The Evolution of the American Diet

In the early 20th century, nutrition science sparked the modernization of the American diet. Soon after, World War I brought about the state’s management of food on a large scale, changing what and how Americans ate.

  • Lloyd Harrison, "Corn: The Food of the Nation," 1918. This Food Administration propaganda poster advertised some of the many uses of corn, one of the most prominent of the substitute foods administrators promoted.
    Photo courtesy Library of Congress
  • "Modern Food, Moral Food" by Helen Zoe Veit, weaves together cultural history and the history of science to bring readers into the strange and complex world of the American Progressive Era that left a profound mark on the American diet.
    Cover courtesy University of North Carolina Press

The American diet changed dramatically in the 20th century. As food production became more industrialized, nutritionists and home economists were all pointing Americans toward a newly scientific approach to diet. In Modern Food, Moral Food (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), Helen Zoe Veit argues that the food revolution was fueled by a powerful conviction that Americans had a moral obligation to use self-discipline and reason, rather than taste and tradition, in choosing what to eat. The following excerpt is from the introduction, “Victory Over Ourselves.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Modern Food, Moral Food.

American Diet in the Era of the Great War

Now is the hour of our testing. Let us make it the hour of our victory—victory over ourselves.
United States Food Administration slogan, 1918

In the 1890s, when a poor African American sharecropper in Mississippi ate a plate of beans, greens, gravy, and corn bread, her dinner seemed a world removed from a Gilded Age restaurant meal of steak, asparagus, Béarnaise sauce, and white rolls. Just two decades later, however, by the 1910s, chemical analyses of these foods would reveal disconcerting similarities in their nutritive content. In fact, the poor southern meal—lower in fat and higher in vitamins—would increasingly look like the healthier of the two. By breaking food down into units like vitamins, calories, proteins, and carbohydrates, nutritionists by the 1910s were able to argue convincingly that foods that had long seemed completely different could in fact be nutritionally equivalent. In so doing, they exposed striking similarities in foods from different classes and cultures and regions. It seems commonsensical in hindsight, but at the time this way of thinking about food was revolutionary.

Nutrition science sparked the modernization of American diets, but it was really only the beginning: the ways Americans bought, produced, ate, and thought about their food and their bodies all changed dramatically. And the most radical changes happened during the first two decades of the twentieth century, an extraordinarily short period of time. During these years, modern food science, Progressive impulses, and U.S. involvement in World War I all came together to fundamentally change American thinking on food. The war was particularly crucial. Immediately after entering the war in 1917, the government created a powerful wartime agency called the United States Food Administration, which aimed to ship food supplies to western European allies and neutrals, where supplies in some places ran desperately low. For almost two years, the war provided a laboratory on the American home front in which the state managed food on a national scale, making food and its management patriotic projects and extending the state’s reach into the home, onto dinner plates, and into kitchen cabinets. The Food Administration and the voluntary conservation campaigns that surrounded it marked the high point of a revolution in the ways Americans at all levels of society understood food.

The way we think about food now has its origins in this moment. Today, popular interest in food has never been higher, and Americans are newly vocal about the diverse pleasures of cooking, eating, and thinking about food, as well as the dire results of not thinking about it enough. Movies, magazines, websites, and television shows focusing on food have gained a firm place in mainstream media, while middle-class “foodies” unembarrassedly describe cooking and eating as central to their lives. Grocery stores offering a dizzying array of products, almost unimaginable a generation earlier, have flourished around the country. Meanwhile, driven by concerns ranging from food safety to food quality to environmental degradation to exploitative labor practices, Americans in growing numbers have become invested in knowing where their food comes from and how it is produced. As a result, interest in home food production has seen an unprecedented revival, from home baking, home canning, home brewing, and home cheese making to vegetable gardening to domestic livestock husbandry. At the same time, participation in farm shares and farmers’ markets has grown rapidly, while demand for organic and local products in even conventional supermarkets has boomed. Commitment to local, seasonal, and sustainable eating has been fueled by a new genre of books and documentary films that decry the production methods of industrial food systems. Americans’ food choices are regularly pointed to as vital factors in public health, social justice, national security, climate change, and even geopolitics. On a scale unrivaled since the Progressive Era, food choices have again become moral choices.

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