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Bevin Pan

CAS 137 H

Dr. Kramer

16 October 2017

From Hearty to Healthy: The Shifting Perception of Our Foods

McDonald's, the archenemy of health-minded dieticians, is seen as nothing but a profit-

hungry, obesity-breeding, evil junk food serving establishment. However, at its founding in 1954

McDonald’s burgers and fries were marketed as wholesome, “All American” meals for the family

(McDonald’s Corporation). Indeed, up until the 1950s, the sole purpose of meals for many is to

fill one’s stomach. Today, however, cookbooks such as Eat Healthy, Feel Great by William and

Martha Sears, are all about telling families to serve their children “organic” breakfast smoothies

and “no-sugar-added 100 percent fruit juices” (4). This change did not happen all at once. First, in

the early twentieth century, scientists began to notice the effects of dietary patterns on health. As

these discoveries gained prominence in the eyes of the public (starting in the mid-20th century),

individuals outside of the scientific community became more conscious of diets and made many

nutritional choices accordingly. The twentieth century, therefore, was a time of changing

perceptions for Americans on their diets, due to increasing food security, growing prevalence of

diet-related health issues, economic development, and advertising efforts by entrepreneurs.

Most Americans, up until the 1950s, were primarily concerned with only the satiating

qualities of a given meal. Public perceptions of dieting and nutrition are abstract at best (Masci

142). Before 1941, the USDA published only the fat, protein, and carbohydrate contents of certain

foods (Masci 143). Such nutrients were the focuses of concern when the time comes for an

individual to buy food for his/her family. Therefore, food items such as Mac ‘n’ Cheese, bacon, as
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well as hamburger steaks, which are high in fat, protein, and carbohydrates, were celebrated as

wholesome and hearty foods. This perception of food is reflected quite well in cookbooks and

dietary guides at the time. For instance, in Lessons in the Proper Feeding of the Family, a

prominent nutritional guideline published in 1909, Columbia University professor Winifred Gibbs

encourages her readers to purchase cheap, filling food, such as bread and cereals. In her words,

“the main reason for eating is to keep your engine going” (6). In fact, she states that one of the

main purposes of her book is to teach her readers “how to get the most food for the least money”

(5). Food companies in this period (1900-1950) also produced their advertisements accordingly.

Newspaper advertisements, such as a sausage advertisement from the Greensburg Daily Tribune,

emphasized the that their sausage is a “most savory and substantial dish for breakfast or dinner”

(Dunlevy-Franklin Co). The advertisement emphasized the price, the taste, and the high-calorie

nature of the sausage. Not a single reference to the concept of nutrition was present in the

advertisement. A similar trend of emphasizing the taste and substantiality of foods over nutritional

content was prevalent in most food advertisements until the mid-20th century. Furthermore, “health”

food advertisements were unheard of (Karp), as starvation was a more pressing concern for most

families than vitamin XYZ deficiency.

At the same time, the federal government began to address this issue of starvation. The

advent of government coordinated hunger-relief efforts during the early to mid-20th century

showcased the country's increased awareness towards the problems of hunger and starvation in

America. For instance, in 1918, public schools in 86 cities began serving school lunches. In 1933,

the U.S. government began to purchase surplus foods from farmers to redistribute to hunger relief

agencies. In 1939, the first food stamp was issued to allow starving families to purchase food at a

substantial discount. In 1941, the Agricultural Department released its first nutritional and dietary
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guidelines (Price 561). Between 1900 and 1950, life expectancy at birth in the United States rose

sharply from 48 years to 68 years, in part due to improved food security (Fogel 24, 27).

Furthermore, the average per-capita daily fat and cholesterol intake in the same time period

increased from 120 to 138 grams and 440 to 510 milligrams, respectively (Gerrior et al. 64). While

many households in America still suffered from periodic food insecurity, by 1950, the majority of

Americans were no longer starving.

As government officials were working to fill everyone’s stomachs, at the same time,

scientists were beginning to discover the health implications of eating solely to fill one’s stomach.

In 1912, Polish scientist Casimir Funk discovered the first Vitamins, sparking increased awareness

into the nutritional aspect of foods (Kaufman 524). In 1919, University of Chicago chemist and

physiologist, Alfred McCann, published The Science of Eating: How to Insure Stamina,

Endurance, Vigor, Strength and Health in Infancy, Youth and Age, which discussed the health

effects of the American dietary focus on carbohydrates, fat, and protein. While most Americans

were still oblivious to what goes into their foods, the doctors, dieticians, and scientists at the time,

such as Alfred McCann, were already noticing the effects of unmonitored diets. In his text,

McCann expresses his concerns about the American staple: white bread. He calls the American

white bread the "great human destroyer," claiming that it is "robbed of its vitalizing mineral

elements, not its calcium alone but its iron, potassium, magnesium, silicon, phosphorus, iodine, its

ferments, enzymes and vitamins" (103). McCann also reflects upon other dietary concerns,

including what he refers to as the “sugar bombardment” of American families (286). McCann

believes that the increased consumption of “artificial” and “processed” sugars had led to increased

incidents of “sugaritis," or diabetes. As McCann puts it, "sugar in the forms in which Nature

prepares it is an indispensable element of diet", however, "as [people] consume it to-day, sugar is
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not a natural, but an artificial product", therefore, "it is now clear that in the development of

[diabetes] our abnormal consumption of refined sugars and refined cereals is responsible” (293).

The emergence of diabetes, from poor dietary choices, as a health concern among academic circles

was also evident in newspaper articles written by the scientists and concerned dieticians at the time.

For example, in a health column in the Chicago Daily Tribune from 1916, columnist and doctor

W.A. Evans wrote that there is a strong link between diabetes and obesity (6). The academic

community made these discoveries just as food security for most Americans was beginning to

improve. Therefore, the findings did not have an immediate impact on public perception and

government regulations. In fact, before 1958, no systematic effort was taken by the government to

track the development of obesity and diabetes as they only affected a limited, wealthy portion of

the population (National Diabetes Data Group 1219).

As the scientists had predicted, having the entire nation eat mac ‘n’ cheese on a daily basis

was not a sustainable diet. By the mid-20th century, many diet-related health issues began to take

their toll on the American public (Ljungvall and Zimmerman 113). By 1958, the number of

individuals with diagnosed diabetes in the U.S. swelled to 1.58 million. In ten years the number

more than doubled, hitting 3.18 million individuals in 1968 (National Diabetes Data Group 1220).

Therefore, it is unsurprising that at the same time, the average body mass index of adult women

and adult men in the United States increased from 24.9 to 25.05 and from 25.14 to 25.56

respectively (Ljungvall and Zimmerman 114). It is during this period (the 1950s and 1960s) that

the public began to realize the ramifications of poor dietary choices. Expectedly, it is also during

this period that some of the most influential “health and wellness” companies, such as Shaklee

(founded 1956) and Amway (founded 1959), were founded (Herbert and Barret 18). Public

awareness of this trend was quickly picked up by other entrepreneurs, who immediately put up
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slogans in newspapers such as “Crash Diet: Lose Up to 5 Pounds Per Week or Double Your Money

Back”, published in the Chicago Daily Defender in 1969 (M&B Enterprises 18). These

entrepreneurs produced a plethora of dietary supplements as well as "organic," "natural," and

"health" foods. Sales for these products immediately took off and have been increasing

tremendously ever since. By 1980, the top three food supplement providers (Amway, Shaklee, and

Neo-Life) were grossing a combined 1.44 billion dollars every year (Herbert and Barret 22).

The increased wealth of the average American allowed families to be able to afford a

change in their perception of food and to purchase the products produced by these companies. The

health and wellness industry evolved from a small niche sector of the economy in 1960 to a multi-

billion-dollar industry in 1980, partly due to increased economic security. The years between 1960

and 1980 was a time of drastically increasing economic prosperity for people in the U.S. In 1960

the U.S. GDP was 543.3 Billion (2016 Dollars) (World Bank). By 1980, the number increased to

2.863 Trillion (2016 Dollars). In the same time interval, the Gross National Income per capita

increased from 3,280 (2016 Dollars) to 13,410 (2016 Dollars) (World Bank). More income enabled

American families to purchase foods that were labeled “natural” and “organic” (Herbert and Barret

1). Improving economic security shifted people's perception about what foods they consumed, as

it allowed the public to increase their spending on foods and supplements associated with "health"

and "wellness." Logically, this increased spending made corporations that were eager to adapt to

this shifting consciousness of the public quite happy.

While many examples that this essay brought up show how corporations and entrepreneurs

have adapted to the public’s shifting perception of food, companies and their advertisements also

play a significant role in changing the public’s perception of food. By the 1980s, advertisements

were already bombarding individuals with promotions of "healthy," "organic" and "natural" foods
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(Bender 18). "Friendly salespeople" went door to door promoting “healthy” lifestyles, diets, and

supplements (Herbert and Barret 25). Organic markets emphasized images of wholesome foods

and wholesome farmers that produced them (Russel). While many did not agree with the specific

products that these companies were advertising, even critics admitted that eating cheeseburgers

every day was not a sustainable course of action. Moreover, with the rapid advancement of

communications technologies in the 20th century, fast-acting entrepreneurs were able to quickly

latch on to these methods of communication, which allowed them to more efficiently etch these

ideas into the public consciousness (Bender 76).

The power and effectiveness of these advertisements in shaping the public's perceptions

have led many to question whether these advertisements have been misleading the public. In their

book Vitamins and “Health” Foods: The Great American Hustle, professor of medicine at the

State University of New York Victor Herbert and doctor Stephen Barret challenge the benefits of

the so-called "health” foods marketed by many of these companies, calling to question the “organic”

and “natural” labels that many health-minded individuals root for. In one section, Herbert and

Barret state that “organic certification proposals could be regarded as quite humorous except for

the fact that some government officials have taken them seriously” (Herbert and Barret 80). It is

evident how Herbert and Barret are extremely skeptical of the processes and labeling techniques

of the “natural” foods, as well as their supposed effects. They are not alone. In Health or Hoax:

The Truth about Health Foods and Diets, Arnold Bender responds to those who wish to “return to

nature” by stating that “unfortunately man began to interfere with nature at least 10,000 years ago

when he began to cultivate crops instead of continuing as a hunter-gatherer, so it is far too late to

‘go back’ [to nature]” (21). In spite of wide-spread and scathing criticism from individuals such as

Herbert, Barret, and Bender, the public still loves the products that companies, such as Amway
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and Whole Foods champion. This sentiment from the American public continues to this day. For

instance, in 2016, Amway garnered a revenue of a whopping 8.8 billion dollars, and even this

number was considered quite low (Nuyten). In the same year, “health” food distributor Whole

Foods made 15.72 billion dollars in revenue (Russel).

Yet, as many health food companies continue to rake in profits, the direct effects of this

shift of public perception on foods are not as evident. According to the National Diabetes Data

Group, diabetes rates in the United States in 2016 were at an all-time high (7). Furthermore, as

Ljungvall and Zimmerman’s study concludes, obesity rates continue to increase even to this day

(112). The country continues to spend billions upon billions of dollars on “heath” foods and

supplements, but the effects of uncontrolled diets are still very prominent (Ljungvall and


This shift in the public’s perception of food has a lasting impact on the business sector, as

evident by the revenue that many health food companies make even today. This shift occurred due

to improved food security, heightened prevalence of diet-related health issues, increased financial

security, and effective advertising carried out by businesses. Consumers are now ever so conscious

of their food choices as well as their dietary habits, focusing on not just how many people that a

grocery trip will feed but also how many carbs, proteins, vitamins, and other nutrients that the

grocery trip will put into their families’ bodies. However, despite decreasing acceleration, the

number of overweight individuals, as well as those diagnosed with diabetes, continues to increase

well into the 21st century (Ljungvall 115). The effects of this shifting perspective on the public

are uncertain. Companies, on the other hand, are making money on this shifting perspective that

their advertisements contributed to (Russel). The economic effect of this shift is quite profound,

as heightened demand due to better financial security brings new jobs and new opportunities into
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the market (Herbert and Barret 12). As the 21st century unfolds, who knows what perception shifts

on food in the future will lead the world into.
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Works Cited

Bender, Arnold E. Health Or Hoax?: The Truth about Health Foods and Diets. Prometheus Books,

Buffalo, N.Y, 1986.

Dunlevy-Franklin Co., Greensburg Daily Tribune, Jan 3, 1930, p.12

Evans, W. A. “Prevention of Diabetes.” Chicago Daily Tribune, 20 Sept. 1916, p. 6.

Fogel, Robert W. The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100: Europe, America,

and the Third World. vol. 38, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2004.

Gerrior, S., et al. Nutrient Content of the U.S. Food Supply, 1909-2000. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture,

Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, Washington, D.C., 2004.

Gibbs, Winifred S. Lessons in the Proper Feeding of the Family. New York association for

improving the condition of the poor, New York, 1909.

Herbert, Victor, and Stephen Barrett. Vitamins and" health" foods: the great American hustle.

Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 1985.

Karp, Richard. "Newspaper Food Pages: Credibility for Sale." Columbia Journalism Review, vol.

10, no. 4, 1971, pp. 36

Kaufman, Rachel. "Food Labeling." CQ Researcher, 16 June 2017, pp. 509-32.

Ljungvall, Åsa and Frederick Zimmerman. "Bigger Bodies: Long-Term Trends and Disparities in

Obesity and Body-Mass Index among U.S. Adults, 1960-2008." Social Science & Medicine,

vol. 75, no. 1, 2012, pp. 109-119.

M&B Enterprises, Chicago Daily Defender, December 2, 1969, p.18

Masci, David. "Diet and Health." CQ Researcher, 23 Feb. 2001, pp. 129-60.

McCann, Alfred W. The Science of Eating: How to Insure Stamina, Endurance, Vigor, Strength

and Health in Infancy, Youth and Age. George H. Dorran company, New York, 1919.
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McDonald’s Corporation, The Cincinnati Enquirer, June 25, 1961, p.55

National Diabetes Data Group (U.S.). Diabetes in America: Diabetes Data Compiled 1984. vol.

no. 85-1468. ;no. 85-1468;, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, Public Health

Service, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, and

Digestive and Kidney Diseases, Bethesda, Md., 1985.

Nuyten, Ted. “Amway 2016 Sales Down 7% To $8.8 Billion.” Direct Selling Facts, Figures and

News, Business For Home, 13 Feb. 2017

Price, Tom. "Hunger in America." CQ Researcher, 7 July 2017, pp. 557-80

Russell, Galileo. “Amazon Should Buy Whole Foods At $40/Share.” Seeking Alpha, SA, 7 Mar.


The World Bank. The Little Data Book 2016. World Bank Group, Washington, District of

Columbia, 2016, doi:10.1596/978-1-4648-0834-0.