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Cheltine: The Diabetic Food That Wasn’t

Today, the use of science in food and drink marketing is so commonplace that we take it as a given, but this was not the case in the nineteenth century. In Britain, the introduction of scientific discourse into advertising following the Great Exhibition of 1851 was innovative and novel, creating an artificial demand for products on the basis that trusting consumers thought that they would improve their lives. However, in many cases, these products were little more than placebos.

At the time, diabetes was frequently mentioned in the popular press, with many articles warning healthy people that they might be ‘unconscious victims’ if they suffered from ‘thirst, depression, lassitude, irritability without apparent cause and diminution of both physical and mental faculties’. 

Most physicians argued about the importance of diet in diabetes management, yet nobody could agree on the best solution. For some, high-carbohydrate diets were seen as most effective for diabetic patients, while for others, diets high in fat and animal protein had more positive outcomes. Others still advocated radical diets that promoted starvation (liquids-only diet) as an effective treatment.

It was this lack of consensus amongst medical professionals, coupled with a growing public interest in science, that led canny manufacturers to produce ‘diabetic foods’. From 1880 onwards, the market became saturated with diabetic water, bread, flour, biscuits, chocolate and even whiskey. On the whole, these foods were not especially adapted for diabetics; instead, they reflected a desire to tap into consumer health concerns for purely financial gain.

In Britain, the leading ‘diabetic’ food brand of the early 20th century was Cheltine, which was launched by the Worth’s Food Syndicate of Cheltenham in December 1899 after a competition to name a new range of diabetic foods. Cheltine was a brown granular powder that could be stirred into hot milk or water and, according to its product launch announcement, was ‘harmless, flesh-forming and palatable’. It came in an eye-catching red and yellow tin, which featured a mock coat of arms with images of trees to suggest that it was natural, pure and healthy.

Advertisement for Cheltine (1900), source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1756685 

Almost initially upon launch, Cheltine was called out by The Lancet (30 June 1900) for its misleading packaging, which stated that the food ‘cannot turn into sugar’. Cheltine responded instantly by claiming that this was merely a clerical error.

Nonetheless, just one week later, the brand was challenged once again by The Lancet (6 July 1900) for claiming in advertisements that its starch was so modified that it could not be converted into diabetic sugar during digestion. Dr Dixon expressed concern that not only was this claim false, but that it also spread the dangerous belief that starch was suitable for diabetic patients.

Cheltine immediately tried to counter these accusations by building a case for its credibility. It exhibited its products at commercial fairs, promoted its baker Mr N.J. Bloodworth as a ‘scientific baker’ and used testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers in its advertisements. However, these testimonials, which claimed that the diabetics were ‘perfectly cured within months’, only used initials, making it very difficult to trace their identities if indeed they were real at all. 

Cheltine’s bold claims were also propagated by a 1904 Industrial Gloucestershire publication, which described Cheltine as a ‘pioneer’ that had helped diabetics gain a complete recovery thanks to its ‘special peculiarities both in nature, proportion of ingredients and manner of treatment’. 

Again, doctors struck back. The British Medical Journal (10 March 1906; 21 May 1910) described these assertions as ‘startling’ and warned that Cheltine should not be recommended for diabetics, as its chemical composition was unsafe. Moreover, the product was ‘unpleasant to the taste’ with its ‘rancid almond flavour’ and appearance of ‘pulverised rusk or toast’, which made it wholeheartedly ‘unworthy of consideration’. This verdict was far removed from Cheltine’s own description in its advertisements as a ‘perfect cooked food’ that was ‘thoroughly pleasant to the taste’.

Despite the constant concerns of doctors, Cheltine’s diabetic food remained popular throughout the first two decades of the 20th century and advertisements were featured regularly in the local and national press. However, this came to an abrupt halt in the 1920s following the discovery of insulin by Dr Frederick Banting and Dr Charles Best. 

Insulin helped diabetics to better manage their condition, allowing for more flexibility in diet and extending life expectancy. Now, with a bona fide medical solution, diabetics began to rely increasingly on insulin and medical advice rather than on patent foods like Cheltine.

But Cheltine was not prepared to give up so easily. It quickly turned its attention instead to anaemia, marketing what it called a ‘medicated food’ that would ‘regenerate the blood, revive drooping strength and diminish languor’. Unsurprisingly, there was no scientific evidence to support this claim and there was little to distinguish the ‘anaemic’ food from Cheltine’s previous ‘diabetic’ food. Nonetheless, in promptly rebranding itself, Cheltine was able to appeal to a new segment of consumers and retain its market share. 

Nowadays, more rigorous controls and legislation around food and medicine mean that consumers are not duped to the same extent as their Victorian and Edwardian counterparts. Yet, the market is still saturated with ‘science-based’ commercial products, such as collagen supplements, nootropic drinks and activated charcoal, that we still know very little about. 

Therefore, studying food marketing from an historical perspective reminds us of the importance of reflecting upon and keeping a critical distance from such products, and the hope and promises that come with them. They could well be the Cheltine of the future.

Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan is a Research Associate in the Department of Sociological Studies at University of Sheffield. Her research interests and publications focus largely on class conflict, literacy practices and consumer culture in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain, using a multimodal ethnohistorical lens.

Cover Image: Insulin pen, source: Unsplash, https://unsplash.com/photos/J4HwEwZtIs8

Lauren Alex OHagan

The author Lauren Alex OHagan

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