Gulf Today

A century of change in what type of food we regularly eat


NEW YORK: Think about the last meal you ate. Whether it was a reheated plate of takeout food, a cornucopia of fresh fruit or something in between, it probably would have been unfathomab­le to most people a century ago.

Over the past 100 years, the way Americans buy, cook and think of food has changed dramatical­ly, driven by developmen­ts in how it is manufactur­ed, marketed, purchased and eaten.

Food historians say it’s been an era of abundance. And that has had consequenc­es.

“The increasing industrial­ization of the food supply has not been good for health,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University.

A detailed accounting of everything that reshaped Americans’ health and diet over the past century could fill a library. But Nestle, a molecular biologist and award-winning author who has writen a small library’s worth of books on food-related topics, sums it up this way: “People used to eat at home and cook at home. Now, they eat out or eat foods that have already been prepared.”

Prepared or even processed food isn’t necessaril­y unhealthy - think of pasteurize­d milk or sliced carrots. But many highly processed foods contain unhealthy amounts of salt, fat and calories, and research has associated increased consumptio­n of ultra-processed foods with a higher risk of heart conditions and numerous other health problems. A 2021 American Heart Associatio­n scientific statement recommends that people choose minimally processed foods instead of ultra-processed ones.

Nestle’s simplified definition of ultra-processed food is “food that can’t be made at home” because of the processes and additives involved.

Such foods were virtually unknown a century ago. But in 1924, the process that enabled the frozen food industry was invented. And while frozen fruits and vegetables can be a boon to health, frozen food was not the only change that would begin to reshape the US diet, said Dr. Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California.

Albala, author of 27 books on food and editor of many more, said that in the 1920s, most of what people ate would have been fresh, unprocesse­d and locally grown. But change was coming. A few years earlier, in 1916, the first modern supermarke­t had opened in Memphis, Tennessee.

Before supermarke­ts, Albala said, shoppers would have had a personal connection with the grocer at a local market, who would have fetched the items customers asked for based on what the grocer had chosen to stock. The supermarke­t let people select their own items, which put a premium on branding as manufactur­ers sought to make their products stand out.

That led to “incredible diversity, because now there’s 18 different kinds of ketchup and there’s 20 brands of frozen this or that,” Albala said.

But supermarke­ts also began distancing people from the source of what they were eating, he said. Before that era, a family might have goten produce from a stand, which would have sold local harvests in season. The new system favored mass-grown varieties that were bred for color, durability or other factors.

The way food was made changed, too. Factory-made sliced bread surpassed home bakers in the 1930s, a decade that also saw the arrival of processed legends such as boxed macaroni with powdered cheese (with sodium phosphate as an emulsifier) and canned meat shoulder (with salt, sugar and sodium nitrate as a preservati­ve).

But it was World War II that brought radical changes as products and technologi­es developed to feed soldiers, such as canned meals, made their way into homes.

“You could say the C ration is the grandfathe­r of the TV dinner,” Albala said, referring to the frozen, oven-ready meals that became popular in the early 1950s.

Nestle said that ater the war, processed products started appearing in packages that resembled the original foods that they came from less and less, with an “enormous” emphasis on convenienc­e.

“There was a real concerted effort to make cooking look like drudgery and to take away the idea that cooking was something that was fun and pleasant that you wanted to spend time on,” she said.

Atitudes about eating out changed. In the 19th century, usually only the wealthiest families would have eaten for pleasure at restaurant­s. Chain restaurant­s started popping up in the 1920s, and the 1950s brought widespread fast food - meals that emphasized speed far above nutrition. Spending on meals eaten away from home eclipsed at-home eating in 2010, according to the US Department of Agricultur­e.

All that convenienc­e may seem like a blessing for the people, traditiona­lly women, who had to prepare and serve all those meals. A homemaker could have spent several hours a day cooking in the 1920s. As of 2022, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American spent an estimated 39 minutes a day on food preparatio­n and cleanup.

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