When you’re waiting in the drive-thru line for that quick cheeseburger and fries, you probably aren’t thinking about how recent an invention fast food is. After all, most of us grew up with a McDonald’s around the corner. It seems like it’s always been there but, in truth, the convenience foods we all take for granted today didn’t even exist 100 years ago.
Below, we look at how food has changed during the past century, what effects those changes have had on our health and well-being, and what we can expect in the future as we evolve.
Fast food in the United States can be said to have begun in 1921, when the first fast-food hamburger chain, White Castle, was founded in Wichita, Kansas. As automobiles became more popular after World War I, drive-in restaurants began to spring up in various locations too.
These changes gave families a much-needed break from the intensive labor of preparing food. It may be hard to imagine but, back then, there were few options for making dinner quickly. Families had to buy whole foods and cook them up — a process that often took hours. The bread had to be made and baked, vegetables had to be peeled and cooked, meat prepared and cooked, fruits cleaned and often canned, casseroles made from scratch, and desserts baked from grandma’s recipes.
Back then, there were no boxed pasta or cakes to whip up in 10 minutes. Outside of Nathan’s hot dogs, there were few processed foods to provide ready-to-cook options. However, as things began to change, people loved having alternatives. Even one day with a break away from food preparation was one day where people had time to do something else, which was one of the other reasons fast-food restaurants became so successful.
In the 1920s, as fast food was getting its start, processed foods began to show up on the shelves too. World War I had brought on new methods of food processing. The troops needed convenient foods to take with them into the trenches, which spawned the growth of canned foods. After the war was over, kitchen appliances like gas stoves and refrigerators became more popular, allowing families to purchase and store more foods, and prepare them more easily.
Products that became popular during this time included Welch’s grape jelly, Wheaties, Peter Pan peanut butter, VanCamp’s canned pork and beans, Velveeta cheese, and Wonder Bread. You can imagine how just these few products could have changed things for families, providing fast options for breakfast and lunch.
In the 1930s, more ready-made foods came onto the market, including Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Spam. Colonel Harland Sanders started selling his spiced fried chicken and, as families struggled to deal with the Depression, they learned to stretch their food supplies and get by with less.
Then in the 1940s, the country entered World War II, and we learned more about food production to keep the fighting soldiers supplied. After the war was over, the market saw an explosion of new convenience foods that had been invented as part of military research.
In was in response to a military need that scientists came up with ingredients like additives to help extend the shelf-life of bread, cheese powder to flavor snacks like Cheetos ― it was originally used to flavor pasta and potatoes for the soldiers ― and dehydrated potato flakes to make instant potatoes.
M&M’s were introduced in the 1940s as well to give the troops a chocolate candy option that wouldn’t melt so easily. Chef Boyardee canned Italian foods were produced in bulk for military rations and later became a staple in American homes. The Boiardi family, which founded the company, was later credited with revolutionizing the canned food market.
Cake mix and instant coffee became popular as a result of the war too, and perhaps an even bigger change involved farmers. It was during the 1940s — after the war — that the use of fertilizer exploded.
Nitrogen was one of the major components of explosives used during the war, so once peace was achieved, all the nitrogen plants that had sprung up during wartime had to find another way to keep their businesses going.
By that time, farmers and scientists knew that nitrogen and other nutrients were important to crops. Plant scientists had discovered exactly what nutrients were essential for plant growth — with nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium topping the list. Production of all three of these grew after World War II and, since soil varies from location to location, farmers knew that some areas didn’t contain the nutrients needed to grow crops. Fertilizer became the preferred solution.
During these decades, farmers were also planting most of their land in one or two high-earning crops, so rotating those crops to keep the soil healthy wasn’t happening as often. That meant that they had to artificially add back into the soil the nutrients needed with each growing season.
The switch to fertilizer use helped increase crop production and farmer profits, but now we know that our overreliance on fertilizers is having some negative effects. The main problem is that the nutrients in the fertilizer can contaminate water supplies.
Nitrogen is converted in the soil to nitrates, which can then leach into groundwater and wash into streams and rivers, posing hazards to marine life. The phosphorus in fertilizer also stimulates the growth of algae, which can sap oxygen from the water and kill fish.
There is also a concern that as we continue to use fertilizer, we may end up damaging the soil permanently while potentially polluting the soil and air in such a way that may affect human health.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the American highway system exploded, and people started driving more than ever before. Cities were arranged around car travel, and the on-the-go lifestyle became more popular. While on the go, people still needed to eat, and so fast food and drive-ins enjoyed increasing business and profits.
It was 1955 when Ray Kroc founded the first McDonald’s in Des Plaines, Illinois. His restaurant would become the most popular in history, and more people gathered at the doors to consume quick and tasty burgers and fries. Swanson TV dinners showed up in the grocery stores, along with Diet Rite, the first diet soft drink.
By the 1960s and 1970s, fast food and convenient processed foods had become so common that we didn’t think about them. The foods were tasty and easy, and people used them without worry.
However, in 1969, the White House held a conference on food and nutrition. Scientists were concerned about nutrition problems in Americans. In 1973, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) created the first regulations requiring the nutrition labeling of foods. No one was aware of any major concerns until a few more decades had passed.
By the 1990s, scientists had amassed a good amount of data and evidence showing that processed foods and fast foods were doing bad things to our health. U.S. government surveys from 1977 to 1996 revealed a concerning trend: Americans were eating more of these convenience foods, increasing calorie intake while reducing nutrient intake, resulting in overweight, obesity and poorer health.
Today, we know that highly processed foods — those that go through many changes before they land on our tables — when eaten regularly, can create significant health risks. Although freezing and drying remain healthy ways to preserve foods, chemical processing, which removes nutrients and adds in artificial substances, may give us foods that last a long time on the shelf, but may also harm our health in the long run.
Here are just a few of the ways that today’s processed foods can damage us:
- High-fructose corn syrup: Pervasive in many processed foods, from snacks and sweets to bread and soup, high fructose corn syrup has been linked to insulin resistance, cholesterol increases, overweight and obesity and heart disease.
- Artificial ingredients: Processed foods usually contain chemical preservatives, colorants, flavorings and textures to create the right taste and feel in the mouth, but many of these chemicals have not been tested for safety, and it’s unclear how they may affect human health long-term.
- Addiction: Scientists have discovered that people can become addicted to processed foods, particularly “junk food,” because it provides a similar reward in the brain as other addictive substances like cocaine.
- Refined carbohydrates: Processed foods are high in refined carbohydrates, which are carbs that are quickly broken down into the body. These spike blood sugar levels and are linked to an increased risk of insulin sensitivity and diabetes.
- Low in nutrients: While most processed foods have all these additives in them, they are often lower on real nutrients compared to whole foods. Manufacturers may add in synthetic vitamins and minerals, but evidence shows these are not as beneficial for human health as nutrients naturally present in foods.
- Low in fiber: Most processed foods are low in fiber, leading to a low-fiber diet that is linked with constipation and other digestive ailments as well as overweight and obesity and an increased risk of heart disease.
Meanwhile, you already know fast food is bad for you, but here’s a reminder: scientific studies have linked regular consumption of fast food to an increased risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Weakened immune system
- Allergic diseases like asthma and eczema
- Autoimmune diseases
- Cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke
- Lower capacity for memory and learning
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
The good news is that the trend is starting to shift. We’ve learned more about food production changes have affected our health and the health of the environment and, as a result, we’re demanding better ― both from farmers and manufacturers.
Companies are listening. In the 2015 Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference, health was the major theme, with companies from all around the country looking for new ways to meet consumer demand for convenient but healthy foods.
Food labels have improved on grocery store products and, recently, restaurants were also required to put calorie counts on their menus. Restaurants are finding new ways to offer natural, organic and locally sourced options, and companies are starting to be more transparent about where their food is sourced and grown.
As more people become aware of the importance of nutritious diets, many are returning to whole foods, but still managing to fix meals quickly because of microwaves and other easy preparation tools. On-the-go options are more likely to be made with premium and fresh ingredients, and meal kits delivered through the mail give families ready-made options with whole foods that they can fix in less than 20 minutes.
Farmers and agricultural scientists are working too to make healthy changes in the environment. Green revolution crops are being bred to slash fertilizer use, reducing the need for nitrogen while still creating high yields. Improved seed selection, crop diversity, soil testing and a return to farming manures to cover crops are all part of a soil fertility plan that involves more thoughtful management practices.
Perhaps most important is how each family approaches their diet in their own homes. Are you choosing healthy foods and supporting those companies that work to protect the environment? You may not think you can make a difference but, one by one, we can all improve how we eat every day and, working together, create lasting change.
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