Unfounded Food Activism Has a Long and Inglorious History

In a post on the Washington Post’s Political Bookworm blog today, historian Larry Schweikart writes about the pivotal event that gave birth to modern food activism: President Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack while playing golf in 1955. The media scrambled to tell a frightened public what caused cardiovascular disease, and reporters settled on the plausible-sounding (yet unproven) explanation that it was due to Americans’ post-war preference for meat. This might have been the first time in food history that media hype won out against the facts – but it certainly wasn’t the last.

Schweikart recounts how such a colossal error in judgment came about:

There were numerous, and very serious, problems with these claims, not the least of which was that the research on which they were based was incomplete and extremely preliminary. Because medical testing had improved so greatly, symptoms that in previous years had not been ascribed to heart disease were now correctly linked.

The “epidemic” was really an epidemic of better testing. Worse, the notion that Americans ate less meat in the 19th century was absurd, and was disproved by almost any contemporary accounts. Nevertheless, in the 1950s, [medical researcher Ancel] Keys conducted numerous uncontrolled tests on cholesterol and heart disease, insisting his position was validated. The press latched on, in part because the issue offered a chance for greater government involvement in the lives of Americans.

By the time the final research results had come in — almost all of them contradicting or disproving Keys on the “fat hypothesis” — it was too late: a template had been adopted in which fat was bad, carbs, good.

This public-health model of “reproach first, recant later” has been replicated innumerable times in the decades since – most recently in the case of high fructose corn syrup, which even the most vocal of activists now admit they were too hasty in condemning.

The bottom line is that whether it’s over meat, sugar, or margarine, media hype in food politics is nothing new. The only question is which will be the next vilified food to get a full pardon.

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