From Alpine Peaks to Green Eats: Embracing Swiss Heritage in Dr. Maximilian Bircher-Benner’s Nutritional Legacy

A Swiss flag, red with a white cross, sits atop a rock jutting from a mountain top.

Swiss National Day, celebrated on August 1, commemorates the founding of the Swiss Confederacy and marks the unity, independence and cultural diversity of the Swiss nation. The day has its roots in the Federal Charter of 1291, which is considered the founding document of the Swiss Confederacy. Some time in early August in that year, representatives from three central Swiss cantons, Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden, are said to have gathered at the Rutli meadow to pledge mutual defense and support against external threats. This was the starting point of the Swiss Confederacy, a process that unfolded over centuries through alliances, treaties, territorial expansion and the establishment of common institutions.

The modern celebration of Swiss National Day started in the late 19th century, but August 1 only became a national public holiday in 1994 when it was officially established as a federal holiday. On this day, various festivities take place across Switzerland, including official ceremonies, speeches, fireworks, parades, musical performances and cultural events. People gather to celebrate in public spaces, town squares, and even in private gatherings with friends and family. Swiss National Day serves as a reminder of Switzerland's long-standing tradition of neutrality, political stability, and the coexistence of diverse linguistic, cultural and regional identities within the confederation. It reinforces a sense of national pride and unity among Swiss citizens, fostering a collective appreciation for the country's historic origins and its democratic values.

Did you know that here at Nüssli118° we take our inspiration from one of the many rich histories and cultural traditions of Switzerland? Our founder Angela Hofmann’s husband is from Switzerland and our company name means “little nut” in Swiss German. Our minimally processed, whole and plant-based approach is inspired by the pioneering work of Maximilian Bircher-Benner, a Swiss doctor who recognized the healing benefits of a vegetarian diet. His promotion of a plant-based diet as a means of improving health dates back to the late 1800s, when the recognition of Switzerland’s unique and dynamic culture was beginning to be celebrated.

Interestingly, the  1800s saw the promotion of vegetarian and plant-based diets expand throughout Europe and the United States. Though vegetarian diets were long known throughout history and across cultures, the  word vegetarian was first used in 1847 when a vegetarian society was formed in England. In the late 1840s, a vegetarian commune, Fruitlands, was established in Harvard, Massachusetts; and in 1851, the American Vegetarian Society was founded in New York City. The vegetarian movement increased momentum over the decades, especially through the work of those such as cornflakes creator John Harvey Kellogg, who was a strong advocate of vegetarianism and its health benefits,  and Bircher-Benner.

Two black and white photos. In the right photo, a white-bearded man wearing glasses and a hat peers at us. In the right photo, women stand in a kitchen spooning food into bowls.

Left: Maximilian Bircher-Benner has some müesli. Right: Workers prepare breakfast muesli for the patients at Bircher-Benner’s clinic.

Maximilian Bircher-Benner was a physician and nutritional researcher who is best known for his development of the popular breakfast dish known as "Bircher muesli." Born on August 22, 1867, Bircher-Benner attended medical school in Zurich and later worked as a doctor in both Switzerland and India. He eventually became interested in the relationship between food, health and nutrition. 

During his travels to mountainous regions in Switzerland, Bircher-Benner noticed that the locals relied on fresh, unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products. They often consumed raw and naturally sourced ingredients. Bircher-Benner was particularly struck by their excellent health and vitality, which he believed was due in part to their diet. These experiences served as a catalyst for his research and experimentation with food and nutrition. He came to believe that fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains were key components of a healthy diet. Bircher-Brenner recognized the importance of plant-based foods and their potential health benefits. He determined that raw fruits and vegetables contained vital nutrients and enzymes that could support overall well-being and prevent illness.

Fresh vegetables are arranged on a stand at a market.

Inspired by what he observed in the mountainous regions, Bircher-Benner developed Bircher muesli, a dish made from raw oats, grated apples, lemon juice, nuts and condensed milk. This nutritious combination aimed to provide a balanced and easily digestible meal rich in fresh ingredients. In 1900, Bircher-Benner introduced his creation at a scientific conference in Zurich. Bircher-Brenner's muesli gained popularity and became widely known as a healthy and energizing breakfast option. His views on nutrition and the importance of a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, were ahead of his time. He emphasized the role of diet in preventing illness and promoting well-being. He advocated for the benefits of consuming raw, plant-based foods and believed in the healing properties of fresh fruit.

Today, Bircher muesli has evolved into various forms, often including a combination of oats, fruits, nuts, yogurt or milk, and sweeteners. It remains a popular and nutritious breakfast choice worldwide, and his legacy as a nutrition pioneer continues to inspire those who seek to promote healthy eating habits. 

Here at Nüssli118° we draw inspiration from the simplicity and healthfulness of Bircher-Benner’s approach to nutrition and use fresh, raw and plant-based ingredients to create foods that contribute to improved health and wellbeing. So join us today in celebrating Maximilian Bircher-Benner and the regional cultures that influenced his innovative understanding of the relationship between plants, nutrition, health and healing. 


Sources

https://nationaltoday.com/switzerland-national-day/

“[Dr. M. Bircher-Benner].” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 4075 (1939): 307–307. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20302420.

“Notes On Books.” The British Medical Journal 1, no. 3864 (1935): 157–157. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25343029.

Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner, https://www.cooksinfo.com/maximilian-oskar-bircher-benner 

Tori Avey, “From Pythagorean to Pescatarian: The Evolution of Vegetarianism”, https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/evolution-vegetarianism/

 


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