Student nurses being trained in nutrition, New York, 1942 – photographed by Fritz Henle (Library of Congress).

Health Nuts

A History of Nutritional Advice

Good fats vs. bad fats, milk chocolate vs. dark chocolate, red meat, red wine, carbs, sugar — all have been the subject of conflicting nutritional advice from “the experts.” In this episode of BackStory, the hosts explore the unexpected ways that past generations defined “health food.” We’ll look at milk’s transformation from a disease-carrying dairy product in the 19th century to “nature’s perfect food” by the 20th century, the popularity of gluten free diets in the late 20th century, and the emergence of the calorie as a way to explain the science of nutrition.  

Check out the Blueberry Torte recipe mentioned in this episode via The New York Times.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

COMMERCIAL: (SINGING) Only 18 calories per teaspoon in Domino pure cane sugar. Lift up your energy, feel great. While you’re holding down your weight.

BRIAN: In the 1950s, Domino sold its sugar by playing up how good it was for you.

COMMERCIAL: (SINGING) Pure cane sugar.

BRIAN: And if that strikes you as strange, just consider the way healthy eating was understood 100 years earlier.

FEMALE SPEAKER: If people are eating the wrong foods, they will become more and more sexually licentious and they will ultimately become kind of babbling idiots.

BRIAN: Today on the show, 200 years of nutritional advice. We’ll ask why early Americans connected diet and sex and why vegetarians, a generation later, connected diet with slavery.

MALE SPEAKER: What was the cause of a violent and corrupt society? Well, for vegetarians it was meat.

BRIAN: A history of health food, today on BackStory.

MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh and I’m here with Ed Ayers.

ED: Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: And Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey there, Brian.

BRIAN: And today we’re here to commiserate with all of you, who sometimes yearn for, well, a simpler time.

MALE SPEAKER: It seems to me we have confronted every day with new knowledge that robs us of a lifelong assumption that there are some simple truths that could be taken for granted.

BRIAN: This is BBC commentator Alistair Cooke, filing one of his weekly “Letters From America” in the summer of 1957.

ALISTAIR COOKE: Take milk for example. Until very lately, no nation on earth had drunk so much milk as the Americans had done in the past 44 years.

BRIAN: Alistair Cooke 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, “nature’s perfect food. ” And now in 1957, all that was being turned on its head.

ALISTAIR COOKE: 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 busy body has discovered that what seems to clog the human arteries and cause clots and heart attacks, is it chemical snag known as cholesterol. And milk, is mother’s milk to cholesterol.

BRIAN: Sure enough, per capita milk consumption, which had peaked after World War II, fell steadily in the decades that followed. At last count, it was a little more than half of what it had been in the 1950s.

ALISTAIR COOKE: If the cholesterol crusade catches on, it’s going to be a dim future for Wisconsin and Minnesota and many of the regions of the cow country. And I should guess that by about 1984, Miss America will be a midget walking around on stumps, but of course, she will be sound in heart and limb.

BRIAN: Alastair Cooke may have been wrong about that stumps thing. Miss America 1984 was a very average in height Vanessa Williams. But as for the bigger picture, Cooke 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.

MALE SPEAKER: Two new studies have a counter intuitive finding. People who make a habit of consuming high-fat dairy tend to be leaner. NPR’s, Allison Aubrey reports.

BRIAN: This is NPR’S Morning Edition earlier this year reporting on a Swedish study concluding that yes, consuming dairy fat may make you skinnier. Right around the same time, a different study made headlines for suggesting that there was no evidence connecting saturated fat to an increased risk of heart disease.

MALE SPEAKER: With advice as all over the map as 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 cereal tasting all ready to go.


ED: But first, we’re going a 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 founded boarding houses where they could collectively follow a Graham-approved lifestyle.

PETER: Which we should say is pretty impressive. After all, the Graham-ite diet was kind of tough. A true adherent would sleep on a hard bed and take cold baths. He or she would eat lots of vegetables and plenty of hardy wheat bread. But there were also some pretty strict prohibitions. No alcohol, no tea or coffee, no sugar, no spices, and absolutely no meat.

ED: 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.

MALE SPEAKER: The wretched transgressor sinks into a miserable fatuity and eventually becomes a confirmed and degraded idiot who’s 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, denote 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.

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: From the 21st century, we think the idea of an epidemic of masturbation is completely nuts.

ED: This is Kyla Wazana Tompkins, who has written about the reasons Graham’s idea struck a cord in the young nation.

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: But we can think of it as a kind of early sex panic in the way that in the Cold War, there was also a kind of a homosexual panic, right?

ED: Yeah.

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: 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? Are all those energies not going to go towards the well being of the nation?

ED: 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?

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: What Graham is most worried about is over-stimulation. And for him, there’s a deep parallel between sexual over-stimulation and oral over-stimulation. 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, 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 over-stimulating experience is so good, you just keep trying to find that high again. But that over-stimulation, 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’ve entirely lost your strength.

MALE SPEAKER: All kinds of stimulating and heating substances, high-seasoned food, rich dishes, the free use of flesh, and even the excess of aliment , all more or less and some to a very great degree, increase the concupiscent excitability and sensibility of the genital organs, and augment their influence on the functions of organic life and on the intellectual and moral faculties.

ED: So why such a sense of urgency that Americans might become lazy and debilitated by eating the wrong diet and behaving wrong sexually?

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: Well this has a lot to do with this period of massive US 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.

ED: So Graham does not merely define in what he believes in by what he’s against, right? He has a vision of what a healthy American diet should look like.


ED: Can you describe what his dream would be that the American nation would be feeding upon?

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: Well, he believes that Americans should eat American food. In some ways, he’s the first locavore 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. So–

ED: 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’s corn in the Graham diet?

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: You know, Graham’s word for his ideal foods is farinaceous. Any kind of food they can be made into flour is a farinaceous food, and that includes corn.

ED: I see.

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: 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 grains 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.

ED: So that’s very strange. He’s a locavore who doesn’t want to eat an indigenous food.

KYLA WAZANA TOMPKINS: Yes, isn’t that interesting.


Well, think about the phrase, American as apple pie, and then think about a figure like Johnny Appleseed. You know, the apple, like wheat, is another of 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 is widespread 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.

MALE SPEAKER: 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 is often to be met with in the comfortable log houses in our Western country.

Rice, barley, oats, rye, Indian corn, and many other farinaceous products of the vegetable kingdom, may also be manufactured into bread, but none of them will make so good bread as wheat.



ED: Kyla Wazana Tompkins is an associate professor of English at Pomona College. She’s the author of Racial Indigestion; Eating bodies in the 19th Century.

MALE SPEAKER: It’s time for a short break. When we get back, how to get rid of slavery without a civil war. Try not eating meat.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a moment.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to the past to understand the America of today. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. We’re talking today about our definition of healthy eating and how that definition has changed through time. 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 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.

WILLIAM ALCOTT: 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.

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: It sounds totally bizarre, but they wholeheartedly believed in this notion that slavery was only possible in a violent and corrupt society.

ED: This is Adam Shprintzen, who has written about the history of vegetarianism.

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: 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.

ED: In other words, if Americans stopped eating meat, slavery would eventually die. In 1864, the Kansas Nebraska Act gave vegetarians a chance to accelerate that process. The decision to make those territories slaves 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 Shprintzen told me that they were led by an atheist member named Henry S. Clubb.

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: Clubb’s idea is 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’s going to be a vote on the territory’s 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.

ED: 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? That–

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: 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 arrived, they were 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 roofing on it. Henry S. Clubb, himself, is living in an abandoned Native American wigwam.

There’s a significant disenchanted really quickly and within three to four months, especially as mosquito season really starts to hit and people suffer, certainly diseases that are associated with that– again, they’re right on the banks over river– a lot of the reformers end up kind of turning around and heading back east. But what also happens is that these settles that remain end up taking up arms themselves and joining the Union Army, including Henry S. Clubb.

ED: Yeah, because all of this just happens in 10 years. So they come out there in the early 1850s and pretty soon war descends upon them, so–


ED: 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?

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: Yeah, absolutely, it’s a real sort of contradiction in terms for the vegetarians whose 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. Clubb, who was the original founder of the settlement, is sort of the living embodiment of this dichotomy between abolitionism and vegetarianism.

So Clubb joins the Union army, he serves as a Quartermaster. So he’s literally arming soldiers, providing strategic and material support, but Clubb 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.

ED: So on one hand, the war obviously bring slavery to an end and seems to be the culmination of the things that the American Vegetarian Society and their fellow travelers most believed in. Does this seem like, OK now, the way is prepared for the efflorescence of vegetarianism in the United States? Does it really take off after the war?

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: Vegetarians in the immediate post Civil War years have lost their 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 that 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.

ED: So how much of a sense of a reforming zeal is still in the vegetarian movement, say at the turn of the century?

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: 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. At 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 comes 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, by building muscular strong bodies, best ready to compete in the world.

ED: So in 50 years, vegetarianism reorients itself from a collective purpose to an individual purpose. Is that the shortest way to explain what happens?

ADAM SHPRINTZEN: Absolutely. And for such a relatively short time period, that is a fairly remarkable shift in this ideology and within this movement. And its embraced. So that the good old veteran of vegetarianism, Henry S. Clubb, enthusiastically embraces the new vegetarianism as a way for individuals to succeed.

THE BEACH BOYS: (SINGING) I’m going to be around my vegetables. I’m going to chow down my vegetables. I love you most of all.

ED: Adam Shprintzen is the author of The Vegetarian Cruside– The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817 to 1921.

THE BEACH BOYS: (SINGING) If you brought a big brown bag of them home, I’d jump up and down and hope you’d toss me a carrot. I’m going keep well, my vegetables. Cart off and sell my vegetables. I love you most of all. My favorite vegetables.

ED: You can’t have a show about nutrition without thinking about the most important meal of the day.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: And you know what we’re talking about? Breakfast.

PETER: I think you’re right. That’s what I get up for every morning. If it weren’t the spur of a delicious cereal–

ED: Bowl of Raisin Bran.

PETER: Yeah!

ED: I know what you eat.

PETER: 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 to talk about the history of cereal.

BRIAN: Yeah did you invite him to bring in that big bottle of milk, also, Peter?

PETER: I’m sorry about the milk.

BRIAN: You know that I’m lactose intolerant. Andrew, here’s my seat, it’s all yours.

PETER: So we got an empty seat, let’s talk cereal.


PETER: How you doing?

ANDREW PARSONS: How are you doing?

PETER: Great.

ANDREW PARSONS: So yeah, I did a little research into the history of cereal. And it’s one that’s sort of wrapped up in some chicanery and lawsuits and a little bit of quackery, and I have several cereals here to show you.

ED: You mean real cereals?

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah, we’re going to eat in the studio.

BRIAN: Oooh, wow, I thought that was against the rules.

ANDREW PARSONS: But before we do that, we should probably talk about what breakfast was like pre-cereal.

PETER: You mean there was a pre-cereal era?

ANDREW PARSONS: Oh yes, oh yes, and we have to go all the way back to the mid 19th century where we have some greasy, greasy breakfasts. In fact, I talked to cereal historian, Topher Ellis, who pretty much described it this way.

TOPHER ELLIS: 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– your fried pork, your fried skins, things like that.

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah and a lot of the things that Topher listed would all be on one plate. I mean, you’d have four greasy meats together with your eggs and toast.

PETER: They didn’t worry about presentation.


ANDREW PARSONS: It’s much like that, 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–

ED: And offices.

ANDREW PARSONS: And office’s too. And you’re not working off all of this heavy, heavy stuff that you’re eating.

ED: Yeah. So people get heavier and heavier, but they also start feeling worse and worse.

PETER: Yeah.

ANDREW PARSONS: There’s even a term for it, it’s called dyspepsia. It’s sort of this vague, sort of national tummy ache, but also–

ED: Mass indigestion.

ANDREW PARSONS: Its mass indigestion, exactly.

PETER: Really, tell us your state of mind. It goes right up to the head, doesn’t it?

ANDREW PARSONS: It does go right up to the head because it supposedly affects the way we act. And so the solution for it is these, as we heard with Sylvester Graham, it’s religious reformers who try to sort of solve this problem.

ED: Save your soul through your stomach, in some ways, right?


PETER: Otherwise known as pig.

ANDREW PARSONS: The first crack at it is in 1863. I did a little research, it may not be exactly the way it was made, but I cooked up some, some was called grainula.

PETER: Grainula. Is it crunchy gran– Eww.

ANDREW PARSONS: Well the first thing I want you guys to do is sort of feel the texture.

ED: Or let’s just look at it. You’re feeding us dog food.

PETER: What it looks like is– I don’t know, maybe lava bits? But it’s brown. I mean– what does it taste like?

ANDREW PARSONS: It tastes a little bit like brown lava.

[LAUGHTER] Yeah, well it’s not meant to be good.

PETER: That’s one of the selling points, isn’t it? It’s exceeded them.

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah exactly. It’s these bricks of sort of dense wheat that’s baked and then broken up and then baked again, so that it’s basically these little chunks of inevitable terribleness.

PETER: It’s like re-bricked, one bricking wasn’t enough.

ANDREW PARSONS: 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 what was called sanitariums.

ED: That sounds so delicious, just the sanitariums.

ANDREW PARSONS: Not to be confused with sanatoriums.

ED: Oh.

ANDREW PARSONS: Sanitarians are these sort of cleansing houses. And it was sold to patients to 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.

ED: OK. I’m wondering if it’s Chalkula?

I still haven’t got rid of that last stuff, man. Oh, this looks better. Oh it’s a nicer color. Ed, you’re going to like this. You’re even going to recognize it. It’s like a flake.

ANDREW PARSONS: What name do you associate with that?

ED: Kellogg’s. I’m guessing Battle Creek, Michigan.

ANDREW PARSONS: Battle Creek, Michigan, John Harvey Kellogg. He had his own sanitarium.

ED: So much lighter than Granula.

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah, well it took a while because before corn flakes, he started giving Granula to his patients at his Battle Creek Sanitarium and selling it too before he got sued and he had to change the U to an O and that’s how we get granola.

ED: Wow.

WILLIAM ALCOTT: He had a lot of these interesting ideas about health, especially sex, just like Graham. And on first glance, he kind of does look like a quack. 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 talked to cereal historian, Topher Ellis, this is how we basically describes his philosophy.

TOPHER ELLIS: The plainer the better. John Harvey Kellogg was really into making sure your body was cleansed, so whether it was the meal they sent through you, or the milk or water enemas that he would have do up to eight times a day, the idea was to make sure you had a very cleansed body.

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah that’s right, milk and water enemas. He actually did yogurt enemas as well.

PETER: Please, please, please–

ANDREW PARSONS: Well, you know, those are sort of the same thing as something like the corn flakes. It’s all about cleansing your body. And people flocked to his sanitarium. All the big wigs of the day, Henry Ford, later on Rockefeller, William Howard Taft, our fattest president–

PETER: Well, yeah he needed too.

ANDREW PARSONS: –Went there as well. But there was one other guy who went through there and his name was Post. CW Post.

PETER: Post!

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah. If that sounds familiar, I have one more cereal to present to you.


ED: Oh, you know what this is? I recognize this.

PETER: Grape nuts.


ED: Grapenuts, which are neither grape nor nuts.

ANDREW PARSONS: No, well that’s the thing that he was a genius with, was marketing. He came up with a couple cereals like grapenuts, which 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, Kellog sold his cereal, but he had to mass market it. And when I talked to Topher Ellis, he noted that in the late 19th century, health was going from fringe to pretty mainstream.

TOPHER ELLIS: Every one was claiming that everything had health properties, but Post was just brilliant at marketing, advertising, was trying different things that just really worked. For example, his Postum hot cereal drink claimed it could take care of everything from I guess gout to divorce to a house fire.

ANDREW PARSONS: He didn’t actually say it could take care of a house fire, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but–

ED: Did he say divorce?

ANDREW PARSONS: Well, what he did say was–

PETER: I think these are grounds for divorce.

ANDREW PARSONS: But he did say it could prevent blindness, that it could cure appendicitis. That’s when the real cereal wars started.

PETER: When are we talking about?

ANDREW PARSONS: We’re talking the 1890s.

PETER: So this happened pretty quickly then.

ANDREW PARSONS: Yeah, it happened very quickly. By the 1890s, Kellogg was just furious because he knew that Post was just pretty much kind of cleverly lying to people, but he also knew that people were buying this stuff, so pretty soon he had his version of Grapenuts called Grandnuts.


And very quickly Post realized that he could have a cornflake too, he called it Elijah’s Manna, because people seemed to be really–

PETER: Called it what?

WILLIAM ALCOTT: Elijah’s Manna. Because people seemed to be really big into religious stuff. They might buy that. Post would steal from Kellogg, Kellogg would steal from Post, by 1911 you have, what, 107 different types of corn flakes being made out of Battle Creek alone. And what is interesting about that large market, it’s sort of really hard, as hard to wade through then as it is now. I mean, sort of the snake oiling of this is going to cure everything.

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.

PETER: But that’s the appeal to that old notion that this is a healthy breakfast, a good way to start your day. It’s old fashioned.

ED: 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 Grapenuts. And of course what does it say at the bottom, the original cereal.

PETER: 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.

ANDREW PARSONS: Which a little bit later than you would think since John Harvey Kellogg invented it–

PETER: Yeah, tell us about that–

ANDREW PARSONS: –In the late 1800s. But even, it’s his brother, Will Kellogg, that decided that you don’t know how to market this, I do. Will Kellogg decides to sort of buyout his share of the company, add a little sugar, add some of that stuff that people are craving that Kellogg never wanted to put in, and the corn flakes that you’re eating is Will Kellogg’s, because he decided to take it to the masses.

ED: 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 Captain Crunch, which are basically just fossilized sugar, or I could go back to the original health food of cornflakes.

PETER: Yeah, 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.

ED: It strikes me that the great trajectory of breakfast in America has been from grease to sugar.

PETER: Yeah.

ED: You tell me there’s no such thing as progress.

THE VERVE PIPE: (SINGING) I love my cereal. My cereal. Morning, noon, and night. I love–

MALE SPEAKER: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll hear why a group of gilded-age performers thought good cooking could prevent class warfare.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a moment.

THE VERVE PIPE: (SINGING) It could be sugar-coated cornpuffs shaped in a flake. One little handful is all it takes to make me feel good.

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, we’re exploring the ways that American’s ideas about healthy eating have changed through time. Now a lot of us have had the experience of standing in 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 in what would become famous studies of the chemical composition of 2600 American foods.

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: 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.

BRIAN: This is Charlotte Biltekoff, who’s written about Atwater. She says Atwater 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 is something called a calorimeter. That was a sealed chamber lined with copper and zinc. A system of thermometers and electric condensers, measured the heat and air going in 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.

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: 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.

BRIAN: How did he measure what they were expending?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: Well, I don’t know exactly how he measured it, but he took out all the waste from the sealed chamber as well.

BRIAN: 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.

Biltekoff told me that Atwater believed his data could help cool some of this simmering class tensions in Gilded Age America.

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: 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.

BRIAN: So was this a way of ameliorating class conflict by simply teaching people how to make better use of food?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: It was certainly a way of addressing concerns about class conflict and about labor unrest. Atwater and the domestic scientists who popularized his ideas believed that if we give people the nutrition that they need at the least possible cost, then 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.

BRIAN: Charlotte who were these domestic scientists?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: 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 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.

BRIAN: I want to ask you about this New England Kitchen. Who is it directed at and what did they actually serve there?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: 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, et cetera, would bring their lunch pails 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. It 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 in 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, porridges.

BRIAN: Hmm, porridges. Was taste a consideration here? I mean, did they care about whether the workers 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, you know like 87% of the stuff is being thrown away.

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: Well ironically, or maybe not, the New England Kitchen was actually the source of the first school lunch program. They started sending–

BRIAN: I thought I sniffed out a little school lunch origin there.

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: They began sending lunches out to schools and hospitals in part because the people who they were trying to reach, were not interested.

BRIAN: 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 do they turn their attention toward?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: Absolutely did not put them out of business. So they discovered that the Irish, and 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, 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 it 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’d started to draw this important distinction between the stubborn, incorrigible, indifferent, uninterested poorer populations and the more intelligent, cosmopolitan, thinking classes, who were more amenable to this kind of education and to this kind of change.

BRIAN: So let me stop you there and ask if one of the reasons the domestic scientists were interested in nutrition was to solve social problems, did they just give up on solving social problems?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: No, they shifted their focus to the middle class and to a different kind of thinking about what the social problems were. 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.


CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: But it also gives rise to a way of thinking about changing the environment in order to improve the race and to improve heredity.

BRIAN: And how did that work with food?

CHARLOTTE BILTEKOFF: Well, the approach to diet remained very focused on Atwater’s principles of nutrition. It was about really thinking about the kitchen as a scientific laboratory and ridding American Kitchens of sensuality, intuition, tradition, and all of those reproaches to cooking they could end up in unpredictable messes.


So science was to take over and to provide replicable, predictable, and reliable results that would promise efficient diets across the land.


BRIAN: Charlotte Biltekoff is the author of Eating Right in America: Cultural Politics of Food and Health. She’s a professor at the University of California, Davis.

ED: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. We’re talking today about the history of healthy eating in America and it’s time to go to the phones.

PETER: Hey guys, we have a call from a Washington, DC, and its Elizabeth. Elizabeth, welcome to BackStory.

ELIZABETH: Thanks for having me.

PETER: So, we’re trying to get right with our digestive systems. What do you got?

ELIZABETH: I was just wondering, I feel like every time I go to the grocery store there are all these products that are gluten free, or soy free, or dairy free, and–

PETER: Yeah.

ELIZABETH: I was just wondering what the history is with these sort of lack of a better word food avoidance diets. And if it went from medicine the pop culture, or pop culture to medicine, and what happened there?

PETER: Great question, Elizabeth. When and why did we get free with food? Ed, what do you think?

ED: 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 were the beginning of things to avoid as a foundation of a diet. But it doesn’t begin quite so much for a concern for our digestive health, but because of the larger perspective that led to pacifism, abolitionism, and feminism of being sensitive to the suffering of others sentient beings.


BRIAN: Elizabeth, I think that the guys will agree this is a bit of a 20th century phenomenon. If we’re talking about x free foods in order to deal with either allergies or intolerances or insensitivities. 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, Ed is crinkling up his eyebrows.

ED: I kind of agree with you and kind of don’t.

BRIAN: I smell trouble.

ED: Well the way you phrased it, you are necessarily right, is that as soon as we start thinking about allergies and intolerances and insensitivities, those are 20th century concepts. The idea of avoiding food, various kinds of groups for various kinds of reasons. Now of course, we won’t talk about the largest religions in the world have done this for millennia, we want to point out. But the idea, Brian, the very vocabulary you are using is the one that Elizabeth is seeing at the grocery store. 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 it.

PETER: Yeah and where we come from before all of this, before 1817, is a notion 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 are 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.

BRIAN: 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, which starts in the 1950s. 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. And 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 Wegmens, let’s say, which sells a lot of gluten-free products, but when I shop at Wegmens, I want them to tailor that food to me even though it’s mass produced.

PETER: Or we are making the choices though and the more things we choose not to do, the more we have affirmed our unique identify.

ED: 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.

MALE SPEAKER: 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 say, what do we have here. He says, this is a veggie-free tata. I said, veggie-free?

PETER: No veggies–

ED: I actually see asparagus in it. So my guest and I looked at it a little while and then we realized what he had heard as he left the kitchen was it’s a veggie fritata. But his idea is so common, it’s the concept of free, that he applied it even the veggie-free. So, to any marketer out there in the world, I share with you, feel free to use veggie-free as a marketing technique. Thank you, Elizabeth.

BRIAN: And remember let freedom ring in the supermarket aisles.

ELIZABETH: Thanks so much.

BRIAN: Bye, bye.

ELIZABETH: Bye, bye.


BRIAN: Marian Burros 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.

MARIAN BURROS: My favorite recipe story is a recipe that goes back to when I was first married many, many years ago for something called blueberry torte.

BRIAN: I love blueberry torte.

MARIAN BURROS: When I got to the New York Times, it was published in 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 on their refrigerator, but we’re not printing if any more.

BRIAN: But in the early 1970s, Burros 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.

MARIAN BURROS: 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.

PETER: 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 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.

BRIAN: 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 would need to decrease their consumption of meat, eggs, and whole milk.

MARIAN BURROS: And what happened was, that especially to meat people got wind of this, and they went, I think the terms 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 raise meat, you’re going to ruin American’s diet. Everything was wrong.

BRIAN: Marian, was the beef industry asleep at the switch? I mean, how did they let such a high profile committee get so far down the eat-less-beef path.

MARIAN BURROS: First of all, lobbying wasn’t what it is today. Secondly, it wasn’t that powerful of committee. And so they aren’t aware of it, there wasn’t anybody up there on the hill to signal them, see what’s going on over here.

BRIAN: So, they were asleep at the switch. Who else took umbrage at this report?

MARIAN BURROS: There were some scientists who took umbrage, I can’t give you their names, but there were people think they’re going out on a limb way too far without the proof that they need to have.

BRIAN: Marian, we’ve got a clip here that I want you to listen to. Its from NBC News and its Dr. Robert Olson. He’s a nutritionist and paid consultant of the American Egg Board, and he’s arguing with Senator George McGovern.

DR. ROBERT OLSON: I pleaded in my report and will plead again orally here for more research on the problem before we make announcements to the American public.

MALE SPEAKER: Well I would only argue that senators don’t have the luxury that the research scientist does awaiting until every last shred of evidence is in.

BRIAN: So this committee made up of big names, they hung tough, right, they didn’t cave.


BRIAN: Wrong? Oh darn.

MARIAN BURROS: 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.

BRIAN: So how does hearings go?

MARIAN BURROS: The hearings went so well for the new lobbyists, 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.

BRIAN: That was to decrease the intake of red meat.

MARIAN BURROS: And say, quote, increase consumption of lean meat, would that taste better to you?


Well, leave it to Dole, you know, he’s got a great sense of humor.

BRIAN: He does have a sharp sense of humor, yes.

MARIAN BURROS: Mr. Finney said, decrease is a bad word, senator.


So 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 raise cows or steer, and tell you to change it to eat lean meat instead of eat less meat? And they capitulated?

BRIAN: And the committee did it, including George McGovern, right?

MARIAN BURROS: Yeah, well he came from a cattle state, didn’t he.

BRIAN: Yeah, that’s right. He’s from South Dakota.

MARIAN BURROS: And they changed some other things as well.

BRIAN: What else did they change?

MARIAN BURROS: And they added 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.”

BRIAN: Ah, so eggs were not as bad as the original report said.

MARIAN BURROS: Not according to this report, no.

BRIAN: So you have covered food for almost half a century.


BRIAN: I know that’s shocking, isn’t it. So what would you like our listeners to know about food?

MARIAN BURROS: 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.

BRIAN: But not as much salt as you might have taken it.

MARIAN BURROS: No, a grain, only a grain.


BRIAN: Marian Burros is a retired food writer most recently with the New York Times. We’ll post her famous blueberry torte recipe at

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (SINGING) I don’t eat no ham and eggs, because they’re high in cholesterol.

ED: That’s going to do it for us today, but the conversation continues online. You’ll find us at We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, SoundCloud, whatever you do. Don’t be a stranger.

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (SINGING) A tisket, a tasket, what’s in momma’s basket? Some veggie links and some fish that stinks.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was cooked up by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Jesse Dukes. Emily Charnock is our research and web coordinator and Jamal Millner is our engineer. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

Special thanks this week to Kendra Smith-Howard, Rachel Moran, and our voice of Sylvester Graham, Mr. James Scales.

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (SINGING) Strictly collard greens and an occasional steak goes on my plate.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties; by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment; and by History Channel, history made day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of History Emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (SINGING) I drop the beat, so I can talk about my favorite tastings, the food that is the everlasting. See I’m not fasting, I’m gobbling, like a dog going turkey.