Welcome to the Golden Age of American Food

Despite the outcry about the American diet, and despite the obesity crisis, there is no better time to be a food citizen. Here's why things are getting better, fast.

  • Ron Marks left a life of dollar-meal marketing to produce some of the country's best grass-fed-milk yogurt.


    Photo: Courtesy of Whole Foods Market

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Just as it has been for the food artisan, the 21st century has been a fruitful time for another archetypal American figure, the Food Reformer. Not since the hippie era of the 1960s has there been this much gnashing of teeth about the American diet—from Food Politics to Super Size Me to Food, Inc. to Michael Pollan's poetic, concise, best-selling In Defense of Food, which begins famously with these words: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

The critique of the modern food supply implies that something better came before, a Golden Age of whole foods and balanced diets, back when great-great-grandma churned the butter for bread she'd make with branny wheat from the local miller. To some degree, the nostalgic appeal of craft foods, with their old-timey labels, taps into the same idea. But was there ever a Golden Age? The critique itself was framed almost 200 years ago and traces a constant thread of often shrill attacks from generation to generation.

America was, from the get-go, a rough country with a rough diet. Fruitful was the land, but life and sustenance were not easy for the pioneers and the frontier farmers. Nor, with a few regional exceptions, was there a food culture to speak of. "America's never had the kind of strong food traditions that other countries have," Michael Pollan says, "partly because we're an immigrant, mongrel culture, and partly because the Anglo influence proved to be the strongest, sadly, for our food." (When there was some French seasoning in the melting pot, as in Louisiana, things turned out notably better.)

Where food was abundant, it was wolfed down. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville, on his famous American road trip, wrote in the 1830s: "We are still baffled by the sheer quantity of food that people somehow stuff down their gullets. Besides breakfast, dinner, and tea, with which Americans eat ham, they have very copious suppers and often a snack." (Sounds like he spent a good bit of time at Waffle House and 7-Eleven.)

It was a meat-centered menu, and a lot of people were probably, as the British would say, bunged up a lot of the time. In the 1830s, there arose a powerful cry for food reform—not the first cry, but the loudest to that point. Sylvester Graham, who opposed the refining of wheat, preached a pure regimen of whole vegetables and grains with lots of fiber to prevent disease and lengthen life, because, he said, at least 99% of farmers and laboring men ate too much. A few decades later came the breakfast cereal titans, Kellogg's and Post, also ardent reformers.

Folks had reason to heed a pure-foods argument: As cities grew in the 19th century, trade in food exploded, often involving horrific adulteration, sometimes with poisons. A convulsion of interest in food-safety laws followed Upton Sinclair's exposé of meatpacking mendacity in his 1906 novel, The Jungle. Where people couldn't get a decent diet in America, rickets and pellagra—hideous vitamin-deficiency diseases—prevailed well into the 20th century.

Then came the discovery of the vitamins, which saved thousands of lives. Science was the new reformer, and the health reformers jumped aboard. If a tiny amount of vitamin C could prevent deadly scurvy, why not toss the lime, eat a pill, and add vitamins to your vitamin-reduced, refined foods? Nutrition researchers wondered: Was healthy diet perfectible by understanding its chemical components?

After World War II, America entered a period of unbridled enthusiasm for the foods of industry. The booming farm-to-factory food supply supported our triumphant modern lifestyle. The message in media and in food ads was this: This is American food culture; it's the best food culture, and we have invented it.

Statisticians began noticing in the 1950s, though, that certain aspects of the American diet were linked to an alarming jump in heart disease. There was something rather imperfect about the modern diet, leading not only to heart attacks but stroke and perhaps cancer, as well—problems less common in populations that ate less fat, salt, and calories overall, and ate more plants. Where the vitamins had been celebrated, research now singled out other food components—types of fat, in particular—as archvillains in the Age of Abundance. The era of fat phobia arrived, and it lasted well past the year 2000.

Michael Pollan has used (but didn't originate) the term "nutritionism" to describe the belief that healthy diet could be achieved by understanding its chemical components. The result was that "real" food—corn on the cob—could seem less valid than a refined corn snack with added vitamins and soluble fiber. "Good" components could be added in the factory to confer a healthy aura.

Today, the reformers say America has been, for many decades, going to hell in a breadbasket. (The new archvillain: high-fructose corn syrup.) It was easy to miss the fact that heart disease rates dropped almost 50% between 1980 and 2000 (reasons proffered include screening and preventive care, statin drugs, and the elimination of a lot of trans fats, a by-product of food processing, from the diet). It was easy to miss that good news because something else started in the late 1980s: the astonishing increase in obesity in America.


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