Nutrition & Health   > History of Nutrition Education


An Examination from Vegetarian Perspective


How Animal Products Got Their Prime Importance, and Why They are Losing it Now


Good nutrition and the establishment of a balanced diet have always been great concerns for the American society. Since as far back as the 1800's, a curiosity existed about the nutritional values of different foods. During this time, awareness concerning the different components of food was limited to proteins, fats, some minerals, and carbohydrates, with little knowledge about how the body uses these substances. Food was considered to be merely a provider of energy, with proteins needed for tissue building.




In 1912, Casimir Funk discovered substances he called "vitamins." He noted a direct correlation between the "vitamins" and certain physical conditions. During the same year, Dr. McCollum and Marguerite Davis discovered a substance in cow's milk, butter fat, and egg yolk that seemed to be essential to growth in animals in laboratories. Their discovery was called vitamin A, the first vitamin to be discovered. Additional vitamins were discovered and elimination of deficiency diseases now became possible through the consumption of vitamin rich foods.


In 1923, the Bureau of Home Economics, a new part of the Department of Agriculture, took on the responsibility of addressing questions of human nutrition, in response to public interest. They came up with a set of diet plans centered around twelve food groupings known as the Basic Twelve. Four diet plans were created that encouraged the selection of foods from the twelve different groups according to level of income. This implied that all levels of income needed some guidance; or adequate nutrition was determined by wise food choices, not just by having enough food. Prestige automatically became attached to animal foods, portraying them as "preferred" foods and foods for the higher class. Furthermore, the government endorsed these eating patterns in order to support the economic interests of producers in the meat, dairy, and egg industries.




In 1941, the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council formed the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA), which were the first comprehensive set of nutrition standards. To make the RDA more practically applicable to diet and food choices, they reduced the Basic Twelve to seven food groups consisting of:


(1) leafy green and yellow vegetables,
(2) citrus fruits,
(3) potatoes and other vegetables,
(4) milk and milk products,
(5) meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dried beans & peanuts,
(6) cereals, bread, and flours, and
(7) butter and margarine.


The Basic Seven was introduced in the schools. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also published a series of pamphlets promoting the latest guidelines. Until 1955, the Basic Seven remained the nation's nutrition education model.




By 1960, (1) meats, (2) dairy products, (3) breads and cereals, and (4) fruits and vegetables replaced the basic Seven and became the dominant dietary model in the country. It was well-received by industries promoting animal products as food, since their foods made a notable presence, comprising one-half of the recommended categories in this new diet. While other vegetable protein sources were supposedly included in the meat category, they were always considered second rate and most often not mentioned at all. Fruits and vegetables on the other hand, decreased from five of the twelve food groups, to three of the seven food groups, and eventually to one of the Basic Four where they all got packed together, a blatant statement concerning the relative insignificance these foods were to have for the dietary trends of the future.


Dr. McCollum, who was noted for his work with vitamin A, presented the health-giving properties of cow's milk. Since no one had yet discovered that certain vegetables also contained vast amounts of these vitamins, cow's milk was immediately declared a wonder food and deemed essential. In addition, McCollum coined the term "protective" foods for any foods containing vitamin A - namely butter, whole milk, and eggs. With the promotion of these foods, the dairy industry boomed. Furthermore, the government decided to guarantee dairy farmers a minimum return for all milk products they produced by purchasing the leftover products. The surpluses were distributed to schools, prisons, and the military in the form of butter, cheese, and milk.


Milk had been priced according to its fat content in order to prevent producers from watering it down. This fat-pricing system had further increased the value of fat and the high cost of cream and butter. Regulations preventing the sale of "filled milk" (milk whose far was replaced with vegetable fat) had ensured people were getting nutrient-packed dairy fat. Legislation had discriminated against margarine to reinforce the sale of butter.




It was until the mid 1950's that the dairy industry remained in a positive limelight. It was then that the first studies connecting these foods with increased blood cholesterol and dairy fat was uncovered. Further studies confirmed that butter had more cholesterol-raising effects than other fats and that high blood cholesterol levels were associated with increased risk of heart disease.


Meat, which had been acclaimed for its favorable protein content and considered the food for the "higher" classes, was also found to be linked to heart disease. During the Korean war, autopsies were performed on the bodies of both American and Korean soldiers, and it was revealed that blood vessels of 77% of the American soldiers had been narrowed by atherosclerotic deposits (a precursor to most heart attacks and strokes), while no such damage appeared in the arteries of the equally young Koreans.


Later it was publicized that saturated fats, found primarily in animal foods, raise cholesterol levels. A diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat appeared to increase the cholesterol in the blood and clog arteries, which often leads to stroke and heart attacks, two of the most common causes of death in America. Heart disease as well as other health problems, such as obesity and diabetes were found to be results of an unhealthy American diet. It was strongly recommended that Americans adopt a diet significantly lower in calories, cholesterol, saturated fats, salt, and sugar. More vegetable and fruit products were suggested.


By 1980, the Basic Four altogether was discarded and replaced with seven simple guidelines:


Eat a variety of foods.


Maintain desirable weight.


Avoid too much fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.


Eat foods with adequate starch and fiber.


Avoid too much sugar.


Avoid too much sodium.


If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation.


Efforts are being made to educate teachers and the American public about healthier eating habits. Options such as vegetarianism or even an increased consumption of vegetables/fruits and a reduced consumption of meat (especially red meat), are gaining support and attention. The need for nutritious and well-balanced meals is essential to increase the health of the American society. In 1991, when USDA published the New Food Pyramid, it portrayed the importance of animal derived products reduced, and that of the grains, fruits, and vegetables reinstated.


An Award Winning Essay at 1992 Vegetarian Fair at San Diego, by Anita Daudani.