A short history of convenience foods

From Alice Abler on Vision.org:

“Throughout the 20th century, the food industry worked to provide not only convenience but also ostensibly wholesome substitutes for natural foods, including butter. In fact, margarine has been around since the late 19th century, but for many years it was white by law. Eventually, however, it came with added artificial flavor and a capsule of yellow artificial food coloring (to be kneaded in after purchase) so it would taste and look more like the real thing. At first countries including Canada, Australia and France, as well as some American states—notably Wisconsin, the Dairy State—outlawed colored margarine to protect their butter trade. As unappealing as hydrogenated oil with a side of chemical yellow color sounds today, “modern” housewives trekked across state lines to procure the factory-made substitute and bring it back to their kitchens.

Eventually“millions of American palates adjusted to artificial flavors and then welcomed them; and consumers started to let the food industry make a great many decisions on matters of taste that people in the past had always made for themselves,” writes Laura Shapiro in Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America. 

Advertising companies and the growing convenience-food industry made sure that eating the modern way became the fashionable way. Real, fresh food in its natural form no longer seemed desirable. With the advent of frozen products in addition to canned, foods were widely and consistently available year-round. There was no need to rely on seasonal or regional crops, and prices remained fairly stable from winter through autumn. In keeping with this revolutionary new approach, a fish dinner—which might once have consisted of fresh, delicate lake perch with a butter sauce and in-season vegetables—now meant reheated frozen fish sticks with instant mashed potatoes, canned peas and Jell-O salad.

With the modernization of food came the modernization of agriculture to keep up with the demand. Organic, mixed-crop family farms slowly gave ground to large commercial monoculture operations that depended on chemical fertilizers and pesticides—operations that science and academia dubbed “agribusiness” and promoted as the future of food.

Commercial food manufacturers helped ensure the success of the new paradigm through the education system, providing instructional material for home economics teachers to pass on to students. In Something From the Oven, Shapiro cites a 1955 article that sang the praises of convenience foods in the classroom. “These mixes eliminate much of the tedious, uninteresting part of the work for the students,” she quotes; “mixes are in keeping with our speed era.”

By the 1960s, cooking with food in its raw, natural state was little more than a quaint novelty and was in fact becoming a lost art. But then Julia Child learned how to cook and went on to help many American women rediscover the joys of cooking. The writings of Adelle Davis and others began to infiltrate the consciousness of a new generation, and “health food” became the latest buzzword. Healthy eating gained more traction after Rachel Carson sounded the alarm about what pesticides were doing to our environment and to us (see “Rachel Carson: A Voice That Broke the Silence).

But for the majority, convenience remained the hallmark of modern food and nutrition. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, convenience foods continued to gain in popularity, and “fast food”—the ultimate convenience food—joined the revolution. Fast-food chains reached from coast to coast and then around the world, from Boston to Bahrain. The mass of consumers had by now largely lost the connection between food and nutrition, and few thought much about ingesting foods to keep them healthy.

After several generations of variations on this theme, however, we are seeing the effects of eating foods that are so far removed from their original state. Not only are many diseases linked to poor diet—from certain cancers to diabetes to heart disease—but obesity affects an unprecedented segment of the Western population. The ideas planted by Childs, Davis, Carson and others are finally taking root and spreading. Although grocery-store shelves attest to the ongoing public demand for the quick and easy, Slow Food and related movements are growing, along with an awareness of the deliciousness and healthfulness of seasonal, local, sustainable fresh food (see “Time to Eat”). With the help of time and information, tastes are changing worldwide once again as consumers little by little rediscover the flavors, textures and nutrition of real food and healthy meals. …”

Read more on Vision.org

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