BackStory; Health Nuts: A History of Nutritional Advice
This is Back Story. I'm Brian Bellow. Only 18 calories per teaspoon of domino pure cane sugar. Lift up your energy, feel great while you're holding down your weight. In the 1950s, domino sold its sugar by playing up how good it was for you. And if that strikes you as strange, just consider the way healthy eating was understood a hundred years earlier. If people are eating the wrong foods, they will become more and more sexually licentious, and they will ultimately become kind of babbling idiots. Today on the show, 200 years of nutritional advice will ask why early Americans connected diet and sex, and why vegetarians, a generation later, connected diet was slavery. What was the cause of a violent and corrupt society? Well, for vegetarians, it was meat. A history of health food, today on Back Story. Major funding for Back Story is provided by the ShiaCon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is Back Story, with the American History Guys. Welcome to the show. I'm Brian Ballot, and I'm here with Ed Ayers. Hi, Brian. And Peter Onif. Hey, there, Brian. And today, we're here to commiserate with all of you who sometimes urine for, well, a simpler time. It seems to me we are confronted every day with new knowledge that robs us of a lifelong assumption, that there are some simple truths that can be taken for granted. This is BBC commentator Alistair Cook, filing one of his weekly letters from America in the summer of 1957. Take milk, for example, until very likely no nation on earth had drunk so much milk as the Americans had done in the past 44 years. Alistair Cook was talking about milk because milk was at yet another turning point.
Its first turning point had come, as he said, 44 years earlier. That's when the federal government embarked on a campaign to rid the nation's milk of tuberculosis bacteria. By 1920, milk, which had only two decades earlier, been notorious for spreading tuberculosis and typhoid, was now being widely referred to as, quote, nature's perfect food. And now, in 1957, all that was being turned on its head. The milk fad is waning so fast in the United States that the great dairy states feel as unsympathetic to doctors as the tobacco industry. Some busybody has discovered that what seems to clog human arteries and cause clots and heart attacks is a chemical snag known as cholesterol. And milk is mother's milk to cholesterol.
Sure enough, per capita milk consumption was had peaked after World War II fell steadily in the decades have followed. At last count, it was a little more than half of what it had been in the 1950s. If the cholesterol crusade catches on, it's going to be a dim future for Wisconsin and Minnesota and many other regions of the cow country. And I should guess that by about 1984, Miss America will be a midget working around on stumps. But of course, she will be sound in heart and limb. Alistair Cook may have been wrong about that stumps thing. Miss America in 1984 was the very average in height for NASA Williams. But as for the bigger picture, Cook was more right than he could have imagined. Because once again, we're being faced with new knowledge that robs us of that which we thought we could take for granted. I'll bet you think milk makes you fat.
Guess again, friend. Two new studies have a counterintuitive finding, people who make a habit of consuming high fat dairy tend to be leaner. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports. Breakfast time can be normal. This is NPR's morning edition reporting on a sweeter study in 2014, concluding that yes, consuming dairy fat may make you skinnier. Around the same time, a different study made headlines for suggesting that there was no evidence linking saturated fat to an increased risk of heart disease. With advices all over the map is this, it can be tempting to throw up your hands and give up on healthy eating altogether. But today on backstory, we're taking a different tack. We're embracing healthy eating in all of its manifestations through time. The history of nutritional advice is our topic for the rest of the hour. We've got a surprising story about the early days of vegetarianism and one that explores the origins of that nutritional advice on today's food packaging. We've even got an in-studio serial tasting already to go.
But first, we're going to spend a few minutes examining the teachings of a man who was America's first health food guru. His name was Sylvester Graham and he was a minister in New England who took his message to many thousands of people on the lecture circuit, which is sort of the cable television of its time. Now Graham was hugely popular. Thousands turned out to hear his lectures and he developed a devoted following. Some of those followers published journals to further disseminate his message. Others found him boarding houses where they could collectively follow a Graham approved lifestyle. Which we should say is pretty impressive. After all, the grandma diet was kind of tough. A true adherent would sleep on a hard bed and take cold baths. He or she'd eat lots of vegetables and plenty of hearty wheat bread. But there were also some pretty strict prohibitions. No alcohol, no tear coffee, no sugar, no spices, and absolutely no meat. Now the first thing you need to understand about Graham is that he wasn't doing all of this so people could shave a few pounds off their figures.
There was a lot more at stake than that. There was an epidemic sweeping the nation he said and food was key to stopping it. What was this epidemic? Heart disease? No cancer? No. It was youthful masturbation. Here's how Graham described the victim of this terrible affliction. The wretched transgressor sinks into a miserable faturity and eventually becomes a confirmed and degraded idiot whose deeply sunken and vacant glossy eye and livid, shriveled countenance and ulcerous toothless gums and fetid breath and emaciated and dwarfish and crooked body and almost hairless head to note a premature old age, a blighted body and a ruined soul. And he drags out the remnant of his loathsome existence in exclusive devotion to his horribly abominable sensuality.
From the 21st century, we think the idea of an epidemic of masturbation is completely nuts. This is Kila Wazana Tompkins, who has written about the reasons Graham's ideas struck a chord in the young nation. But we could think of it as a kind of early sex panic in the way that in the Cold War there was also kind of a homosexual panic, right? And it's partly the result of major economic changes in the US, which is that all of a sudden there's an enormous amount of single young people leaving family farms and moving to the cities and becoming involved in the industrialized life of the nation. So all of these young people, men and women are living on their own for the first time out of parental control. And so this is sort of a kind of massive anxiety about what's going to happen to the reproductive energies of all of these young people. Are they not going to reproduce or are all those energies not going to go towards the well-being of the nation?
So what's striking to us is the fact that people are linking diet so explicitly to these fears they have of a population out of control that's going to end up as a population of blathering idiots. Why did diet emerge as both the metaphor and as the solution to this rampant problem? What Graham is most worried about is overstimulation. And for him, there's a deep parallel between sexual overstimulation and oral overstimulation. So eating too many spicy foods, eating too many foods that will overstimulate your body will result in a kind of weakening of the body. So the ways in which we today, for instance, talk about drugs like crack, right, that someone does crack for the first time and the feeling is so amazing, they spend the rest of their addictive life searching for that first experience is exactly the ways in which Graham is talking about diet and how he's talking about sex, which is to say, the first time you have that overstimulating experience is so good, you just keep trying to find that high again, but that overstimulation in fact weakens you. And so you keep going out to try to find that exciting experience and the more you do it, the more you weaken yourself until you entirely lost your strength.
All kinds of stimulating and heating substances, high-seasoned food, rich dishes, the free use of flesh, and even the excess of element, all more or less, and some to a very great degree increase the concupacent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs and augment their influence on the functions of organic life and on the intellectual and moral faculties. So why such a sense of urgency that Americans might become lazy and debilitated by eating the wrong diet and behaving wrong sexually? Well, this has a lot to do with this period of massive U.S. expansion into the Western states. I mean, I think it's really important to understand that the United States is a young country and they're engaged in what they see as this enormous social experiment. And part of that experiment is coming up with an idea of what the ideal citizen is. The ideal citizen of the 1830s is a man, is European-American, is land-holding, is virile, probably not a dissipated masturbator alcoholic, but actually married and reproducing and directing their sexual energies towards making more American citizens.
So he's very worried that the citizens of this enormous imperial social experiment are going to consume themselves into weakness and thereby ruin the social project. So Graham does not really define what he believes in by what he's against, right? He has a vision of what a healthy American diet should look like. Does he describe what his dream would be that the American nation would be feeding upon? Well, he believes that Americans should eat American food in some ways he's the first locovor in American food history. So wheat, bread, potatoes, simple vegetables, rice, absolutely no stimulants. And interestingly, most of the stimulants that he wants to avoid are stimulants that would have had to be imported from either Asia or South America or the Caribbean.
You know, there's one food I didn't hear you say that I would think of as a quintessentially American food and that's corn. Where is corn in the Graham diet? You know, Graham's word for his ideal foods is fernaceous. Any kind of food that can be made into a flour is a fernaceous food and that includes corn. But really what he's most interested in is wheat. And that's really important because this period of American expansion is a period in which expansion into the West is being led by wheat agriculture. And part of the expansion into the West is about pushing out native peoples and displacing native nations. And corn, of course, is the indigenous greens of the Americas and in many ways essential food of indigenous peoples. So corn is important to him, but he's much more interested kind of symbolically in wheat.
So that's very strange. He's a locovor who doesn't want to eat an indigenous food. Yes, isn't that interesting? Well, think about the phrase American is apple pie and then think about a figure like Johnny apple seed. You know, the apple like wheat is another food that's brought over by European colonists and is planted as part of kind of the story of manifest destiny of Western progress of Anglo-Europeans all the way to the Pacific. So in many ways, this ascetic diet is a kind of imperial diet. It's about transplanting Europeans into the Americas and making European Americans in some ways indigenous to the Americas at a moment where there's widespread, you know, genocidal violence against indigenous peoples. So it's not that he doesn't believe in corn. It's just that he's very invested in the story of American progress into the West and wheat is at the heart of that story. They who have never eaten bread made of wheat recently produced by a pure virgin soil have but a very imperfect notion of the deliciousness of good bread, such as his often to be met with in the comfortable log houses in our Western country.
Rice, barley, oats, rye, Indian corn and many other fernaceous products of the vegetable kingdom may also be manufactured into bread but none of them will make so good bread as wheat. Kila Wazana Topkins is an associate professor of English at Pomona College. She is the author of racial indigestion, eating bodies in the 19th century. In the first part of our show, we heard about Sylvester Graham, the godfather of American health food and about how for Graham, healthy eating was integral to what it was to be a good American. We're going to focus in now on one aspect of the Graham might diet that for many of his followers was especially tied to their civic identity, vegetarianism. By the time the American vegetarian society or the AVS was founded in 1850, vegetarianism had become intimately tied to another reform movement, abolitionism.
To the members of the AVS, the connection between the two wasn't subtle. Here's AVS founder William Alcott speaking to the group's members in 1850. There is no slavery in this world like the slavery of a man to his appetite. Let man but abstain from the use of the flesh and fish and the slavery of one man to another cannot long exist. Sounds totally bizarre, but they wholeheartedly believed in this notion that slavery was only possible in a violent and corrupt society. This is Adam Spritzen, who has written about the history of vegetarianism. And what was the cause of a violent and corrupt society? Well, for vegetarians, it was meat because meat caused individuals to become violent and corrupted. In other words, if Americans stopped eating meat, slavery would eventually die. And in 1854, the Kansas Nebraska Act gave vegetarians a chance to accelerate that process.
The decision to make those territories slave or free would be put to a vote by the settlers there. And so members of the American vegetarian society flocked west, eager to make the territories a model for the rest of the country. Adam Spritzen told me that they were led by an AVS member named Henry S. Club. Club's ideas to kind of take these principles, especially the principle of vegetarianism connected with abolitionism and put it into practice. So he decides that they're going to form a colony in pre-state Kansas, understanding that soon enough, there is going to be a vote on the territory status within the Union, whether it would go slave or free state. So it's part of a larger movement of groups going out from the Northeast to try to make a demographic flood in favor of a free state. As a way to bring slavery to an end, I have to admit that seems like kind of a long way around, doesn't it?
It is kind of involved. So what they're essentially trying to do is settle this land and build their own small city. The first group of settlers arrive, they're very enthusiastic about their cause, of course. But then when the next wave of settlers come from the Northeast, the settlement itself is rickety, there's maybe some old sheds with barely with roving on it. Henry S. Club himself is living in an abandoned Native American wigwam. There's a significant disenchantment really quickly, and within three to four months, especially as mosquito season really starts to hit and people suffer certain diseases that are associated with that. Again, they're right on the banks of a river. A lot of the reformers end up kind of turning around and heading back east. But what also happens is that these settlers that remain end up taking up arms themselves and joining the Union Army, including Henry S. Club. Yeah, because all this just happens in 10 years, right? I mean, so they come out there in the early 1850s and pretty soon war descends upon them.
Exactly. But what difference does the Civil War make? I mean, as you think about something that seems to be the direct opposite of everything that these people believe in, the Civil War would seem to embody that, wouldn't it? Yeah, absolutely. It's a real sort of contradiction in terms for the vegetarians who's background is indelibly intertwined with the ideology of pacifism. Remember, again, the idea is that if you eat meat, you're going to be violent and aggressive. Henry S. Club, who's the original founder of the settlement, is sort of a living embodiment of this dichotomy between abolitionism and vegetarianism. So Club joins the Union Army. He serves as a quarter master. So he's literally arming soldiers, providing strategic and material support, but Club himself refuses to carry a weapon during the war. So clearly, he's really kind of wrestling with these two values that he finds to be of equal importance. So on one hand, the war obviously brings slavery to an end. It seems to be in the culmination of the things that the American vegetarians society and their fellow travelers most believed in. Does this seem like, okay, now the way is prepared for the efflorescence of vegetarianism in the United States? Does it really take off after the war?
So vegetarians in the media post civil war years have lost their sort of distinctiveness and their focus on vegetarianism as a center of social reform. The American vegetarian society dissolves. Part of that is because vegetarians are far more concerned with and intertwined with these larger issues facing the Union, abolitionism being at the very top of that list. So vegetarianism, which became more prominent and popular precisely because it links to these other ideologies and movements, ends up dissolving essentially as an organization by the late 1860s. So vegetarians are fractured from each other. But because there is no organization, this allows for a new vegetarianism to crop up that focuses on the diet for its health benefits for the individual. And then those health benefits will then also help the individual advance socially and economically. And this is a real difference from the previous vegetarians who saw their diet as a way to help others rather than only themselves.
So how much of a sense of reforming zeal is still in the vegetarian movement, say, the turn of the century? There's definite enthusiasm for reform, but it's the reform of the self. And it's the reform of the self as a way to compete in society, the end of the 19th century. Vegetarianism is touted as a way for the individual to become socially successful to advance in business, to advance physically even so that vegetarianism becomes attached to athletics, bodybuilders during this time period. So it's literally the physical manifestation of the ways in which vegetarianism helps the individual succeed is by building muscular, strong bodies best ready to compete in the world. So in 50 years, vegetarianism reorient itself from a collective purpose to an individual purpose. Is that the shortest way to explain what happens? Absolutely. And for such a relatively short time period, that is a fairly remarkable shift in this ideology and within this movement.
And it's embraced so that the good old veteran of vegetarianism, Henry S. Club, enthusiastically embraces the new vegetarianism as a way for individuals to succeed. I'm going to be around my vegetables. I'm going to shout down my vegetables. I love you most of all. Adam Spiritson is the author of the vegetarian crusade, the rise of an American reform movement, 1817 to 1921. If you brought a big brown bag of them home, I jump up and down and hope you toss me a carrot. I'm going to keep well my vegetables card off and sell my vegetables. I love you most of all my favorite vegetables. You know, you can't have a show about nutrition without thinking about the most important meal the day.
You know what we're talking about? Breakfast. I think you're right. That's what I get up for every morning if it weren't the spur of a delicious cereal. I know what you eat. And cereal is what we think of when we think of breakfast. Do you think that was true back at Plymouth Rock? We wanted to investigate this question. So we've invited our producer, Andrew Parsons, to join us in the studio. Talk about the history of cereal. Yeah, did you invite him to bring in that big bottle of milk or also a paper? You know that I'm lactose intolerant. Andrew, here's my seat. It's all yours. So we got an empty seat. Let's talk cereal. Hey Peter. How you doing? How you doing? Right. So yeah, I did a little research into the history of cereal. And it's one that's sort of wrapped up in, you know, some chicaneery and lawsuits and a little bit of quackery. And I have several cereals here to show you guys. You mean real cereals? Yeah, we're going to eat in studio. Oh wow. That was only real. But before we do that, we should probably talk about what breakfast was like pre cereal.
You mean there was a pre cereal era? Oh yes, oh yes. And we have to go all the way back to, you know, the mid 19th century, where we have some greasy, greasy breakfast. In fact, I talked to cereal historian Tofer Ellis, who pretty much described it this way. Pork, fried pork, bacon, steak, really heavy meats, fish, cheese, bread, jams, basically the whole diet was more of a heavy set, very gut-wrenching pile of, you know, your fried pork, your fried skins, things like that. Yeah, and a lot of the things that Tofer listed would all be on one plate. I mean, you have like four greasy meats together with your eggs and toasts. They didn't worry about presentation. It's as much as I just, just giant piles. And this was a problem because you're going from, you have this sort of farm breakfast and throughout the industrial revolution, you're going to factories and your offices. And offices too, and you're not working off, you know, all of this heavy, heavy stuff that you're eating.
Yeah, so people get heavier and heavier, but they also start feeling worse and worse. Yeah, there's even a term for it, it's called dyspapsia. Oh yeah. And it's sort of this vague sort of national tummy ache, but also massing digestion. It's massing digestion exactly. How does your state of mind, it goes right up to the head? It does go right up to the head because it, you know, supposedly affects the way we act. And so, you know, the solution for it is these, you know, as we heard with Sylvester Graham, it's religious reformers who tried to sort of solve this problem. Save your soul through your stomach and serve yourself. Exactly. And then the first crack at it is in 1863. I did a little research. It might not be exactly the way it was made, but I picked up some, some what was called granula. Granula is a crunchy, granula. And we'll see. The first thing I want you guys to do is just sort of feel the texture. Yeah. Or let's just look at it. They're feeding us dog food.
But what it looks like is, I don't know, maybe lava bits, but it's brown. I mean, what does it taste like? It tastes a little bit like brown. Wow. Yeah, well, it's a small dish. It's meant to be good. That's one of the selling points of it. It's exceeded them. Yeah, exactly. It's these bricks of sort of dense wheat that's baked and then broken up. Yeah. And then baked again. So that it's basically, you know, these little chunks of inedible terribleness. Yeah. One brick wasn't enough. The fact that you guys can eat it probably means I didn't do it right. Because it was so hard and so tough to get through that they had to soak it overnight in milk just to have it be edible. So yeah, this was sold out of this what we're called synitarium. That sounds so delicious, just a synitarium. Now to be confused with the synitariums. Oh. Sanitariums are these sort of cleansing houses and it was sold to patients that sort of get cured of dyspepsia. And a lot of reformers did. Another one that you might know was this guy, I'm going to give you a bowl and let me see if you can guess the last name of the person.
Okay. I'm wondering if it's chocolate. I still haven't got rid of that. It looks better. Oh, it's nicer color. And you're going to like this. You're even going to recognize it. I guess it's like a flake. What name do you associate with that? That's got to be Kellogg's. A few me guessing Battle Creek Michigan. Battle Creek Michigan, John Harvey Kellogg. He had his own synitarium and lighter than granular. Yeah. Well, you know, it took a while. Because before Cornflakes, he started giving granular to his patients at his Battle Creek Sanitarium and selling it too. So before he got sued, and he had to change the U to an O. And that's how we get granular. No. Wow. He had a lot of these, you know, interesting ideas about health, especially sex, just like Graham. And on first glance, he kind of does look like a quack. You know, he basically described most of the foods that we think are good now as evil poison. I mean, coffee, caffeine, poison, sugar, poison, even vinegar, broth, poison. When I talk to serial historian, Tofer Ellis, you know, this is how he basically describes his philosophy.
The planer, the better. John Harvey Kellogg was really into making sure your body was cleansed. So whether it was the meal that he sent through you or the milk or water animals that he would do up to eight times a day, the idea was to make sure you had a very cleansed body. Yeah. That's right. Milk and water animals. He actually did yogurt animals. Please, please, please, please. Well, you know, those are sort of the same thing as, you know, something like the cornflakes. It's all about cleansing your body. And, you know, people flocked to his Santerium, you know, all the big wigs of the day, you know, I had re-forward later on, Rockefeller, William Howard Taffer, our fatus president, you know, went there. As well, but there was one other guy who went through there. And his name was Post, CW Post. Post. Yeah, if that sounds familiar, I have one more serial to present to you. Oh, okay. Oh, you know what this is? Great, great, great, great nuts. Great nuts.
Which are neither grape nor nuts. No, well, that's the thing. If he was a genius with, was marketing. He, you know, came up with a couple of serials like grape nuts, which, you know, doesn't, as you said, have grape or nuts, but it doesn't matter. It's the word associations that are going to make you buy it. You know, Calix sold his serial, but he had mass marketed. And when I talked to Tofer Ellis, he noted that in the late 19th century, health was going from fringe to pretty mainstream. Everyone was claiming that everything had health properties. But Post was just brilliant at marketing, advertising, was trying different things that just, just really worked. For example, his post-home hot serial drink, he claimed to take care of everything from, I guess, out to, uh, divorce to, uh, a house fire. And he didn't actually say it could take care of a house fire. There's a bit of exaggeration. But it did say divorce. Well, what he did say was that there's our grounds for divorce. Oh, but he did say it could prevent blindness that it could cure appendicitis. That's when the real, the serial war started, because, you know, when are we talking about?
So we're talking about the 1890s. Well, this happened pretty quickly then. Yeah. So it happened very quickly. By the 1890s, you know, Kellogg was just furious because, you know, he knew that Post was just pretty much kind of cleverly lying to people, but he also knew that people were buying the stuff. Right. So, you know, pretty soon, he had his version of great nuts called grand nuts, uh, and very quickly, Post realized that he could have a cornflake too. He called it Elijah's Manna because people have seemed to really, really, what Elijah's Manna. Because people seem to be really big into religious stuff, you know, they might buy that. Post would seal from Kellogg. Kellogg would seal from Post by 1911. You have, you know, what, 107 different types of cornflakes being made out of battle creek alone. Wow. And what's interesting about that large market, you know, it's sort of really hard to, as hard to wade through, then as it is now, I mean, it's sort of the snake oiling of this is this is going to cure everything. You know, even in 2009, the FDA had to send a letter to general mills because their heart healthy campaign on Cheerios so forcefully said that it would lower your cholesterol that
they said advertising for Cheerios basically classified it as an unauthorized drug. But that's the appeal to that old notion that health, this is a healthy breakfast, a good way to start your days old fashion. It's interesting how the very boxes that you brought into the studio, Andrew, really tell the story, the history that you're introducing here. So I'm looking at grape nuts. And of course, what does it say at the bottom? The original cereal. This is as in Kellogg's cornflakes. It's the goodness of a simple grain. Guess what? They've been delivering this the original and the best. Since 1906. Which is a little bit later than you would think since John Harvey Kellogg had to tell us about the late 1800s. But you know, even it's his brother will colleague that decided that you don't know how to market this. I do. Will Kellogg decides to sort of buy out his share of the company, add a little sugar, add some of that stuff that you know, people are craving that Kellogg never wanted to put in.
And the cornflakes that you're eating is will Kellogg's because he decided to take it to the masses. And they seem health conscious to us now because they are in distinction against the cereals introduced more recently, right? You go, hey, I can have Count Chocula or Cap and Crunch, which are basically just fossilized sugar. Or I could go back to the original health food of cornflakes. So, so cereals will save us from cereals. In a way, Andrew, what you're showing us here is that the repressed returns, everything that people would be eating in the olden days is suppressed and you go through this phase of really healthy, yucky stuff. But then that taste comes back because you're pandering to a large market. It strikes me that great trajectory of breakfast in America has been from Greece to sugar. Yeah. You tell me no such thing as progress. I love my cereal, my cereal, morning, noon and night. I love my cereal, my cereal satisfies my appetite.
It could be sugar, cold and cold puffs, shaped in a flake, one little handful is all it takes to make me feel cold. Now a lot of us have had the experience of standing in the middle of a grocery aisle, pouring over the microscopic nutritional data on the side of a package of food. And it turns out that this whole idea of quantifying healthiness, of measuring the molecular composition of our food, became standard in the late 19th century. By then, scientists in Europe had already identified the calorie as the fundamental measure of the amount of energy in food. But in the 1890s, a researcher named Wilbur Atwater put a particularly American spin on the issue. It was then that he embarked on what would become famous studies of the chemical composition of 2,600 American foods.
And by that, he meant the amount of carbohydrates, fat and protein, and the overall total number of calories provided by a certain amount of that food. This is Charlotte Biltekoff, who is written about Atwater. She says, at what are not only wanted to know how many calories were in American foods, he also wanted to find out how many calories Americans were burning on a daily basis. To do this, he stuck participants in something called the cholera meter. That was a sealed chamber lined with copper and zinc, a system of thermometers and electric condensers measured the heat and air going in and out of the room. Inside, his research subjects would eat different kinds of food and engage in various activities, like lifting weights or taking tests. So he knew exactly what they were taking in in terms of energy and exactly what they were expending in terms of both waste and energy. How did he measure what they were expending? Well, I don't know exactly how he measured it, but he took out all the waste from the
sealed chamber as well. Atwater compiled his findings into tables that assigned calorie counts to specific foods and tasks. And then, and this is critical, he added data about each of the foods cost so that he could determine the foods with the greatest caloric bang for the buck. Built a cough told me that Atwater believed his data could help cool some of the simmering class tensions in gilded age America. One of Atwater's big concerns was how to feed all these people flooding into the cities to do work in factories, how to keep them well fed on the wages that they were earning in the factories. And he was concerned about giving people the information that they needed to choose the food that would give them the energy they needed for work. So was this a way of ameliorating class conflict by simply teaching people how to make better use of food? It was certainly a way of addressing concerns about class conflict and about labor unrest. Atwater and the domestic scientists who popularized his ideas believe that if we give
people the nutrition that they need at the least possible cost, then right, they won't be agitating for increased wages, they won't be angry and upset, they won't be in the brothels and in the saloons that a good, nutritious, economical meal could keep people out of trouble. Charlotte, who were these domestic scientists? domestic scientists were turn of the century female reformers, they really believed that bringing science into the domestic realm and especially into cooking would solve the social problems of the day. And they did all kinds of things to spread, you know, Atwater's Gospel, so to speak, including putting together social reform projects like the New England Kitchen, which was a public kitchen that was meant to be a teacher of good methods and of eating right essentially. And they brought Atwater's work to the public. I want to ask you about this New England kitchen.
Who is it directed at and what do they actually serve there? Well, the New England kitchen began in one of Boston's poor neighborhoods and the idea was that the working poor in this neighborhood, immigrants and factory workers, etc., would bring their lunchpales into the New England kitchen and there they would be exposed to the silent teacher of cleanliness and hygienic methods. These patrons were illiterate, so rather than teaching by handing out pamphlets, the domestic scientists sought to teach by example, both by how they conducted their own work in the kitchen, which was through very scientific processes. They considered the kitchen a laboratory and they also wanted to teach through the food that they gave. So this food was not frivolous, that was an important distinction to them. The food was not there to be enjoyed. It was there to convey two things.
One is a very specific amount and balance of nutrients and two was a message about the importance of thinking about food and relationship to the nutrition that it provided and to the cost of that food. And it might be things like brown bread and beef stew, pea soup, porrages. Porrages. Was taste a consideration here? I mean, did they care about whether the worker is actually like this? This is all beginning to sound a little like school lunch programs that aim to be more nutritious, but when they measure what's being thrown away, 87% of the stuff is being thrown away. Well, ironically, or maybe not, the New England kitchen was actually the source of the first school lunch program. They started sending lunches out to schools in hospitals in part because the people who they were trying to reach were not interested. Let me ask you, if the working class pretty much rejected this not-so-great tasting food,
did it put the domestic scientists out of business? Who did they turn their attention toward? Absolutely didn't put them out of business. So they discovered that the Irish, Scandinavian, and German, and Russian, and Italian immigrants who they were trying to teach to eat like them really preferred the dishes that they were accustomed to. And furthermore, that for them eating meat three times a day was exactly what they came to America for, and they didn't want to be told otherwise. But they turned their attention at that point to the middle class, and that transition point I think is a very important one. This is in the mid-1890s as the New England kitchen, and all of the public kitchens that had grown up to replicate it were failing. The domestic scientists turned their attention to what they called the intelligent middle classes. And they started to draw this important distinction between the stubborn, incorrigible, indifferent,
and interested poor populations. And the more intelligent cosmopolitan thinking classes, who were more amenable to this kind of education and to this kind of change. So let me stop you there and ask if one of the reasons that domestic scientists were interested in nutrition was to solve social problems, did they just give up on solving social problems? No, they shifted their focus to the middle class and to a different kind of thinking about what the social problems were. So one of the social problems of the time was the sense that the Anglo-Middle class was deteriorating, and this gives rise to eugenics, which I'm sure you're familiar with. Yes. But it also gives rise to a way of thinking about changing the environment in order to improve the race and to improve heredity. And how did that work with food? Well, the approach to diet remained very focused on at-water's principles of nutrition.
It was about really thinking about the kitchen as a scientific laboratory and reading American kitchens of sensuality, intuition, tradition, and all of those approaches to cooking that could end up in unpredictable masses. So science was to take over and to provide replicable, predictable, and reliable results that would promise efficient diets across the land. Charlotte built the cloth as the author of Eating Right in America, the cultural politics of food and health, she's a professor at the University of California, Davis. Hey guys, we get a call from Washington, DC, and it's Elizabeth.
Elizabeth, welcome to Backstory. Thanks for having me. So we're trying to get right with our digestive systems. What do you got? I was just wondering, I feel like every time I go to the grocery store, there are all these products, gluten free, or soy free, or dairy free, and I was just wondering what the history is with these for lack of a better word, food avoidance diet, and if it went from medicine to pop culture or pop culture to medicine and what happened there. Great question, Elizabeth, when and why did we get free with food? Ed, what do you think? Well, it begins before we think of either the concepts of medicine or pop culture as we know them now, Elizabeth. It's actually imported from England in 1817, and of course the first thing we're supposed to be free of is meat. So meat-free diets, they're the beginning of things to avoid as the foundation of a diet. It doesn't begin quite so much for a concern for our digestive health, but because of the
larger perspective that led to pacifism and abolitionism and feminism of being sensitive to the suffering of other sentient beings. Well, Elizabeth, I think that the guys will agree this is a bit of a 20th century phenomenon. If we're talking about ex-free foods in order to deal with either allergies or intolerances or insensitivities, now I think overall it's probably a reaction to the manufactured, processed techniques that really take off in the early 20th century for lots of our food. I see Ed is crinkling up his eyebrows. I kind of agree with me, and kind of I smell trauma. Well, the way you phrased it, you are necessarily right, is that as soon as we start thinking about an allergies and intolerances and insensitivities, those are 20th century concepts. The idea of avoiding food, of various kinds of groups, for various kinds of reasons.
Now of course, we don't want to talk about the largest religions in the world. We want to point out that. But the idea, Brian, the very vocabulary you're using is the one that Elizabeth is seeing at the grocery store, right? It is the merger of pop culture and medicine. So what's interesting is not so much the idea that certain kinds of foods are bad for us or bad for society or bad for the world and should be avoided, what's new is the grid of explanation that we're laying down over. And where we come from before all of this, before 1817, is an ocean of balance, not of selecting things and eliminating things. I like what you said about reform in the 19th century, Ed, because in a way free is associated with self-control and restraint. You're not free, unless you're exercising that, you're not a free autonomous individual. The more things we deny ourselves, the more free we are. And the interesting thing is that we're making all these choices.
We feel like we're controlling our bodies and our lives and our health, but we're responding to cues that we're getting from the outside, including from industry, about what's good for us. So you might feel that this is the moment in which you've really achieved control, but believe me, you're also being controlled by the marketers. So my theory, Elizabeth, is that the explosion of gluten free, for instance, in the last 10 or 15 years is just part of a very long process of customization, of taking a mass-produced product and really tailoring it for individuals. Let's take the history of the TV dinner, right, which starts in the 1950s and you bought your TV dinner and you had your meat, you had your potato, and you had your dessert. And there were very few choices. If you go into the supermarket today, it is just staggering the number of choices that
you have. I think this whole, taking things out of food is part of a movement to say, you know, I'm still going to buy my food at a Wegmans, let's say, which sells a lot of gluten-free products, but when I shop at Wegmans, I want them to tailor that food to me even though it's mass-produced. Or we're making the choices, though. And the more things we choose not to do, the more we have affirmed our unique identity. This is not to say that these intolerances are not real. I'm lactose intolerant, and if I have any kind of milk product, I explode. It is to say that I can now buy mass-produced goods that cater to my particular genetic biological makeup. You know, to give you an amusing sense of the usage of the word free, I was at an event one time, and the waiter brought up a dish, and I said, hey, what do we have here?
He says, this is a veggie-free tata, and I said, I said, veggie-free, I said, you know, veggies that's rare. I actually see asparagus in it. So my guest and I looked at it a while ago, we realized what he had heard as he left the kitchen was, it's a veggie-free tata, but his idea is so common, it's the concept of free that he had applied it even to veggie-free. So to any marketer out there in the world, I share with you, feel free to use veggie-free as a marketer. Thank you so much, and remember, let freedom ring in this supermarket aisle. Thanks so much. Bye-bye. Bye-bye. Mary and Burroughs is a food journalist who, over the course of her career, has written for the Washington Post and the New York Times. Early on, she focused mostly on recipes. My favorite recipe story is a recipe that goes back to when I was first married many,
many years ago for something called blueberry tort. I love blueberry tort. When I got to the New York Times, it was published nine years in a row, and the editor finally said to me, we're going to print it in very large letters, large enough for anybody to cut out, laminate it and put it on their refrigerator, but we're not printing it anymore. But in the late 1970s, Burroughs also started reporting on politics, food politics. One of her first stories was about the Senate select committee on nutrition and human needs. It was called the McGovern Committee after the chair, Senator George McGovern, who she said had been interested in nutrition for a long time. I remember years before interviewing McGovern at his house, and they were talking then about how even their dog was fed low fat kinds of food. McGovern's committee formed in 1968 after a CBS TV documentary raised concerns about
hunger in America. But in addition to drafting legislation that would radically expand the food stamp program, the committee also started worrying about what Americans were eating. By the mid-60s, coronary heart disease had reached record levels, and a number of scientific studies were starting to link heart disease with a high fat diet. For nine years, the McGovern Committee methodically interviewed the authors of these studies in addition to a wide range of nutritional experts. Finally, in 1977, the committee was ready to release its recommendations about what Americans should eat. Up to that point, if the government had anything to say about food, it was eat more, drink more, eat more eggs, drink more milk, eat more corn. But in 1977, the McGovern Committee said something completely radical. Yeah, Americans should eat more grains, but they also needed to eat a lot less, specifically
less fat, less sugar, less salt, which meant, of course, that they'd need to decrease their consumption of meat, eggs, and whole milk. And what happened was that especially the meat people got wind of this, and they went, I think the term is ballistic. And all of a sudden, they were telling the committee that you can't say that, and what are you going to do to the people who raised meat, and you're going to ruin Americans' diet? Everything was wrong. Aaron, was the beef industry a sleep at the switch? I mean, how did they let such a high-profile committee get so far down the eat less beef path? First of all, lobbying wasn't what it is today. Secondly, it wasn't that powerful a committee, and so they weren't aware of it. There wasn't anybody up there in the hill to signal them, hey, see what's going on over here. So they were asleep at the switch. Who else took Umbridge at this report? There were some scientists who took Umbridge.
I can't give you their names, but there were people who think they're going out on a limb way too far without the proof that they need to have. Marion, we've got a clip here that I want you to listen to. It's from NBC News, and it's Dr. Robert Olson. He's a nutritionist and paid consultant of the American Egg Board, and he's arguing with Senator George McGovern. I have pleaded in my report and we'll plead again orally here for more research on the problem before we make announcements to the American public. Well, I would only argue that senators don't have the luxury that a research scientist does are waiting until every last shred of evidence is in. So this committee made up of big names. They hung tough, right? They didn't cave wrong. Wrong. Oh darn. The meat industry and the egg industry demanded that they be heard. So they had some more hearings in committee, and they got across their point. So how did those hearings go?
The hearings went so well for the new lobbyists, so you might call them, that they got just about everything they wanted. For instance, the president of the National Cattleman's Association was looking for some kind of a compromise on the wording. Senator Dole said to him, I wonder if you could amend number two, making a reference to what the recommendation was. That was to decrease the intake of red meat. And say, quote, increase consumption of lean meat. With that taste better to you. Well, leave it to Dole, you know, he's got great sense of humor. He does have a sharp sense of humor, yes. Mr. Finney said, decrease is a bad word, Senator, so that what had been eat less meat became eat lean meat. And that made them relatively happy. But I remember when I read it, I was horrified. That was how naive I was in terms of lobbying, et cetera, that somebody could come along, a bunch of guys who raised cows and were steer and tell you to change it to eat lean meat instead of eat less meat and they capitulated and the committee did it, including George
McGovern, right? Yep. Well, he came from a cattle state. Yeah. That's right. He's from South Dakota. And they changed some other things as well. What else did they change? And they added in this, and I quote here, some consideration should be given to easing the cholesterol goal in order to obtain the nutritional benefits of eggs in the diet. So eggs were not as bad as the original report said. Not according to this report, no. So you have covered food for almost half a century. Oh, my God. What? I know. That's shocking, isn't it? Yeah. So what would you like our listeners to know about food? Well, first of all, I think people need to know that food is very political and that a lot of things that happen or don't happen have to do with the lobbying efforts of whatever. And it has an impact on just about everybody, I guess, who gets that kind of money about what they're going to say about food. So take it all with a grain of salt.
But not as much salt as you might have taken it with. No. A grain, only a grain. Chicken. Marion Burrows is a retired food writer most recently with the New York Times. We'll post her famous blueberry toward recipe at backstoryradio.org. That's going to do it for us today. But the conversation continues online. You'll find us at backstoryradio.org. We're also on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, SoundCloud, whatever you do. Don't be a stranger. Today's episode of backstory was cooked up by Tony Field, Nina Ernest, Andrew Parsons, and JP Dukes, with research held from Emily Charna. Backstories' technical director is Jamal Milner.
Special thanks this week to Kendra Smith Howard, Rachel Moran, and our voice of Sylvester Graham, Mr. James Scales. Backstories produced at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Major support is provided by the ShiaCon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, humanities, and the environment, and, by history channel, history, made everyday. Brian Ballot is professor of history at the University of Virginia, and the Dorothy Compton Professor at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. Peter Onaf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. Backstory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.
Backstory is distributed by PRX, the public radio exchange.
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- Until recently, the link between a high fat diet and heart disease was one of the touchstones of modern medicine. But new research has thrown that connection into question, just as numerous studies over the years have brought new advice about health and diet to the fore. So in this episode, the Guys take the long view on nutritional advice and explore some of the more surprising ways that past generations have defined "health food."
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- Chicago: “BackStory; Health Nuts: A History of Nutritional Advice,” 2014, KMOS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed March 1, 2024, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-gq6qz23r7n.
- MLA: “BackStory; Health Nuts: A History of Nutritional Advice.” 2014. KMOS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. March 1, 2024. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-gq6qz23r7n>.
- APA: BackStory; Health Nuts: A History of Nutritional Advice. Boston, MA: KMOS, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-532-gq6qz23r7n