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The Evolution of the American Diet

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The American diet changed dramatically in the twentieth 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."

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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.