Dr. Lauren Alex O’Hagan
Today, the use of science in food marketing is so commonplace that we take it as a given. Food packaging and advertisements are replete with buzzwords, testimonials, and infographics—as well as more subtle typographical, textural, and compositional cues—that frame products as scientifically “proven” to help consumers maintain a healthy lifestyle. These strategies, however, have a broader history dating back to the late nineteenth century—a period in which rapid scientific discoveries and inventions coincided with the birth of modern advertising and mass consumerism.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 is often described as the catalyst for the introduction of scientific discourse into food marketing. Visitors from around the world were awed by the latest technological advancements on display and canny food manufacturers swiftly capitalized upon this growing public interest in science, which offered a new way to successfully compete in an increasingly competitive market. At the time, there were no false advertising regulations in place, which enabled companies to freely use scientific discourse to draw connections between health and modernity and imbue products with authority and credibility, regardless of whether they had any real health value. This practice was further popularized throughout the early twentieth century as nutrition was established as a field of science, particularly upon the discovery of vitamins. The use of science in marketing quickly gained a foothold across Europe and North America, and soon new products were created, or old products were rebranded, as health-restoring elixirs.
One such product was the supposed health food Biomin, which was released onto the Swedish market in April 1937.
Following its launch, Biomin was advertised extensively across Swedish newspapers and magazines; advertisements for the elixir featured most frequently in Svenska Dagbladet, the country’s most widely-read broadsheet aimed at a middle-class public. The middle classes were highly conscious of keeping up with scientific advances and had a strong attraction to fashionable, rather than necessary, goods to improve their wellbeing. Therefore, they provided a ready-made consumer market for this new foodstuff.
Produced by the A-B. A. Lindahls factory in Stockholm, Biomin was a powdered “health salt,” as the advertisements proclaimed, which was developed over “two years of scientific research.” It was said to solve a “hugely important problem” for “working people” who lacked biocomer in the human body, described by the advertisements as the “vital alkaline salts found in plants and vegetables that bind to vitamins and minerals.”
Biomin marketers argued that humans needed a surplus of biocomer to remain healthy, but the cellulose found in biocomer was harmful because it contained acids that risked poisoning the human body. They claimed that, thanks to the “collaboration of scientists and skillful technicians,” they had now found a way to extract biocomer from plants and turn its cellulose into purified and concentrated health salts, thereby turning “the impossible into a reality” and helping people stay healthy.
All of the advertisements in Svenska Dagbladet in 1937 reported that “it is a fact” that “practically everyone” suffers from a lack of biocomer. They stressed Biomin’s importance for “proper internal functions,” as well as its ability to “neutralize excess acid” and “counteract the accumulation of toxic substances” that cause fatigue, headaches, sluggish digestion, and even rheumatism. Consequently, anybody who wanted to replenish the body’s biocomer and “drive away” these “oppressive troubles” needed Biomin.
While these bold statements sounded impressive and scientific, there was and is no evidence to support them, as the enigmatic substance biocomer does not exist. In my research, I have found no evidence of the word in either historical or contemporary scientific or medical texts, nor does a Google search in Swedish or English yield any results for a bodily substance called ‘biocomer.’
Before the implementation of strict false advertising regulations across Europe and North America, the use of scientific-sounding buzzwords was a common marketing strategy to create a sense of urgency surrounding health products. For example, the US brand Pepsodent claimed their toothpaste contained the make-believe ingredient “irium,” which whitened yellow teeth, while the British brand Horlicks invented the fictional condition of “night starvation” to convince anxious consumers to buy their malt drink.
Using fictitious scientific names and inventing health problems that their products solved was an effective strategy because it tapped into early twentieth-century social connotations and anxieties around health and wellbeing. At this time, nutrition was strongly embedded in nationalist rhetoric: it was one’s moral duty to be fit—to neglect one’s health through poor dietary choices was deemed selfish and inexcusable. Food companies swiftly aligned their marketing with such beliefs, promoting what Loeb describes as a “consumerist natural selection,” wherein citizens risked illness and even death if they did not place faith in the science behind certain products.
Biomin advertisements also stressed the “dangers” of cellulose, including its supposed acidity, which allegedly accumulated in the body and threatened to release “poisons.” Advertisements even made the outlandish claim that “alkaline people are always happy,” but “acid people [are] miserable,” citing “constant bad health” as the reason for their bad mood (see Figure 2). In the 1930s, alkaline diets were popularized particularly in Northern Europe due to the work of Ragnar Berg and Carl Röse, who developed a theory of acid-base balance in relation to diet.  Berg and Röse recommended a diet of 80% alkaline foods and 20% acidic foods, made up predominantly of milk, potatoes, fruit, vegetables, coffee, tea, cocoa, and soy. They claimed that such a diet combatted “diseases of civilization,” such as obesity, arthritis, and diabetes. Although their theory was not accepted by the medical community, it was taken up by naturopaths, who advocated the use of natural agents to treat disease. 
The second danger of cellulose, according to Biomin, was its “indigestibility,” which caused “autointoxication,” or as it is known today, constipation. While it is true that humans do not have the enzymes needed to break down cellulose, in reality the substance helps push food through the digestive system, thereby supporting regular bowel movements. This is, therefore, the exact opposite of what Biomin claimed. Nonetheless, the advertisements attempted to exploit the public’s fear of autointoxication, then seen as the foremost disease of industrialized societies and the cause of 90% of all illness.
The advertisements also tried to build Biomin’s credibility by explaining that the product was endorsed by Professor Georg von Wendt, a “renowned and highly appreciated authority in the field of nutritional physiology,” and included his testimony and a large photograph of him (see Figures 1 and 2). As an older, upper-class, White man, Von Wendt was viewed as an authority, leaving little room for consumers to doubt the claims put forward. Indeed, Loeb has found that most consumers assigned status to scientists and doctors based on their job titles and therefore did not question the veracity of the information presented. Biomin’s reputation was also established through statements about Biomin being “carefully monitored under the supervision of Professor Carl Naeslund,” which created an illusion of safety.
Advertisements also contained specific instructions on how to drink Biomin. As seen in Figures 1 through 3, consumers were told that Biomin comes in a bottle that “enables 70 glasses” and that they must “add one spoonful to a glass of water until it foams.” Advertisements also claimed that Biomin must be consumed every day by those over the age of ten in order to “support normal metabolism” and “maintain a healthy balance between acid and alkaline in the body.” Consumers were also advised to “take a biocom cure!” and that they would “notice a marked difference after just a few days.” These quasi-medical statements are reminiscent of instructions that come with prescriptions, thereby constructing the brand as an authority on health.
In addition to scientific language, Lindahls also promoted Biomin as a “health drink” using cleverly staged images. Photographs taken inside the Lindahls factory, for example, showed men dressed in white lab coats engaging in stereotypical “scientific” tasks, such as peering into microscopes, measuring liquids in beakers, and pouring them into large metal industrial vats (see Figure 3). The accompanying captions in Figure 3 stressed the whiteness of the facilities and how they “exude cleanliness and meticulous order,” proving that the factory was “first class” and “hypermodern.” At this time, whiteness was often used in advertisements to symbolize purity and a lack of artificial ingredients or additives. It also carried broader sociocultural connotations tied to morality and spiritual purity.
Other photographs (see Figure 3) showed close-ups of the production line, where the vegetables were cleaned, rinsed, and pressed to extract the cellulose using a “hydraulic press system” that “generates a pressure of 250kg per cm2.” Images depicted industrial sinks with “Seitz filters” used to purify the juice and machinery where “a series of special treatments” were carried out to extract the biocomer, before various ingredients were mixed together to “bind each particle to the Biomin extract.”
These behind-the-scenes images of the Biomin factory served to accentuate the product as a science-based food that employed state-of-the-art production methods and offered a solution to a particular—albeit fictitious—medical problem. This marketing strategy was used by many brands throughout the early twentieth century, including the malt drink Virol and Heinz tomato ketchup.
Biomin used its advertising to emphasize the product’s links with nature, with such headings as “follow nature’s pointer,” “nature shows the way,” and “nature opens new rich treasure chests.” This strategy was common in early twentieth-century marketing and can also be found in advertisements for radium-based products and protein foods. Increased industrialization brought about new health problems, caused by overcrowding, pollution, and dangerous occupations. Thus, people began to develop a new appreciation of nature and value green spaces as essential to good health. Nature also became an essential part of the growing Physical Culture Movement, which sought a “back-to-basics” way of living that brought harmony between the body and the mind. Food manufacturers, therefore, aimed to encourage an alimentary route back to nature with their products.
Nature is also emphasized in Biomin advertisements through photographs of farmers standing in fields of cauliflowers, captioned “large quantities of selected, fresh vegetables are used in the production of the salt”(see Figure 3). A “special preparation of soil” was key to “high-quality, biocomer-rich vegetable products,” as claimed by the advertisements. Other advertisements demonstrated the product’s association with nature by depicting a bottle of Biomin with a glass of colored water and a dish of vegetables (see Figure 4). The green bottle and the bright vegetables foregrounded the origins of the product, while the glass symbolized transparency and honesty. Combining images of vegetables, fields, and scientific photographs, the advertisements drew a clear link between the original ingredients and finished product, presenting Biomin as both the result of modern science, as well as in harmony with nature.
Despite the extensive marketing of Biomin in the first half of 1937, by the end of the year, all Biomin advertisements ceased. No sales records, consumer testimonials, nor newspaper articles exist about the product, meaning that little is known beyond the content of its advertisements. While it may seem surprising that marketers openly exaggerated Biomin’s abilities and downright lied about other aspects, there were no laws in place to regulate such false claims in Sweden at the time. In fact, A-B. A. Lindahls had a reputation of dealing in somewhat dubious products, including the quackish antiseptic wound ointments Lazarin and Lazarol, and the powder Röda Björn. It was not until 1941 and 1948 that a legal board was set up to regulate pharmaceuticals and pesticides, respectively. Although proposals were put forward to regulate non-prescription medications and nutrition supplements in the same way, these were rebutted by the Swedish Advertising Federation. At the time, the possibility of regulating food and cosmetics was not even debated.  It was not until 1971 that Sweden implemented an extensive, state-run structure for protecting consumer rights (which included food products), paving the way for today’s marketing laws and consumer policies.
While we may shake our heads at the pseudoscience outlined in Biomin advertisements from the 1930s, they provide a window into how and why advertisers continue to exploit both nutritional science and medicine in contemporary times. Today’s market is still saturated with “science-based” commercial products that we know very little about, such as collagen supplements, food-grade activated charcoal, and nootropic drinks (functional beverages that supposedly optimize brain function and health). Studying food marketing from a historical perspective demonstrates the long relationship among science, food marketing, and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. Despite today’s stringent false advertising regulations, marketers continue to successfully employ these same strategies, raising important questions about what can been done to protect consumers from such tactics.
 Lauren Alex O’Hagan, “Blinded by Science? Constructing Truth and Authority in Early 20th-Century Virol Advertisements,” History of Retailing and Consumption 7, no. 2 (2021): 162-192.
 Thomas Richards, The Commodity Culture of Victorian Britain (London: Verso, 1990), 39.
 Lori Anne Loeb, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 10.
 Peter Gurney, The Making of Consumer Culture in Modern Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 35.
 “Pepsodent,” Graces Guide, last modified February 6, 2019, https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/Pepsodent.
 “Horlicks: Guards Against Night Starvation: Steven Turner,” BFI Player, last modified 2022, https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-horlicks-guards-against-night-starvation-steven-turner-1960-online.
 Lauren Alex O’Hagan, “Pure in body, pure in mind? A sociohistorical perspective on the marketisation of pure foods in Great Britain,” Discourse, Context and Media 34 (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2019.100325.
 Loeb, Consuming Angels, 55.
 Gunnar Blix and Sylvia Molin, Food Cultism and Nutrition Quackery (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1970), 66.
 J.L. Slavin and J.A. Marlett, “Influence of refined cellulose on human bowel function and calcium and magnesium balance,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 33, no. 9 (1980): 1932-9.
 James Whorton, Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
 Theo van Leeuwen, Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).
 Loeb, Consuming Angels, 78.
 Göran Eriksson and Lauren Alex O’Hagan, “Selling “Healthy” Radium Products with Science: A Multimodal Analysis of Marketing in Sweden, 1910–1940,” Science Communication (2021), https://doi.org/10.1177/10755470211044111.
 O’Hagan, “Pure in body.”
 O’Hagan, “Blinded by Science?”
 O’Hagan, “Pure in body.”
 Eriksson and O’Hagan, “Selling “Healthy” Radium Products with Science.”
 Lauren Alex O’Hagan, “Fleshformers or Fads? Historicizing the Contemporary Protein-Enhanced Food Trend,” Food, Culture and Society (2021), https://doi.org/10.1080/15528014.2021.1932118.
 David Pomfret, “The city of evil and the great outdoors: the modern health movement and the urban young, 1918–40,” Urban History 28, no. 3 (2001): 405-427.
 O’Hagan, “Fleshformers or Fads?”
 A-B. A. Lindahls, however, is still around. Their product Pommac, a carbonated soft drink made of fruits and berries, is still popular in Sweden today.
 “KrM 44/2003 34 – Burk med Lazarin,” Regionmuseet Skåne, last modified June 30, 2022, https://samlingar.regionmuseet.se/items/show/60377?sort_field=namn&sort_dir=a&ref=%2Findividuals%2Fshow%2F5231%3Flayout%3Dlist&edit_individual_id=5231&query=.
 Michael Funke, “Regulating a Controversy: Inside Stakeholder Strategies and Regime Transition in the Self-Regulation of Swedish Advertising 1950–1971,” [Doctoral dissertation, Uppsala University, 2015].
 Maja Jovanovic, “Selling Fear and Empowerment in Food Advertising: A Case Study of Functional Foods and Becel® Margarine,” Food, Culture and Society 17, no. 4 (2004): 641-663; Jen-Yi Chen “Investigating the Discursive Productions of Science in Advertising,” Intercultural Communication Studies 24, no. 2 (2015): 207-224; Ariel Chen and Göran Eriksson, “The Making of Healthy and Moral Snacks: A Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis of Corporate Storytelling. Discourse, Context & Media, 32 (2019), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211695819300698