Yeah, science! The story of potatoes in Europe

The premise is always the same, and we apologize if we repeat ourselves.

The current food model is unsustainable, both from an ethical point of view and from the point of view of the effects on people’s health, and from an environmental point of view. The numbers say it, the evidence says it, science says it.

In this article, however, we are not talking, as in other past posts, of possible solutions to which the most innovative and far-sighted food companies have been working for a few years.

We limit ourselves only to mention some of the possible products in which the sector of the so-called Foodtech, which deals with innovation in the food sector, is more investing:

-Complete foods (“Complete foods” – the new generation replacement meals of which Bivo, the only Italian product in this category, is part)
-Plant based meat (“Plant based meat”)
-Lab grown meat (“Lab grown meat”)
-Insect-based foods

Of all the new product categories just mentioned, you will find numerous articles in the section of our blog dedicated to Food Innovation:

Some of the foods described above encounter the distrust of some of the people (perhaps the Complete foods less, being ultimately “less strange” than the others on the list). In fact, the relationship we have with food is very intimate. We need a high degree of trust in the man before wanting to eat something new … and it is right that this is the case: we are what we eat. This is one of the reasons why our product, Bivo, although innovative, uses only natural and vegetable ingredients.

In this article, instead, we tell you a story. We will try to tell you how the introduction of the potato took place, a food nowadays considered very normal in the diet of western populations.

The potato, as many know, is native to South America. Until the discovery of the South American continent, the potato was totally unknown to the European population. His discovery was met with enormous skepticism. Taken in the early 1500s in the Old Continent, the mere idea of ​​being able to eat it met with extreme criticism for the most imaginative reasons. There were those who considered the new tuber as a food of the Demon, as it was never even mentioned in the Bible. Others were disgusted by the appearance of wrinkles and certainly not elegant. Still others were afraid of it, convinced that it was a carrier of diseases, especially leprosy, given that the hands of lepers resemble the surface of a potato. The opposition to the potato was so strong that not even the numerous famines were able to convince the population to eat potatoes. Let us always remember that we are talking about epochs in which the main concern of the European population was, from morning to evening, to find something to eat to survive: dying of hunger was not a rare thing for a large slice of the poor European population. And yet, he didn’t want anyone to know about the potato, and the tuber was used exclusively to feed the pigs.

After having started the cultivation of potatoes in Europe, however, their great energy yield was evident, and their greater efficiency compared to the classic cereal crops. On the other hand, the potato is really a very efficient food, capable of supplying many calories and requiring little land for its cultivation. This is true today, so much so that NASA is assuming to use potatoes as their favorite cultivation for future human missions on Mars.

So how did the introduction of the potato take place in Western man’s diet?

Basically, there were three decisive factors.

The first was time. Do you think that the potato, which arrived in Europe in the 1500s, began to enter people’s diet in the late 1700s: we are talking about almost three centuries!

The second factor was that related to the action of some pioneers, whom today, at the time of Facebook and Instagram, we would call “Influencers“. The most famous was a French pharmacist, Antoine Augustin Parmentier. Held prisoner at a young age in Prussia, he was forced in his cell to eat almost exclusively potatoes for a long period of time. The aim of his torturers was to punish Antoine … Who soon realized that his health, once he was released from prison, had not suffered any negative consequences. Indeed, looking rationally at the consequences that potatoes had on himself, Antoine decided to scientifically investigate the effects of this food on human health. His studies concluded that the potato was not only not harmful, nor a disease carrier, but could be a fundamental solution to solve the food problem of a large part of the poorest French population. Scientific evidence led to the “legalization of the potato”: think that until then it had been declared inedible by man even in a French law of 1748, which accused the tuber of spreading diseases.

His battle to get people to accept potatoes is full of interesting episodes.

Antoine acted at the highest levels. He convinced the Sorbonne University (La Sorbonne), initially skeptical, to declare the potato as a safe food. He even involved the King, who decided to help him: a potato flower was put on the Queen’s wig in several official ceremonies.

With a stroke of genius, Parmentier requested that some fields planted with potatoes be made manned by armed soldiers during the day, so as to convince the population of how much the potato was of value. The latter stratagem convinced several people to go at night to steal the potatoes themselves, and helped spread the word about their value.

In parallel, Parmentier began a series of public events, in which entire dinners with potato dishes were organized among the richest and most influential population, with international guests. Benjamin Franklin also attended one of these dinners, who was so impressed with this food that he became another “pioneer of the potato”, but on American soil.

The third element was certainly taste. How to make a new food popular? Make it tasty. It was in fact the invention of fried potatoes (not for nothing in English called “French fries”, French potatoes) one of the major pushes to the spread of this food among all levels of European society.

The effect of introducing the potato into the diet of Europeans was enormous. Consider that the population of Ireland alone rose from 500,000 in 1660 to over 9 million in 1840!

All right then? Not really … the history of the potato also teaches us how important balance is in the introduction of food innovations. Just in Ireland, first in 1845 and then in 1846 there were two consecutive years of total failure of the potato harvest. However, these crops had replaced almost everything else. Almost every field was planted with potatoes, and the result of the two years of great production decline was disastrous: over 1 million Irish died of starvation, over 1 million were forced to emigrate.

In short, the history of potatoes can teach us a lot about how a new food can be introduced into people’s diets. What are the things to do to help spread it, such as errors to avoid so that there are no negative consequences.

And are you curious to try the latest Italian innovation in the food industry? Try the new “Bivo Starter Kit Completo” on Bivo !!

Source: The Economist podcast