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The Dietary Innovation & Disease Conference: A Debrief

Last week, I presented at a history of nutrition conference that took place on San Servolo, a small island about a ten minute boat ride off of Venice that for more than two hundred years housed an asylum.

San Servolo proved a most fitting and inspiring setting for the Dietary Innovation and Disease in the 19th and 20th Centuries conference. We heard the lapping waters of the Venice lagoon, felt its cool breezes, and even saw a cruise ship or two pass by, all while listening to thought-provoking paper presentations at an academic conference.

Co-organized by David Gentilcore and Matthew Smith, the well-executed event brought together thirty scholars from across the world, all working to unpack today’s nutrition issues through the study of dietary innovation and health in the past.

As for me, I presented some of my new work on Fairlife milk, an “ultra-filtered” lactose-free milk with more protein and calcium and less sugar than “ordinary milk,” that just so happens to be distributed by Coca-Cola.

Fairlife is a textbook example of what Gyorgy Scrinis calls “functional nutritionism,” in which the food industry seeks to sell products reductively through the emphasis of nutrients — not to promote good health, but to maximize and enhance it. Inspired by E. Melanie DuPuis’ history of milk, I’m also fascinated by the beverage’s transformation throughout American history from “white poison” to “nature’s perfect food” and seek to push this trajectory further to products like Fairlife — foods that aspire and claim to be “better than nature.”

I examine this evolution through a study of milk’s national advertising campaigns and situate the concept of nutritionism within a deeper socio-cultural context, considering the roles of gender and age, constructions of nature and natural, and how the contemporary meaning of milk is forged at the intersection of popular culture and nutrition science.

You can view the key points of my talk — and all the other fascinating presentations — in the Storify that I compiled here, and the conference program here.

And here are a few photos of Venice and San Servolo because I just can’t help myself. I studied abroad in Italy in summer 2005 while a student at the University of Oklahoma, and this was my first time to return. I can’t wait for my next trip.

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