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Beefing up science: British Bovril, bulging biceps and nutrition science

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The current horse meat scandal may remind us of nineteenth-century food adulteration scandals, but it also raises the more subtle issue of how food choice is so much a matter of taste and habit. Lesley will be talking about another food, Bovril beef extract, which was unfamiliar when it was introduced near the end of the nineteenth century. This brown gloopy aromatic liquid is still sold, albeit with a modified recipe, and continues even now to be portrayed as possessing the enduring qualities of national pride, endeavour, strength and resilience. This paper is in large part the story of how the Bovril company managed to create this brand image and embed it in British culture around the turn of the twentieth century (despite being implicated in horse meat adulteration scandals back then too). The devices that the company used to construct it were, surprisingly for a substance that seems simple and mundane, built around the claims of great chemists and physicians and based on powerful scientific claims for healthy and invalid nutrition, claims which it managed to sustain for many decades. But while they were overtly based on nutritional science, they were sustained over the longer term because Bovril’s image was rooted in Britain’s beef culture, the traditional medicinal value ascribed to beef tea and the slowly changing social, political and scientific concerns of the period exemplified by the physical culture movement.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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