Nutritional Fads From the 1900s Feel Eerily Familiar

A table set for dinner in the 1900s

People today are always trying to find the next big “wonder food” that will make them healthy and fit. While nutritional fads as we know them today are fairly new—the basic science of nutrition is only two hundred years old—fashions in eating have been a common thing for thousands of years. Infoplease is taking look back at historical fads, starting close to home at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States—in the future we will revisit this time period to discuss fads in other nations, across the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa.

The Turn of the Twentieth Century

The turn of the century was a time of significant social change, which changed the way Americans ate and produced food. Probably the most important change is the rise of urbanization; young people began moving into the cities, meaning that the small-time family farm became less viable and the country developed a larger urban population that was incapable of growing its own food. Both as a response to and as a cause of this change, there were many innovations in how food was stored and transported. The rise of preservatives (including, unfortunately, arsenic) and airtight packaging meant that food could be carted further and held for longer. The last significant change is complex and multi-faceted. The wealthy urban population wanted and could afford more variety in their diet now, and the means of preservation meant that people in, say, Boston, could now be shipped oranges from California in large quantities. This demand for exotic foods became tied up in the economic and military expansion of US influence in Latin America.

The Science of the Time

People’s relationship with science back then wasn’t much different from ours now. Modernity likes to fashion itself as above folk superstition by dressing up fads with “energy,” “ions,” and “toxins,” but people across time have tried to base their diets off of the science available to them. They were no more prone to fads then than now. So what was the science at the time? Well, some significant differences were that there were far fewer GMOs, and those that existed weren't genetically-modified in a lab the way most present people would use the term. Scientists didn't have the same information we have now about protein structures. And there was generally less knowledge about the various chemicals the human body—this means that, for good and ill, there were fewer fortified foods. But the basic knowledge in the scientific community was there; did the public eat any smarter?

Our Three Favorite Fads

Here are some common nutritional fads from the time period, and the ideas behind them.

  • This isn't a food (as we all know, dieting can be rough), but people were very desperate to lose weight in the early 1900s however they could. Luckily, La Parle Obesity Soap was there to help wash away their fat in the bath. It's impossible to say if the people at Norwood Chemical Co. actually believed this, but the idea for the consumer was that since fat is contained beneath the skin, it could be scrubbed out like other unwanted materials on the skin.

  • Bile Beans were “extracted from a new vegetable source by chemist Charles Forde,” and promised to help people drop pounds with regular consumption. This laxative certainly had an effect, but I’ll bet it's not the one people wanted. It guaranteed to flush out the body and purify the blood by clearing out chemicals—all thanks to a rare vegetable used by Aboriginal Australians. Do any of these appeals sound familiar?

  • This last is cheating, because it's encapsulating several fads, but it's impossible to not remark on. There was a general feud between several food producers—including Dr. John Kellogg—that humans should entirely cut out meat, entirely cut out starch and grain, or that one could pick either side as long a they didn't mix their diets. The idea behind this was that based on their anatomy (specifically their teeth, which certain teeth are suited to ingesting different substances), humans were a certain balance of either carnivore or herbivore. By that logic, a carnivorous human shouldn't eat plants any more than a carnivorous animal, and vice versa.

For more on these fads, read the following:

Annals Of Weight-Loss Gimmicks: From Bile Beans To Obesity Soap

Nutrition: American Fads, Intricate Facts

By Logan Chamberlain