Agriculture and Human Values

, 26:321 | Cite as

From the imperial to the empty calorie: how nutrition relations underpin food regime transitions

  • Jane Dixon


This article works in a recursive manner by using the tools of a food regime approach to reinterpret the nutrition transition that has been underway internationally for 100 years, and then describing the contributions of nutrition science to the 1st and 2nd Food Regimes and the passages between Food Regimes. The resulting history—from the ‘imperial calorie’ through the ‘protective’ vitamin to the ‘empty calorie’—illuminates a neglected dimension to food regime theorising: the role of socio-technical systems in shaping a set of value relations that are central to class relations. Contestation over one such system, nutritionalisation, currently involves an ungovernable array of actors. In describing the protagonists to the system of nutritionalisation, a classic confrontation emerges between technical and lifeworld rationality. Representing the former approach are actor networks responsible for the ‘trade-in-health’ sector which produces foods and nutritional values aimed at both over-nourished and under-nourished populations. Clinging to a lifeworld rationality are ‘culture eaters’ worldwide, for whom nutrition value relations are secondary to communal and ecological relations. This dynamic appears within wealthier Asian states which are emerging as central to the trade-in-nutritional health sector while acting to protect their own customary dietary practices.


Food regimes Nutrition transition Public health Socio-technical systems 



Hugh Campbell and Phillip McMichael played highly significant roles in the shaping of this argument, and I also acknowledge an early contribution by Farshad Araghi. I am also grateful to P. Suttinan of the Sukothai Thammathirat Open University for translating the contents of the Thai government’s Nutrition Plans.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.National Centre for Epidemiology and Population HealthAustralian National UniversityActonAustralia

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