Helen Zoe Veit: The Great War and Modern Food

veit_modernWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Helen Zoe Veit, author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century. American eating changed dramatically in the early twentieth century. As food production became more industrialized, nutritionists, home economists, and so-called racial scientists were all pointing Americans toward a newly scientific approach to diet. Food faddists were rewriting the most basic rules surrounding eating, while reformers were working to reshape the diets of immigrants and the poor. And by the time of World War I, the country’s first international aid program was bringing moral advice about food conservation into kitchens around the country. In Modern Food, Moral Food, Veit argues that the twentieth-century food revolution was fueled by a powerful conviction that Americans had a moral obligation to use self-discipline and reason, rather than taste and tradition, in choosing what to eat.

In today’s post, Veit takes a look at how World War I affected American diets in enduring political and philosophical ways.


A hundred years ago, European armies were fighting a “Great War” against each other, one that would later be called World War I.

World War I means many things to many people. The first industrial war. The beginning of modernity. A rehearsal for World War II.

One thing World War I doesn’t bring to mind is food. But it should, because during World War I the rise of industrial food processing, nutrition science, and America’s first food aid program revolutionized American food on almost every level. World War I made food modern, and understanding how that happened is key to understanding food today.

Food was already changing when the war started. Today we romanticize great-grandmother’s supposedly local, sustainable food habits. But when modern foodies take up home canning or chicken keeping, they’re taking on work their own ancestors were usually thrilled to outsource when they could. Industrial food was coming into its own a hundred years ago, and Americans leapt at the chance to buy canned vegetables, boxed cereal, industrial meat, and newly invented processed cheese.

At the same time, the new science of nutrition was turning obscure terms like calories and vitamins into household names. Before calories were applied to food in the late nineteenth century, few realized that different foods contained different levels of energy. After all, it’s not intuitive that a piece of cheddar has more calories than a piece of carrot. By the 1910s calories were changing how Americans ate, especially because many wanted to maximize the food energy they bought per dollar. Vitamins were even more revolutionary. Just discovered around 1910, vitamins made it official that the kinds of food people ate mattered. While scientists in the past had dismissed fruits and vegetables as frivolous extras, new knowledge was transforming them into central players in the modern diet.

Those dietary changes got a jolt of moral urgency when America entered the war in 1917. By then, trench warfare had devastated European agriculture and killed millions of farmers-turned-soldiers. In response to food shortages, the U.S. government created the Food Administration, a wartime agency headed by a young Herbert Hoover, tasked with funneling calorie-dense foods to allies and soldiers abroad. To export as much beef, pork, white flour, butter, and sugar as possible, administrators had to get Americans to eat less of them.

And this is where it gets interesting. Congress handed Hoover the power to impose rations, just as administrators would later do in World War II. Instead, Hoover relied almost entirely on propaganda. A torrent of government posters, leaflets, and lectures urged Americans to try strange foods like peanut butter, oatmeal, and cottage cheese, regional foods like corn pone or tamales, or meat-stretching immigrant dishes like spaghetti—all foods many Americans had reviled in the past. Some individuals went further, encouraging pet owners to eat their cats and dogs in the name of patriotism.

The rebuttal to objectors was always the same: wartime food conservation was about morality, not tradition or taste.

That idea stuck. Modern food came of age in a morally electric context, when western democracy seemed pitted in a death match with Prussian autocracy. If dictatorships controlled their subjects from the outside, didn’t citizens of a democracy, by definition, control themselves? During World War I, a stunning number of Americans argued that disciplined eating indicated a larger capacity for democratic citizenship. That meant eating according to the demands of science or patriotism or thrift—not pleasure.

Wartime glorification of disciplined eating far outlived the war itself, in part because self-control seemed uniquely visible through weight. For the first time during the World War I era, large numbers of people started to say that being “overweight”—a newly coined word—wasn’t a sign of health or prosperity but a sign of moral weakness. The thin ideal that exploded into popularity by the 1920s owes its clutch on American culture ever since in large part to the moral judgment at its heart. World War I cemented a sense that morally righteous eaters were self-disciplined above all.

Food choices have been moralized in many ways throughout history, but as a mainstream attitude toward eating, that was unprecedented.

Today, when more than two-thirds of Americans are overweight and when everything from fast-food advertisements to gourmet cooking magazines celebrates the pleasures of eating, it might seem like any doctrine of dietary self-control went out of fashion long ago. But in fact, everything from our zigzagging pursuit of fad diets to our perennial search for the newest super food to our obsessions with both junk food and weight loss point to a fundamental distrust of taste and tradition, a peculiarly modern and peculiarly American attitude towards food we can trace from the era of World War I.

Helen Zoe Veit is associate professor of history at Michigan State University. She is author of Modern Food, Moral Food: Self-Control, Science, and the Rise of Modern American Eating in the Early Twentieth Century, which was a finalist for the 2014 James Beard Foundation Book Award in the Reference and Scholarship category. The book is now available in paperback.