A Historical Look at American Eating

For this American Food Timeline, I will outline the major changes that occurred, including the push for Americans to eat high carb and the “scientific studies” that back up plant foods and fiber. Starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, foods were gaining popularity based on a few concepts: convenience, affordability, and taste

1870s to 1890s:
During the 1870s Cincinnati, William Procter and James Gamble decided to enter into business together. Both were in the soapmaking trade at the time. While soap had previously been created from rendered animal fat (also known as “tallow), Procter and Gamble were both creative and cunning. They decided to create a new type of soap from vegetable oils that was far cheaper to produce and would raise profit margins exponentially. 

A chemist named David Wesson created his own laboratory, where he created edible cottonseed oil through a process known as hydrogenation. Essentially, it converted plant based oils into a solid fat source through chemical manipulation. Wesson was often getting into legal battles against the dairy and butter industry. Wesson saw potential in this industry due to how inexpensive cotton oil was to produce and how it could be utilized for cooking at high temperatures. Before the process of hydrogenation, vegetable oil was considered inedible and “toxic” for humans. 

Roughly seventy percent of Americans are cooking with animal fat and butter/ghee. At this point in time, the heart disease mortality rate was lower than 10%.

Butter and eggs are in short supply due to World War I. As a cheaper alternative to feed the masses, vegetable oils are beginning to gain traction in America. Crisco creates a dairy-free that is very affordable to Americans at this time.

The Great Depression is going on. This led to a substantial decrease in nutrition for most families. The cheapest food is becoming the most mainstream, predominantly in the form of processed foods and vegetable oils. Most families do not have the luxury of being able to afford meat, dairy, and eggs.

World War II occurred. As a result, American companies are beginning to capitalize on the economic impact of these World Wars. Companies like Kellogg produce Cheerios and Raisin Bran. Other products like cake mixes, frozen fish sticks, and candy (M&Ms, Jolly Ranchers, Almond Joy, etc) begins to become more mainstream to the American public. In the late 1940s, Procter and Gamble gave generous donation of close to $2 million to a small, new organization at the time known as the American Heart Association (AHA). This meant that they AHA could expand globally and have a national presence. Shortly after, vegetable oils are recommended by the AHA as a “healthier” alternative to animal fats like tallow and dairy. Chris Kresser wrote a great article going into further detailing the corruption that occurred in the 1900s’ food scene. 

Ancel Keys, an American professor, is gaining popularity for his wits about nutrition and longevity. Essentially, he traveled to many 22 different countries and cherrypicked 7 of them to support his hypothesis that saturated fat (found in animal products) had detrimental effects toward human health. He claimed polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils had beneficial effects. In addition to this new “science” backing up these new industries, other “science” was beginning to emerge surrounding fiber. A doctor named Denis Burkitt traveled to Africa and studied indigenous tribes. He noticed that a lot of his patients in America were experiencing diverticulitis at high rates and was interested in why these indigenous people didn’t experience it at all. He also correlated that these tribes were having lots of bowel movements and consuming a lot of fiber. The selection of processed and foods is continuing to increase. Microwave dinners are introduced into the equation. Convenience and affordability becomes a theme for America at this point in time. 

During the 1960s, farmers are using pesticides, herbicides, insecticides to support monocrop agriculture. Monocropping allows farmers to plant their most profitable crop year-round. As a result, it depletes the soil and the plant contains less nutrients. But it does almost triple the overall yield of crops and helps support the idea of ending world hunger. Vegetables and fruits are now being mass produced and becoming an essential part of the American diet. While this was happening, the Sugar Research Foundation was “backing up” and funding Harvard scientists to downplay their research on refined sugar and its direct links toward chronic disease and obesity. Instead, saturated fat is to blame (of course).

The American Diabetic Association (ADA) recommended that a healthy carbohydrate intake should be 45% of one’s diet.

The American Diabetic Association (ADA) recommended daily value for carbohydrate intake jumped to 60%.

The food pyramid makes its debut and advocates for a high-carb, low-fat diet that supports the consumption of bread, cereal, rice, pasta. Meanwhile, vegetable oils are being used in most restaurants due to their shelf-life and affordability.

Obesity rates exceed 30% of the American population. The American Institute for Cancer Research proceeds to push that animal products like meat and animal fat cause cancer. But they do touch upon reducing the consumption of packaged and processed foods.

The American Heart Association continues to preach a low-fat, low cholesterol diet for curing heart disease. The obesity rate is America exceeds 40%. Additionally, 60% of Americans have some sort of chronic disease and 40% have multiple forms of chronic disease.

The nutrition in America has changed a lot in the past 100 years or so. So you may be asking yourself. What is leading to this epidemic of obesity and disease? After reading this article and timeline, I would say it’s safe to assume it may be correlated with what we are eating. We do know that eating excess calories can lead to obesity, right? Maybe it has something to do with disease as well. Afterall, obesity and disease are correlated, right?

Bottom Line:
Multiple changes occurred in the nutrition scene during the 1900s in America. The most notable changes are as follows:

  • The introduction of vegetable seed oils and refined sugar
  • The push for high carb diets
  • The push for high fiber diets
  • The condemnation/absence of saturated fats in the American dietreg
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