HomeJunk Food and Poor Food Habits from Antiquity to the Present Days

Junk Food and Poor Food Habits from Antiquity to the Present Days

Malbouffe et mauvaises pratiques alimentaires de l'Antiquité à nos jours

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Published on Thursday, January 23, 2020 by Céline Guilleux


Le Centre d'histoire espaces et cultures (CHEC, université Clermont-Auvergne), en partenariat avec l'université Bordeaux-Montaigne ainsi que la fondation Nestlé-France, organise en novembre 2020 un colloque international sur la malbouffe et les mauvaises pratiques alimentaires de l'Antiquité à nos jours. Il s'agira d'appréhender et comprendre les effets des mauvaises pratiques alimentaires sur les individus, les sociétés ou l'environnement sur le temps long. Ainsi, le concept de malbouffe, relativement récent, sera étudié et interrogé à différentes périodes et dans différents espaces afin d'en mesurer l'opérabilité depuis l'Antiquité.


Université Clermont-Auvergne – CHEC November 3-4, 2020 – Clermont Ferrand


Healthy eating has become one of the major concerns in our contemporary societies and the theme regularly hits the headlines of all kinds of media. Food has become the medium of sometimes militant speech that aims to promote diets as healthy as possible and to investigate the consequences of injurious food practices and of the consumption of junk food. This discourse combines social, sanitary and environmental concerns.

The term “malbouffe” emerged in France in the late 1970s [de Rosnay, 1979], the equivalent of the English expression “junk food”, which appeared in the United States in the 1950s. It then referred to food considered to be bad, both in terms of diet and health (foods too rich in sugar, salt, fat, additives, too processed and too poor in nutrients). These dietary habits, linked to the intensification of industrial production and fast food, were soon widely accused of causing various pathologies (obesity, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes for example) and of having major environmental impacts. Governments and authorities were thereupon taking steps to raise people’s awareness of the importance of healthy eating practices (WHO’s “Global Strategy for Food”), the value of taste (“Semaine du goût” in France) or, more recently, the priority to purchase local products (“Farmers’ Market Promotion Program” in the United States or “Projets alimentaires territoriales” for school canteens in France).

Therefore, the concept of “junk food” is clearly one of a specific era, anchored as it is in the specificities of consumer society of the second half of the 20th century. Yet bad food practices have always existed and the link between food and health, or poor nutrition and health, is an issue already present in Antiquity. In fact, if the modalities and channels of information make this subject a salient theme nowadays, it is not however a novelty. In France from the 1950s to 1960s, for example, the French Association for the Search for Normal Diet, founded in 1952 by doctors and biologists, strove to propagate food quality ideals, aiming to impose norms of production and retailing. The birth of naturopathic medicine in the late nineteenth 19th century and the continued growth of naturopathy to this day bear witness to the importance of diet to health. Even earlier, the contemporary vegetarian movement revolved around the same principles, popularized and applied by John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943) in the last quarter of the 19th century. In the Middle Ages and the early-modern era, the Salernitan Rule of Health (XIth-XIIth c.) or An Essay on Regimen (George Cheyne, 1740) propounded dietary considerations to “maintain good health”. And in classical antiquity, the link of food and health constitutes a fundamental element of the Hippocratic theory about humors.

Logically, all of these theories or movements, regardless of time, have been concerned about poor foodstuffs and injurious dietary habits. Grouped under the “junk food” neologism since the 1950s and then popularized between 1970 and the early 2000s [Lasky, 1977 ; Bové and Dufour, 2000; Jaillette, 2000], these harmful foods or practices are in fact already present in the writings of 20th century physicians, 19th century hygienists, medieval legislators and ancient philosophers.

However, although the problem has been extensively covered by the press, television broadcasts, medical and public works for more than 30 years, it is a subject still relatively little explored collectively and internationally by the humanities in general and history in particular. Among historians, the history of food and food practices [Flandrin and Montarani, 1996; Kiple and Ornelas, 2000; Meyzie, 2005; Quellier, 2010; Parasecoli and Scholliers, 2012] has been a great success for the past 25 years. Topics such as food safety and quality [Stanziani, 2005], food fears [Ferrières, 2002], links between food and health [Audoin-Rouzeau et Sabban, 2007], food in Empires [Laudan, 2013] or food packaging [Hachez-Leroy, 2019] have made it possible to study food habits through original prisms. But the more specific question of junk food and, in order to be more relevant from a diachronic perspective, of bad food practices, is still largely to be explored, not only by historians, but also by the sister disciplines in the humanities.

The research is all the more difficult and yet all the more relevant because it is a particularly fluctuating object in space and time; this protean nature makes its analysis on the long run very complex. What is considered a bad food habit today has nothing to do with the like in antiquity, the Middle Ages, modern or early contemporary times. The notions of "bad food" and "harmful dietary practices" are in fact cultural, economic and social mirrors of these societies. They require careful inscription in their contexts, the recovery of precise contemporaneous definitions in order to understand continuity and change. They also require to consider and question the reference food models, as well as moral injunctions defining the “good” and the “bad”, concepts that are also very fluctuating over time and contexts (cultural, social, religious, geographical, etc.)

The objective of this scientific event is to examine the issue of junk food and bad food habits over time, highlighting both their persistence and transformations, but also their conceptualizations and consistencies/dissimilarities in the long run. As a matter of fact, the question of what is perceived over time as bad food practices will be at the heart of our discussion and four main areas can be addressed:

  • Products. This is obviously the first thing that comes to mind when talking about junk food. What are the products – liquid or solid – affected by this status according to different places and times? For what reasons? Under what circumstances? Thus, it will be necessary to question the context of the stigmatization of a particular product, but also its evolution over time. The question of food patterns and product trajectories can be raised to understand the criteria to identify dangerous food products.

  • Habits. This section aims at investigating the methods of production, processing, packaging, transport and consumption of foods considered as unhealthy, paying attention to the structures, networks, individuals who condition and support these practices from ancient times to the present across different spaces. Food manners (length of meals, fast food, take-out meals, meals served in transport, etc.) and their evolution can also be taken into account in order to capture society's regulation of food consumption. Individual and collective behaviors should also be investigated, maybe in link with the concept of “excess” that should be questioned in the long run, too. In this context, the notion of “threshold” is relevant and should be examined in order to understand what is tolerable or not.

  • Discourses. At the crossroads of the two previous problems is the way in which discourses on junk food are elaborated. These can be positive-ameliorative or, on the contrary, negative-pejorative. In any case, communication fully participates in the construction of the historical phenomena at stake by describing and identifying "unhealthy food" as well as the channels through which information flows. The differences in space, time and socio-professional environments of what is perceived as junk food will also be at the heart of the discussion, as will the discrepancies between these discourses, the recommendations and measures they induce. Stigmatization processes or anti-junk food discourses (diet or gourmet for example) could be focused on as well.

  • Impacts. What are the effects of junk food and poor food habits on people, the environment, the economy or societies as a whole? Here, consideration may also be given to the proposed solutions (products or behavior) to correct the externalities of the production and consumption of junk food (soil pollution, resources management, malnutrition, concerns for growth, limitation of purchasing power, social disparities, etc.).

Communications submissions

Submissions may fit within one or more of the predefined axes; they may focus on a particular product, a specific event or, on the contrary, propose a synthetic approach on the long run of stigmatized food practices; they can target any global geographic space, regardless of its size, or offer comparisons between spaces.

If history will be the preferred discipline, multidisciplinary openings are possible and desired, especially towards geography, sociology, anthropology, law, nutrition, economics or the natural sciences.

Special attention will be given to young researchers (masters, PhD candidates, young doctors) and proposals from abroad.

The working languages of the symposium will be English and French.

We will cover accommodation and meals during the two days of the symposium. We also hope to be able to contribute to the transport costs of participants, especially for those whose home institutions do not subsidize this type of expenditure. We strongly encourage applicants to try to secure partial or full funding of transport costs from their home university.

Proposals (3000 signs, French or English) should be sent

before March 31, 2020,

with a short resumé, to lachaud.stephanie@wanadoo.fr, stephane.lebras@uca.fr and corinne.marache@gmail.com

Scientific Committee

  • Martin Bruegel, INRA
  • Pierre-Antoine Dessaux, U. Tours
  • Madeleine Ferrières, U. d’Avignon
  • Fabien Knittel, U. Franche-Comté
  • Caroline Lardy, UCA Clermont
  • Julie Mardon, UCA Clermont
  • Marilyn Nicoud, U. d’Avignon
  • Philippe Meyzie, U. Bordeaux-Montaigne
  • Peter Scholliers, Vrije Universiteit Bruxelles
  • Jon Stobart, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Dimitri Tilloi-d’Ambrosi, U. Lyon Jean-Moulin

Scientific organisation

  • Stéphanie Lachaud (Bordeaux-Montaigne-CEMMC),
  • Stéphane Le Bras (UCA-CHEC)
  • Corinne Marache (Bordeaux-Montaigne-CEMMC)

Selected bibliography

Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau, et Françoise Sabban (dir.), Un aliment sain dans un corps sain. Perspectives historiques, Tours, Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007.

José Bové et François Dufour, Le monde n'est pas une marchandise : des paysans contre la malbouffe, Paris, La Découverte, 2000.

Marc de Ferrière Le Vayer et Jean-Pierre Williot, Saga de la pomme de terre, Paris, Ed. du cercle d’art, 2008.

Stella et Joël de Rosnay, La malbouffe : comment se nourrir pour mieux vivre, Paris, Ed. Olivier Orban, 1979.

Madeleine Ferrières, Histoire des peurs alimentaires : du Moyen âge à l'aube du XXe siècle, Paris, Éditions Points, 2002.

Jean-Louis Flandrin et Massimo Montanari (dir.), Histoire de l'alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996.

David Gentilcore, Food and Health in Early Modern Europe. Diet, Medicine and Society, 1450- 1800, Londres, Bloomsbury, 2016.

Florence Hachez-Leroy, Menaces sur l’alimentation, Emballages, colorants et autres contaminants alimentaires, XIXe-XXe siècles, Tours, PUFR, 2019.

Jean-Claude Jaillette, Les dossiers noirs de la malbouffe, Paris, Albin Michel, 2000.

Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas (eds.), The Cambridge World History of Food, NYC, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000.

Michael S. Lasky, The Complete Junk Food Book, NYC, MacGraw-Hill, 1977.

Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire. Cooking in World History, Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 2013.

Philippe Meyzie, L'alimentation en Europe à l'époque moderne : manger et boire, XVIe s.-XIXe s., Paris, A. Colin, 2010.

Fabio Parasecoli and Peter Scholliers, A cultural history of food, 6 volumes (Antiquity, Medieval Age, Renaissance, Early Modern Age, Age of Empire, Modern Age), London, New York, Berg, 2012.

Florent Quellier, Gourmandise : histoire d'un péché capital, Paris, A. Colin, 2010. Alessandro Stanziani, Histoire de la qualité alimentaire, XIXe-XXe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2005.


  • Clermont-Ferrand, France (63000)


  • Tuesday, March 31, 2020


  • alimentation, malbouffe, développement durable, junk food


  • Stéphane Le Bras
    courriel : stephane [dot] lebras [at] uca [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Stéphane Le Bras
    courriel : stephane [dot] lebras [at] uca [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Junk Food and Poor Food Habits from Antiquity to the Present Days », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, January 23, 2020, https://calenda.org/728432

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