasmon advertisement from the early twentieth century (Figure 2), a shirtless strongman wields a sledgehammer at a Roman-inspired pedestal; and, in another (Figure 3), the same strongman chisels the word “Plasmon” at the foot of the pedestal, signifying that the protein product is the base upon which the self-made statuesque man will stand.

To keep up with changing times, processed health foods like Plasmon were often advertised as greater than ‘ordinary’ food. In 1902, Sandow himself endorsed Plasmon, claiming that ‘a teaspoonful of it is equal to the strength of two eggs’.[7] Advertisements regularly claimed Plasmon’s exceptionalism and warned that ‘To eat is not enough!’[8] Similar claims also circulated in medical journals, like the British Medical Journal and the Medical Press and Circular. These journals claimed that ‘Plasmon cocoa […] yields a beverage of much greater nutritive value than ordinary cocoa’,[9] ‘has many advantages over all other food’, is ‘30 times more nutritious than milk’, and contains ‘4 times more Proteid [sic] than fresh Butcher’s Meat’.[10] These advertisements and medical testimonials speak directly to the ideas reflected in Sandow’s manifesto: in today’s alienating era of industrialization, mechanically and technologically advanced foods are required where ordinary foods will not suffice.

At their core, protein-rich foods claimed to remedy a variety of felt crises of the period.[11] But the individual body has long been linked to the national body, and thus threats to the body politic likewise became something protein could address. Plasmon, for instance, a standard soldier’s ration during the Boer War, regularly emphasised its role in empire building: ‘Plasmon builds up the tissues. Infants digest it. Ant-arctic Explorers lived on it. British Soldiers fight on it’.[12] Similarly, the strengthening promise of Sandow’s Cocoa ‘carrie[d] with it the solution of other pressing problems’, including ‘National Stability and Progress’.[13] These products marketing as universal solutions is more than mere advertising trickery. Protein was a new staple in pantries and in the collective imagination. It promised to strengthen mind, body, home, and nation, all in an easy to use powder. What made these protein powders modernist, then, was not just the aesthetic ideals to which they appealed, but the idea that through the marriage of food and industry, we could produce foods—and bodies—suitable for the twentieth century.


Sources

[1] ‘Today’s Inauguration of a Great Enterprise’. Daily Telegraph, 9 October 1911, p. 7.

[2] Lesley Steinitz, ‘Bovril: A Very Beefy (and British) Love Affair’. University of Cambridge Research News. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/bovril-a-very-beefy-and-british-love-affair [accessed 15 September 2020]

[3] Ernest Shackleton diary. Scott Polar Research Institute. University of Cambridge. https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/archives/shackleton/articles/1537,3,12.html [accessed 15 September 2020]

[4] William H. Brock, Justus Von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 191-192.

[5] Steinitz has studied the visual rhetoric of Bovril’s advertising campaigns and shown the ways the company attached to their products ideas of health, nationalism, and masculinity.

[6] Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (Edinburgh, London: Blackwood & Sons, 1871). Project Gutenberg ebook.

[7] Interview with Eugen Sandow, quoted in Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors (Bloomington: AuthorHouse, 2008), p. 32.

[8] Plasmon advertisement, Penny Illustrated Paper, 19 January 1907, p. 48. Illustrated London News Group.

[9] British Medical Journal, 19 February 1910, p. 452. Another article in the same edition posed the question: ‘If we adopt [a vegetarian diet], will Englishmen be as capable and energetic as our meat-eating forefathers’? British Medical Journal, p. 453.

[10] Plasmon advertisement, Medical Press and Circular, 22 March 1905, p. x.

[11] Sanatogen, for instance, was a protein powder meant to treat ‘weakness and exhaustion from overwork or illness’. ‘Sanatogen’, National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_714696 [accessed 15 September 2020]

[12] Medical Press and Circular, p. x.

[13] ‘Today’s Inauguration’, p. 7.

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