Eating Like our Grandparents: A Look at "What's Cooking Uncle Sam"

By: Eric Mittenthal   Date: 12/27/11

Last week, my colleagues and I had an opportunity to visit the "What's Cooking Uncle Sam" exhibit at the National Unpublisheds in Washington, DC. "What's Cooking Uncle Sam" looks at the government's role in what Americans eat over the years. It's a fascinating look at the history of our food in the U.S. and I was struck by the evolution of our food system, the differences in our food today, and the many similarities as well.

From Exploring to Food Processing
We often take for granted the variety of foods available in the U.S. That wasn't the case early in our history, when explorers would scour the globe looking for fruits and vegetables that could grow in our climates to add variety to our diets. That's how we discovered foods like Meyer lemons, pomegranates and pistachios. Our agricultural history grew up from government seed programs to land grant universities studying ways to improve agriculture to large scale farming designed to compete in the global market. Processed foods also came along as early as when Lewis and Clark used bouillon cubes to make soup to convenience foods in the 1940s and 50s. When those convenience foods were introduced, they were hailed as offering freedom from the kitchen for women and promoted as a wonder of capitalism not available in the communist world. As far back as the 1970s, the ideal of the family farm was being heralded as all that's good in America, while at the same time, people were demanding cheap food that only large scale production could supply.

Nutrition Concerns
Much of our nutrition history is built around preventing malnutrition and providing for Americans during times of war, but while the obesity epidemic seems like a recent phenomenon, concerns about the issue go way back. In the 1890s, USDA scientist W.O. Atwater, who did much of the research leading to our understanding of the role of calories in our diet, concluded that "Americans eat too much fat and sweets and do not get enough exercise." And in fact the 100 calorie packs of food that are so popular today are not new inventions. All the way back in 1930, there was a poster highlighting 100 calorie portions of familiar foods.

Despite many of the similarities in food and food issues over the years, our food system has changed quite a bit for the better. While some suggest that we should eat like our grandparents once did, that diet included things such as formaldehyde, coal tar, copper sulfate and other toxins that were used to mask spoiled food and have long since been banned from our food supply. Regulations introduced over the years have significantly improved the safety of our food supply and reduced our risk of getting sick from our food. Science has evolved and we now know more about our food and what's in it than ever before. The science and our knowledge of food and nutrition will continue to grow in the future. A few generations ago, we didn't know what a calorie was and our food supply offered little diversity. Who knows what our food will look like for future generations?