The Right Chemistry: The marketing of ‘meat juice’ and ‘beef tea’

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Meat extracts were once marketed as medicinal, but in face of scientific skepticism, they were then touted as a source of flavour for soups.

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Matt Valentine of Richmond, Va., loved his wife. He was totally distraught when she fell ill and appeared to be withering away, unable to eat solid foods. Back then in 1870, with doctors unable to offer much help, Valentine decided to take matters into his own hands. He had some rudimentary familiarity with nutritional science, which at the time embraced the notion of “muscle to muscle,” around since the ancient Greeks downed the muscular flesh of animals in the hope of gaining strength. “Just extract the essence of meat,” was the idea that now occurred to Valentine. Perhaps meat juice would be the key to restoring his wife’s strength! 

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The soon-to-be inventor reportedly went down to his basement and worked out a method of cooking meat and squeezing out its juice. Administering the concoction to his wife led to a remarkable improvement. Valentine thought the public should benefit from this discovery. Within a year he had set up a company and began producing Valentine’s Meat Juice, sold in what would become an iconic pear-shaped amber bottle. Booming sales after enthusiastic testimonials from patients and physicians made Valentine a wealthy man. 

The rather remarkable feature of this story is that Valentine seems to have reinvented the wheel. He was apparently unfamiliar with Liebig’s Extract of Meat, which had been introduced in Europe in 1865, based upon the ideas of German chemist Justus von Liebig, who at the time was one of the world’s leading scientists. Liebig had discovered the presence compounds of nitrogen in urine and postulated that these stemmed from the breakdown of muscle during activity, because muscle was known to consist of nitrogen-containing proteins. He was concerned that many people could not afford to eat enough meat to sustain health and in 1847 began to experiment with developing a concentrated, affordable, nutritious meat substitute. Liebig found that soaking lean meat in a vigorously stirred dilute hydrochloric acid solution resulted in a paste that could be strained to yield a concentrated meat extract.  

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When Liebig published his method, druggists and physicians began to make small batches of “beef tea.” In 1851, physician William Beneke reported in the Lancet his successful use of the tea in the treatment of tuberculosis, typhus and “stomach derangements.” Liebig concurred, championing the use of beef tea as medicine, but recognized that there was little commercial potential for the extract, because the process of making it was tedious and European beef was expensive.  

George Giebert, a German engineer who had built roads in Brazil, now approached Liebig with a possible solution. Lots of cattle were being raised in South America, mostly for their hides, with the meat often being discarded. Labour was also cheap, and Giebert suggested buying cattle farms in South America and shipping machinery from Europe to produce the extract. Liebig liked the idea and in 1865 the Liebig Extract of Meat Company was established, and soon the product hit the marketplace. At first, it was sold as a remedy for “weakness and digestive disorders,” but soon claims became more elaborate. Liebig himself touted its ability to allay “brain excitement,” and at a British Pharmaceutical Conference, speakers asserted that “probably no food available was as effective at restoring the tissues of the sick.” 

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Copycat products, such as Bovril, also mushroomed, with Liebig warning of imitators and urging consumers to buy only the genuine version, which was inspected by himself and featured his signature on the label. As the meat extracts increased in popularity, some scientists began to look on them with a wary eye, especially after analyses showed that Liebig’s extract actually contained little protein. Then, in 1868, German physiologist Edward Kemmerich published his results of an experiment in which dogs exclusively fed on the meat extract soon died. In 1872, physician Edward Smith declared that Liebig’s extract lacked the nutrients of meat and was like “the play of Hamlet without the character of Hamlet.” That attack paled in comparison with the rhetoric of another physician, Milner Fothergill, who opined that “all the bloodshed caused by the warlike ambition of Napoleon is as nothing compared to the myriads of persons who have sunk into their graves from a misplaced confidence in beef tea.”  

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In light of the fading aura of the extract as a medicine, the Liebig Company switched to promoting it as an “inexpensive source of meat flavour that sailors, explorers, soldiers, and domestic cooks could use to produce a nutritious and tasty soup by adding potatoes and vegetables to a broth made from the extract.” Then came the brilliant move by introducing “Liebig trading cards” that came with each bottle. These were beautifully coloured cards that at first depicted kitchen scenes with cooks preparing soup with ease, but then expanded into portrayals of scientists, writers, composers and idyllic historical scenes. The cards became a phenomenon among collectors and are regarded as one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history.  

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The Liebig Meat Extract Company no longer exists, but one of its products, the Oxo bouillon cube, developed in 1911, is still around, advertised in an ingenious fashion. In 1920, the Liebig Company purchased a building in London that featured a tower that they planned to equip with an illuminated advertising sign. When permission for this was refused, three windows on the tower were redesigned to be shaped like the letters “o” and “x” to spell out “OXO.” 

As for Mrs. Valentine, she died just two years after her husband introduced his meat juice. But the profits from the product were enough to allow him to indulge in his passion for collecting artifacts that were eventually displayed in The Valentine Museum in Richmond. Founded in 1898, the “museum that meat juice built,” has become a major attraction, with exhibits depicting the city’s rich history. 

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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