Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

A Century of Food 1940-1949

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New Challenges – World War II

As the hardships from the Depression were about to fade, Americans faced another challenge, the horrors of World War II. Men marched off to Europe and the South Pacific and women marched out of kitchens and into factories. Rationing, substitutions, and making do with less dominated most of this decade. Home cooks made sugarless cookies, eggless cakes, and meatless meals. Food was prioritized to the troops and farmers and manufacturers were obligated to supply military needs that created food shortages for consumers. Posters proclaimed: “Do with less, so they’ll have enough”.

Ration Books and Victory Gardens

Food rationing using ration cards was introduced in 1942 and ended in 1947. Americans were encouraged to plant Victory Gardens. The government restricted each American to 28 ounces of meat a week plus limited amounts of sugar, gasoline, butter, milk, cheese, eggs and coffee. The production and sales of convenience foods soared while the use of margarine replaced the restricted butter. The Victory Gardens provided vegetables helped to fill out dinner menus since canned goods, frozen fruits and vegetables were also rationed. Ground beef became popular; hamburger was only seven rationing points as compared with 12 for a T-bone steak.



Sugar rationing, 1942 - 1945

Sugar rationing in the U.S. 1942-1945


On the Home Front

After the war, many new products were introduced to the American public. These “convenience foods” (dehydrated juice, instant coffee, cake mixes, etc.) came about because of the military interest and research in using these products for the troops. Many people could not afford to “eat out”; thus many restaurants closed for good. People entertained differently with pot luck suppers and progressive dinners becoming popular. Neighbors pooled their rationing points to help the cause. Vitamins were recommended to help with the nation’s nutritional needs. This more than likely helped fuel a burgeoning supplement industry that we experience today.

Uncle Spam

Even though sugar was rationed at the home front, it was available for the production of chocolate and soft drinks. Hershey and Mars got sugar, so did Coke and Pepsi. Soldiers on the front lines drank instant coffee made by twelve different companies including Maxwell House and Nescafe. They soon tired of their main course of rations – Spam. During the war, the U.S. government bought 98% of Hormel’s products – Chile Con Carne, Dinty Moore Beef Stew and canned hams and of course, Spam. Soldiers called Uncle Sam, “Uncle Spam”. Americans did not go on vacations due a rubber shortage for tires. But they did go to the movies, so popcorn consumption soared.




Starvation Overseas

World War II was extremely hard on those living in Europe. In July, 1943, a great tank battle occurred in the Ukraine between the Germans and the Russians with the Russians emerging as the victor. Some historians consider this a turning point for the war. In Leningrad, starving people ate anything they could find – leather shoes, briefcases; they stripped wallpaper off and ate the paste. In India, the British took rice to feed their troops and almost six million Indians starved or died from malnutrition. In the Netherlands, Anne Frank wrote in her diary about the bland diet that included slimy, very old cabbage. In Leningrad, people resorted to cannibilism. The siege ended in 1944 with the death toll from starvation at about 1 million people. Americans were lucky compared to the rest of the war-torn world. Nobody starved to death because of food shortages.




Ancel Keys and K Rations

Ancel Benjamin Keys (January 26, 1904 – November 20, 2004) was an American scientist who studied the influence of diet on health. When it appeared that the U.S. would be in World War II, Keys went to the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute in Chicago to inquire about emergency rations. After some frustration and lack of interest from the Institute, he eventually worked on the development of the K ration for military troops in the field.  The initial ingredients of the K-ration were procured at a local Minneapolis grocery store—hard biscuits, dry sausage, hard candy, and chocolate. The final product was different from Keys’ original ingredients, but most of Keys initial suggestions made it to the final product. The small container weighed only 28 oz. but provided 3200 calories a day.

Keys was not finished yet. Interest was building about how to treat mass starvation and how to bring people back to normal nourishment afterwards in the best possible way to avoid metabolic complications. 1944 Keys carried out a starvation study with 36 conscientious objectors. The participants would first be placed on the three month baseline diet of 3200 calories after which their calories were reduced to 1800 calories/day while expending 3009 calories in activities such as walking.

After and during the starvation period, the Keyes subjects exhibited a psychiatric syndrome, called semi-starvation neurosis. They dreamed and fantasized about food; they were anxious and depressed; they hid their food in their rooms; they often binged. Participants exhibited a preoccupation with food, both during the starvation period and the rehabilitation phase. Sexual interest was drastically reduced, and the volunteers showed signs of social withdrawal and isolation.




English: K-ration dinner unit. The K-ration wa...

English: K-ration dinner unit. The K-ration was an individual daily combat food ration which was introduced by the United States Army during World War II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Weight Charts and Amphetamines

In 1942, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company published the tables which will create the standards for an “ideal weight”. These charts are based on gender, height and frame size. However, there are wide variations of normal that the tables don’t take into account. Someone who is lean, well-built and muscular probably would be underweight on the tables. The tables don’t apply to the elderly and the weights are not representative of the general population. These are heights and weights just of people who have insurance. In 1948, over 50% of all patients being treated for obesity were prescribed amphetamines. Evidence was beginning to accumulate suggesting that this method of dieting can be very dangerous.


The first frozen orange juice was found to be heavy and expensive to ship. The concentrate process was developed by government scientists in the mid-40’s and was pioneered as a retail product by Snow Drop in 1945. The name Minute Maid alluded to the Minutemen and how well it could be made by maidens. The ad campaign came alive when Bing Crosby, the singer-actor” participated in a long-term contract to extol its virtues. “I’ll buy your first can of Minute Maid” he promised in a 1949 ad that was used to encourage customers in new markets. For this reason or its quality, the product became a huge success. Within 10 years of its introduction in 1946, sales rose from $374,000 to $106.5 million. Sales of ready-made orange juice overtook frozen sales in 1985. Americans became too lazy or busy to wait for the frozen part to dissolve in water. But if you count refrigerated orange juice that is made from concentrate at the factory, the frozen juice that Minute Maid helped innovate still accounts for almost 70% of all the orange juice Americans drink.



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