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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Hygieia's Feast: The Making of America's Health Food Culture, 1870-1920

  • Author(s): Adams, Aubrey Taylor
  • Advisor(s): Igler, David B
  • et al.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, health reformers took to lecterns and the pages of cookbooks, health treatises, and magazines to argue for a revised perspective on the relationship between food, bodies, and health in America. Based on scientific understandings of what was natural for human bodies to digest, health reformers developed expert knowledge regarding the medical and physiological properties of the plant and animal foods that they considered healthful. Whole wheat, nuts, and fruit were the staple foods upon which columnists, cookbook writers, and health experts built a new health food cuisine. The dishes that magazines, cookbooks, recipe pamphlets, and health treatises shared in common often utilized these ingredients as replacements for familiar foods that were seen as unhealthful: meat, caffeinated, beverages, and alcohol. As a new health food cuisine coalesced, a new health food industry took shape against the backdrop of Progressive era pure food reform campaigns. Addressing the emerging American mass market, health food entrepreneurs marketed their goods with a winning combination of dietetic advice, scientific jargon, and emphasis on modern production methods. As the health foods industry grew, so too did the connection between health food and wild nature. Health food experts argued that "going back to the land" would restore health through exercise and simple, quality food. Moreover, they idealized the diets of "primitive" peoples of the past and present as both uniquely health-giving and close to nature.

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