Paradox of Plenty was cited in a wide array of awesome environmental and nutritional histories I've read. It came up over and over as a source for all sorts of different things, from synthetic vitamin supplements to cultural divides in eating habits to soil erosion. The literature implied it was a vast, sweeping, and detailed history of food issues in America. I'm happy to say it lived up to its promise.

Levenstein weaves three main threads together throughout the book: processing tech and nutrition science, culinary culture, and hunger. Historical concerns about malnutrition in the poor stand alongside wacky diet fads; trends in grocery sales and restaurant styles are described beside ideas about home cooking and gender roles.

In addition to its scope, the even and skeptical tone of the book stands highlights its contrast to the popular books that cite it. Levenstein's historical context and perspective take the wind out of pretty much every historical idea about food and society you can think of, on the left and right. This is crucial, a deep blessing for the subject, since food is easily the most emotionally resonant meme field we have. What is good to eat and in what context is a key aspect of subcultural differentiation, important in maintaining racial and class identity. When this is mixed with the nasty mess of competing political lobbies, scientific research into an extremely complex field (nutrition), and corporate capitalism, it's nearly impossible to figure out what to believe about food.

Every valuable lesson in the book is a great illustration of this problem. A few of the more interesting ones:

In the Depression, it was widely assumed that economic collapse engendered widespread malnutrition and hunger. However, none of the survey methods at the time were adequate to gauge changes in consumption, and medical diagnosis of malnutrition was basically a joke. Some modern historians question whether the Depression had much impact at all on the prevalence of malnutrition. Instead, it seems that the response to the perceived malnutrition was driven more by social upheaval from hard-hit members of the middle class, who were still able to feed their families, but without the level of luxury they were accustomed to. Then as now, politicians paid little heed to the level of malnutrition among the poor, which remained around its historical high throughout the Depression.

Dubious aspects of research on malnutrition continued as scientists became hyper-aware of the role of vitamins in health. A few idiosyncratic case studies were used to prove that Vitamin B12 provided “pep,” and low war morale was blamed on its deficiency. Soldiers' foods were pumped full of B12 and breakfast cereals made their pitch on artificial B12 supplements. As vitamin mania expanded, the public became cognizant that processed foods (prominent since the 1920s and becoming ever more so) traded shelf-life for nutritional content. In one of the nation's many backlashes against giant corporate malfeasance, consumers turned to vitamin supplements to fill their imagined needs. Health food stores filled up with synthetic vitamins. The idea market was flooded with garbage claims about the effects of taking giant doses of vitamins (cf. Emergen-C).

The FDA intervened against these baseless claims (research since has shown that overdosing on synthetic vitamins is not healthy) and in doing so defended the present American diet as nutritionally adequate, siding with food processors against faddist counterculturists. This lost them most of their credibility as guardians of the American food supply, since they were defending somewhat dubious research from food processors. The public got Congress to make synthetic vitamins exempt from FDA oversight. In the process, food processors and vitamin manufacturers (many of which we know now as pharmaceutical companies) both funded large bodies of research explicitly in favor of the claims they made. These bodies of research have both entered modern folk knowledge about food, and vitamin faddism is still widespread (from what I understand, for instance, there is no reason for most Americans to take any kind of multivitamin supplement, but you could certainly find plenty of science to support that choice).

As deaths from infectious disease fell and medical research shifted to chronic “diseases of civilization” like diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and cancer, two major schools of thought emerged. One damned sugars, while the other damned saturated fats. For many decades, saturated fats were pegged as the chief culprit, along with cholesterol. This idea was rocketed to the fore by research funded by the growing vegetable oil industry. Soybean oil and canola oil were both rich in PUFAs, thought to be the healthy alternatives to saturates by proponents of the theory. The dairy and meat industries saw the fight as unwinnable and focused instead on developing low-fat products like skim milk, fat-free yogurt, and lean meats. These factors drove the saturated fat hypothesis to widespread acceptance, overcoming a fundamental disagreement in the scientific community (on a research question still in relative infancy, of course). But what really killed the sugar idea was, of course, the sugar lobby, which funded plenty of research to defend its product. The emerging corn syrup lobby joined those efforts. Together, these forces, not any conclusion in scientific research, are the reason why for decades we have had fat-free products made of modified starches, margarines made from soy and canola, and rivers and lakes of soda.

What's interesting about this story, though, is that sugar had been viewed as unhealthy in folk wisdom for decades. Diabetes and heart disease is far from the first time in this book that sugar is damned. This makes it clear that the acceptance of food research is largely based on intuitive ideas drawn from cultural memes. Sugar, meat, coffee, and processed foods all seem unhealthy to people in various historical groups for often arbitrary reasons based on cultural history. Most of the ideas we were raised on come from corporate advertising and corporate-funded research. Today, the primal diet and Nourishing Traditions are bringing back the sugar crusade (see The Vegetarian Myth). They're defending dairy fat and meat and attacking PUFAs and corn syrup. There's an emerging body of science to support that move. But it's quite transparent, in Levenstein's light, that this idea has a lot more to do with cultural memes than it does with nutritional research. Keith's book is a virulent diatribe against the Corrupt Forces of Big Ag, replete with emotional anecdotes and absolutist claims that obscure the complexities of the issue and preclude a middle ground.

Levenstein explains in broad strokes how we arrived at the food landscape we inhabit today. National food tastes were homogenized during WWII, as soldiers from across the country were mixed and needed to be fed comforting, home-style foods. By definition, these foods had to be familiar, so they couldn't be regionally specific. GI's took home a taste for roast beef, pork chops, mashed potatoes, peas, and Jell-o. This was basically the sort of food you'd find in restaurants for the next few decades (supplementing burgers and fries, of course).

Food processors had an incredible influence on home eating through women's magazines. Housewives aspired to an ideal of good cooking and domesticity that was largely created as an advertising concept, though it drew on ideas that were already culturally resonant, of course. Soon the magazines were the last word on housewifery and home-cooking, displacing communities of real people as the arbiter of norms and Grandma's recipe book as the compass for what women cooked and how they cooked it. Tons of casseroles, cakes, and bizarre dishes of Jell-o, marshmallows and canned fruit took form. The stuff of any Midwestern potluck today, and thus an interesting little-explained facet of our childhood foods.

Ethnic foods were shunned, and immigrants sought to distance themselves from them in the pursuit of integration and social acceptance. This changed only recently, as the American empire expanded and it became a status symbol to be familiar with global cuisine. As long as a cuisine didn't come from one's local underclass – a group anyone seeking status still needed to distance themselves from – could be incorporated into the middle class menu. This trend was supported by the food industry, seeking to diversify their product lines in an effort to increase market share. Ethnic spices also offered a cheap way to reintroduce flavor to foods rendered bland by processing, especially as excessive salt became associated with health issues.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book covered the subculture I've been broadly attracted to and a part of for the last eight years or so of my life: the counterculture. If American culture is a fertile ecosystem of folk knowledge and ideas about food, the counterculture is the teeming microcosm under a rock or on a fertile pile of shit. Members are virulent proselytizers, often uneducated or worse, educated in an obsessive and blindered way, seeing only research that supports their conclusion. More baffling, faddists in the counterculture are both deeply committed to their ideas and at the same time attracted to every other counterculture food fad, even when these are mutually exclusive to their own (much like paranoiac conspiracy theorists).

Thus faddists decry the “artificial” modification of food in food processing, pointing to lost vitamins and minerals, but turn to giant corporate vitamin companies to supply the shortfall in the form of synthetic vitamins made from cracked coal tar or sheep lanolin in giant vats in China, or iron derived from industrial production of mined iron soaked in sulfuric acid. Vague environmental and ethical concerns are transmuted into justifications for the historical idea that meat is impure. Pseudo-religious concerns, especially interest in Eastern mystical traditions, led the development of strange “cleansing” fasts like the raw food diet or the Master Cleanse (which involves consuming nothing by apple cider vinegar, tea, and cayenne powder for like 5 days).

As a member of the foodie counterculture, this section was pretty refreshing to me. I should be more ambivalent about it – the movement has given rise to great research and activism that are improving health and lives around the world – but it's just so great to get a deconstruction of all the bullshit I've been swimming through in the past few years. Everyone I lived with at Greenfire, and all of our friends at SLUG and Coop, were disciples of this tradition. I love them, and I learned a lot of great things, but there was so much bullshit flying around, ideas that were pulled from the collective counterculture unconscious about food, that were unfounded but able to somehow be justified by educated students with access to plenty of healthy food due to the historical glut of conflicting and biased research, that a historical perspective is a breath of fresh air. I can only wish that everyone in my subsection of this movement, myself especially, could gain the ability to see through the historical baggage of ideas about food, appreciate good science, become less obsessive and hand-wringy, and enjoy the massively complex nest of stories and traditions about food we've been bequeathed. Levenstein's book could hardly do this job any better.