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Good Health Magazine : NUTRITION : THE QUEST FOR DIETARY MAGIC : AMERICANS HAVE LONG SOUGHT SHORTCUTS TO LONG LIFE AND FREEDOM FROM DISEASE. HEALTH-FOOD INFORMATION AND MISINFORMATION HAVE FLOURISHED. NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED--THE STRANGE AND UNUSUAL DOCTRINES OF THE PAST HAVE SIMPLY BEEN REPACKAGED FOR A MORE SOPHISTICATED AUDIENCE.

April 28, 1991|TONI TIPTON | Tipton is a Times food writer.

In the mid-19th Century, Sylvester Graham, creator of the graham cracker, believed that plain, simple foods in their natural state were necessary for a healthy body. Salt and other condiments caused insanity, he said; cooked vegetables were "against God's law," and chicken pies caused cholera.

In 1899, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg made a fortune by "detoxifying" the bodies of wealthy patients in his Battle Creek, Mich., sanitarium. A back-to-nature enthusiast, Kellogg employed therapy that included a high-fiber diet based on his invention, the cornflake. Although he prescribed natural foods in general, Kellogg was especially fond of strawberries and grapes--he frequently advised hypertensives to consume 10 to 14 pounds of the fruit a day to lower their blood pressure.

Capitalizing on the belief at the time that fiber could cure stomach ailments, one of Kellogg's clients--Charles W. Post--developed a ground-wheat-and-barley product that he called Grape Nuts. Post marketed the cereal as a remedy for, among other maladies, appendicitis and malaria.

Around the same time, "Fletcherizing" or "chewing for health" took the country by storm. Horace Fletcher designed the process of slow, methodical chewing and rechewing of food, to produce the same positive effects as the high-fiber diets being hawked by his peers. The process was lauded in magazines and used as part of the treatment at Kellogg's sanitarium.

(Although most people today have never heard of "Fletcherizing," many Americans are familiar with his other invention--Fletcher's Castoria, an oily liquid used to treat childhood constipation.)

Despite nutritionists' and health experts' constant calls for a modest diet based on foods from a variety of sources, Americans have long sought dietary magic to remedy their grossly imbalanced diets.

This desire for shortcuts to long life, super strength, extra energy, vitality and freedom from disease has caused an assortment of health-food information and misinformation to flourish for what seems like a millennium. Americans have created diets for weight loss to protect the heart, to cleanse the intestines, to lower blood pressure and even to calm hyperactive children. In many ways, our ideas about health foods have come full-circle.

For decades, dietitians have expressed concerns about the American public's preoccupation with healthful foods as panaceas. "Belief in the virtues of specific foods is as old as man himself," Professor Mary Swartz Rose told a group of her colleagues at an American Dietetic Assn. meeting on food fads in 1932.

In the 1940s, these concerns grew into a fascination with foods that were believed to prolong life. By the 1960s and '70s Americans had developed a preoccupation with superhealth, and by the 1980s food faddists were again looking at food for longevity. Today food safety is again a concern.

Indeed, food faddism is an American way of life, and it hasn't changed very much. It's not that consumers haven't learned from past mistakes. It's simply that strange and unusual doctrines of the past are repackaged as the audience becomes more sophisticated.

"Around the turn of the century the major concern was food safety," says C. Wayne Callaway of George Washington University in Washington D.C. "This led to the establishment of the Food and Drug Administration.

"The second era, from about 1920 to 1940, had to do with adequacy. It was discovered that many Americans were malnourished, which led to Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs), the Food and Nutrition Board, enrichment of foods and community-education programs.

"The third era is the one we're in now--an era of dietary guidelines or (the link between) diet and chronic disease--especially fat and the simplistic categorization of foods as 'good' or 'bad.' We're not looking at the whole diet."

Historically, Americans never have.

The first nutritionists were employed in the Massachusetts and New York state health departments in 1917 to establish and maintain nutritional standards.

In spite of the nutritionists' presence, malnutrition in children and nutrient-deficiency diseases--rickets, scurvy and pellagra--were common. This was largely because people had moved from farms, where fresh foods were available, and began eating large amounts of processed foods. Salted meats, canned vegetables and refined flour and sugar, for example, were staples in the typical American household.

Eventually, packagers began fortifying foods with vitamins and minerals that had been removed during processing. Iodized salt, Vitamin B- and iron-enriched grain products, Vitamin-D-fortified milk, and cod liver oil were incorporated into highly processed foods.

By 1930, because of this post-World War I emphasis on vitamins and minerals, nutrition clearly had become a national priority.

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