Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat

Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat

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by Harvey Levenstein

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There may be no greater source of anxiety for Americans today than the question of what to eat and drink. Are eggs the perfect protein, or are they cholesterol bombs?  Is red wine good for my heart or bad for my liver? Will pesticides, additives, and processed foods kill me?  Here with some very rare and very welcome advice is food historian Harvey


There may be no greater source of anxiety for Americans today than the question of what to eat and drink. Are eggs the perfect protein, or are they cholesterol bombs?  Is red wine good for my heart or bad for my liver? Will pesticides, additives, and processed foods kill me?  Here with some very rare and very welcome advice is food historian Harvey Levenstein: Stop worrying! In Fear of Food Levenstein reveals the people and interests who have created and exploited these worries, causing an extraordinary number of Americans to allow fear to trump pleasure in dictating their food choices. He tells of the prominent scientists who first warned about deadly germs and poisons in foods, and their successors who charged that processing foods robs them of life-giving vitamins and minerals. These include Nobel Prize–winner Eli Metchnikoff, who advised that yogurt would enable people to live to be 140 by killing the life-threatening germs in their intestines, and Elmer McCollum, the “discoverer” of vitamins, who tailored his warnings about vitamin deficiencies to suit the food producers who funded him. Levenstein also highlights how large food companies have taken advantage of these concerns by marketing their products to combat the fear of the moment. Such examples include the co-opting of the “natural foods” movement, which grew out of the belief that inhabitants of a remote Himalayan Shangri-la enjoyed remarkable health and longevity by avoiding the very kinds of processed food these corporations produced, and the physiologist Ancel Keys, originator of the Mediterranean Diet, who provided the basis for a powerful coalition of scientists, doctors, food producers, and others to convince Americans that high-fat foods were deadly. In Fear of Food, Levenstein offers a much-needed voice of reason; he expertly questions these stories of constantly changing advice to reveal that there are no hard-and-fast facts when it comes to eating. With this book, he hopes to free us from the fears that cloud so many of our food choices and allow us to finally rediscover the joys of eating something just because it tastes good.

Editorial Reviews

Susan R. Friedland
“With wit, charm, accessibility, and impeccable scholarship (a powerful and unusual quartet), Harvey Levenstein chronicles the long history of Americans’ food fears, tracing their origins, exposing and debunking the self-serving hucksters who promoted them, and, finally, offering his own ‘cure’:  healthy skepticism. It’s a riveting record of claims and counter-claims, greed and venality, that will keep you reading and, finally, reassessing your own diet.”

James Gilbert
“In Fear of Food Harvey Levenstein explores one of the striking anomalies of American culture—its love/hate relationship with eating and the particularly perplexing choices that humans have to make about the food they eat because they can eat everything. The history of eating in America is thus the story of countless fads and special diets, designed to discipline the will rather than provide pleasure. Levenstein’s take on this peculiar history is at once witty, sardonic, and quite serious, even profound.”
Tom Standage
“Harvey Levenstein’s entertaining social history of American food scares places today’s worries in a broader historical context, from the ‘germophobia’ of the 19th century to concerns about cholesterol and chemical residues in the 21st. Read this book and you’ll understand why warnings about the safety of your food should always be taken with a pinch of salt. (Just a pinch, though — too much could be bad for you.).”

"Harvey Levenstein deftly narrates the story of various phobias humans have developed following the mass production of food. . . . In the end, after many decades of advances in nutritional science, it is difficult not to conclude after reading this history that snake oil salesmen still control people's images of food. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice
Guardian (UK)
"Levenstein's fascinating and important book charts America's love-hate relationship with food. . . . There are no certain answers to questions about food and health, and Levenstein argues convincingly that scientists and journalists should show greater caution before telling us what to eat."
"Levenstein is a fabulous storyteller, and this book is a delight to read."
“The United States is a nation gripped by gustatory paranoia, says historian Harvey Levenstein. In this punchy, entertaining account, he reveals how US consumers have suffered for decades from anxiety over the provenance of a pork chop or the fat in fromage frais. An army of scientists, he says, stoked fear about everything from germs and a lack of vitamins to additives and industrial processing, inadvertently fostering the eating disorder that affects modern US society. Levenstein calls for moderation in all things — including moderation — to regain the joy of eating.”
National (UAE)
“Harvey Levenstein, professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, documents the reasons behind such overblown anxiety as ‘vitamania’ in this fascinating and entertaining book. Why has fear superseded pleasure in dictating food choices? Levenstein traces the junk science, vested interests, misleading advertising, governmental ineptitude, constantly changing advice, media hype, venal food corporations and more to provide the answers, and a shameful history it is.”

Chronicle of Higher Education
“Picking warily at its plate, America remains baffled not only by contradictory nutritional headlines but, says Levenstein, by new personalized-medicine prods to mind one's intolerances to lactose, glucose, gluten, what have you. He's meanwhile given up his last vitamin supplement, E, after studies suggested it may increase the chance of prostate cancer, and shamelessly relishes the memory of a lamb sandwich Julia Child once fed him—with mayonnaise.”

Zocalo Public Square
“A welcome reminder that even before everyone had a food blog, there was a heck of a lot of conflicting information out there about what to eat and why.”

Boston Globe
“Harvey Levenstein guides us through an entertaining series of obsessions—from the outsized fear of flies spreading germs (leading to the 1905 invention of the fly swatter) to a panic about germ-ridden cats infecting human food (which led to a 1912 Chicago public health warning that felines were ‘extremely dangerous to humanity’). . . . Levenstein’s roster of American food nuttiness is entertaining and enlightening.”

Times Literary Supplement
"When it comes to food, there are two large categories of eaters: those who do not worry about what they eat but should, and those who do worry about what they eat but should not. In Fear of Food,Harvey Levenstein focuses on the latter group, taking readers through a succession of American fads and panics, from an epidemic of ‘germophobia’ at the start of the twentieth century to fat phobia at its end. He exposes the instigators of these panics: not only the hucksters and opportunists but also the scientists and health experts.”

Coffin Factory
“With an authoritative and precise writing style, the sections of Fear of Food repeatedly reveal the insane marketing and production of the American food industry, and the irresponsibility in government control and (lack of) involvement that allows the manipulative industry to flourish.  Throughout the thoroughly researched book, Levenstein provides the history of germs, milk, the beef industry, vitamania, organic food, processed food, and fats to show the growth of a national eating disorder, and the media’s role in propagating a culture of fear surrounding food. . . . We are a nation so easily swept into fads, and Levenstein warns that we had better get a hold of ourselves, take control of our diet and our lives before it’s too late.  Fear of Food will give you just the push to do so.”
Times Higher Education
“Fear of Food offers a history of food scares in the US from the end of the 19th century up to the present day, beginning with (legitimate) concerns about the purity of milk in cities in the 1890s and ending with repeated outbreaks of E. coli resulting from intensive farming and butchery today. . . . Harvey Levenstein has fun and the book is entertaining.”
Times Higher Ed
“If we are what we eat, then what does it mean when we become afraid of something we might have eaten happily the day before? Levenstein, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Ontario, writes in straightforward narrative prose about the waves of anxiety about food that have swept across the United States from the 1890s until the present day, from the menace posed by fresh fruit and vegetables (since flies landed on them in open-air markets) to lipophobia (with any consumption of high-fat foods regarded as a form of suicidal behavior). It's a well-researched but also very diverting book, with a large cast of public benefactors and corrupt operators. Not that you can always tell them apart.”
National Post (Canada)
“As Harvey Levenstein demonstrates in Fear of Food, it is much easier to make North Americans afraid of food than comfortable with eating it. We are frightened of cheeseburgers, and only after a large helping of time and soothing information could we ever eat them again without guilt. And by then, we’d be afraid of something else. Fear of Food lays out a century of American nutritional beliefs as a succession of contradictory orthodoxies, always hysterical and typically fleeting. One wrong idea gives way to the next, both supported by surprisingly meager evidence.”
Books and Culture
“In his engaging, thoroughly researched, and well-written study Fear of Food, Harvey Levenstein offers a history of the major themes in pseudo-scientific dietary alarmism since the late 19th century. . . . Fear of Food is a delicious book.”
Hamilton Spectator
"This is a necessary book, expertly researched and accessible, written with wit and verve."
Books & Culture
In his engaging, thoroughly researched, and well-written study Fear of Food, Harvey Levenstein offers a history of the major themes in pseudo-scientific dietary alarmism since the late 19th century. . . . Fear of Food is a delicious book.
Financial Post
"All readers can learn much from Mr. Levenstein’s lively and often stunning reconstruction of the history of American food fears and beliefs. So could today’s policymakers, regulators, politicians, journalists and corporate executives. The great value in Fear of Food, however, is likely the realization that poor science never seriously undermined official dogma. After all, they had a consensus! How could all these smart and powerful people — including Nobel Prize winners — be wrong?"
Washington Post
“Harvey Levenstein prescribes skepticism and independent thought. He finds moralism at the heart of “blame food” campaigns and warns us to watch out for it, promoting the eating of most things in moderation as the true path.”
Library Journal
Levenstein (history, emeritus, McMaster Univ., Ontario; Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America; Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet) here continues his mission to document trends in American eating habits. He clarifies many bizarre beliefs surrounding our food supply—fears circulated not only by pundits but also by the government and scientific and medical experts. Smoothly written and meticulously documented, the chapters address concerns—both reality- and myth-based—about food handlers and unsanitary conditions poisoning foodstuff. Levenstein discusses historical recommendations to drink pasteurized milk; eat yogurt to detoxify the digestive tract; consume plenty of untainted, government-inspected beef; avoid chemically enhanced, processed food; and eat "natural" foods to avoid dietary fats and heart disease. He covers the American Heart Association's battle against high blood cholesterol as a contributing factor to heart disease, the Surgeon General's decree that smoking causes cancer, and how multiple agencies urged Americans to recognize how these killer diseases increase with lower socioeconomic status. VERDICT The text and footnotes indicate that Levenstein has likely reinterpreted material from his two well-reviewed books on the history of food. Still, this critical evaluation of the myths and truths surrounding America's fear of food is a welcome addition.—Jerry P. Miller, Cambridge, MA

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A HISTORY OF Why We Worry about What We Eat
By Harvey Levenstein

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-47374-1

Chapter One


"Swat That Fly!"

That contemporary Americans fear food more than the French is rather ironic, for many modern food fears originated in France. It was there, in the 1870s, that the scientist Louis Pasteur transformed perceptions of illness by discovering that many serious diseases were caused by microscopic organisms called microbes, bacteria, or germs. This "germ theory" of disease saved innumerable lives by leading to the development of a number of vaccines and the introduction of antiseptic procedures in hospitals. However, it also fueled growing fears about what industrialization was doing to the food supply.

Of course, fear of what unseen hands might be doing to our food is natural to omnivores, but taste, sight, smell (and the occasional catastrophic experience) were usually adequate for deciding what could or could not be eaten. The germ theory, however, helped remove these decisions from the realms of sensory perception and placed them in the hands of scientists in laboratories.

By the end of the nineteenth century, these scientists were using powerful new microscopes to paint an ever more frightening picture. First, they confirmed that germs were so tiny that there was absolutely no way that they could be detected outside a laboratory. In 1895 the New York Times reported that if a quarter of a million of one kind of these pathogenic bacteria were laid side by side, they would only take up an inch of space. Eight billion of another variety could be packed into a drop of fluid. Worse, their ability to reproduce was nothing short of astounding. There was a bacillus, it said, that in only five days could multiply quickly enough to fill all the space occupied by the waters of Earth's oceans.

The reported dangers of ingesting germs multiplied exponentially as well. By 1900 Pasteur and his successors had shown that germs were the cause of deadly diseases such as rabies, diphtheria, and tuberculosis. They then became prime suspects in many ailments, such as cancer and smallpox, for which they were innocent. In 1902 a U.S. government scientist even claimed to have discovered that laziness was caused by germs. Some years later Harvey Wiley, head of the government's Bureau of Chemistry, used the germ theory to explain why his bald head had suddenly produced a full growth of wavy hair. He had discovered, he said, that baldness was caused by germs in the scalp and had conquered it by riding around Washington, D.C., in his open car, exposing his head to the sun, which killed the germs.

America's doctors were initially slow to adopt the germ theory, but public health authorities accepted it quite readily. In the mid- nineteenth century, their movement to clean up the nation's cities was grounded in the theory that disease was spread by invisible miasmas—noxious fumes emanating from putrefying garbage and other rotting organic matter. It was but a short step from there to accepting the notion that dirt and garbage were ideal breeding grounds for invisible germs. Indeed, for a while the two theories coexisted quite happily, for it was initially thought that bacteria flourished only in decaying and putrefying substances—the very things that produced miasmas. It was not difficult, then, to accept the idea that foul-smelling toilets, drains, and the huge piles of horse manure that lined city streets harbored dangerous bacteria instead of miasmas. Soon germs became even more frightening than miasmas. Scientists warned that they were "practically ubiquitous" and were carried to humans in dust, in dirty clothing, and especially in food and beverages.

The idea that dirt caused disease was accepted quite easily by middleclass Americans. They had been developing a penchant for personal cleanliness since early in the nineteenth century. Intoning popular notions such as "cleanliness is next to godliness," they had reinforced their sense of moral superiority over the "great unwashed" masses by bathing regularly and taking pride in the cleanliness of their houses. It was also embraced by the women teaching the new "domestic science" in the schools, who used it to buttress their shaky claims to be scientific. They could now teach "bacteriology in the kitchen," which meant learning "the difference between apparent cleanliness and chemical cleanliness."

The nation's ubiquitous hucksters popularized the germ theory by selling potions said to kill germs in the bloodstream. Even divine intervention seemed to offer no protection against these invaders. A newspaper article promoting one such potion showed an assassin about to plunge a long dagger into the back of a man praying at a church altar. The headline warned, "Death Is Everywhere. Disease Germs Are Even More Deadly than the Assassin's Dagger. No One Is Safe. No Place Is Sacred."

Food and beverages were thought to be particularly dangerous because they were the main vehicles for germs entering the body. As early as 1893, domestic scientists were warning that the fresh fruits and vegetables on grocers' shelves "quickly catch the dust of the streets, which we know is laden with germs possibly malignant." A U.S. government food bulletin warned that dust was "a disease breeder" that infected food in the house and on the street. In 1902 sanitation officials in New York City calculated that the air in the garbage-strewn streets of the crowded, impoverished Lower East Side harbored almost 2,000 times as many bacilli as the air on wealthy East Sixty-Eighth Street and warned that these airborne germs almost certainly infected the food in the hundreds of pushcarts that lined its streets. The horse dung that was pulverized by vehicles on paved city streets was particularly irksome, blowing into people's faces and homes and covering the food merchants' outdoor displays. In 1908 a sanitation expert estimated that each year 20,000 New Yorkers died from "maladies that fly in the dust, created mainly by horse manure."

The notion that dirty hands could spread germs, so important in saving lives in hospital operating rooms, was of course applied to food. In 1907 the nation was riveted by the story of "Typhoid Mary," a typhoid-carrying cook who infected fifty-three people who ate her food, three of whom died. She resolutely refused to admit that she was a carrier of the disease-causing germ and was ultimately institutionalized. In 1912 Elie Metchnikoff, Pasteur's successor as head of the Pasteur Institute, announced that he had discovered that gastroenteritis, which killed an estimated 10,000 children a year in France and probably more in the United States, was caused by a microorganism found in fruits, vegetables, butter, and cheese that was transmitted to infants by mothers who had failed to wash their hands with soap before handling or feeding their babies. By then, any kind of dirt was thought to be synonymous with disease. "Wherever you find filth, you find disease," declared a prominent New York pathologist.

New microscopes that made it easier to photograph bacteria revealed even more foods infested with germs. A ditty called "Some Little Bug Is Going to Find You" became a hit. Its first verse was

In these days of indigestion, it is oftentimes a question As to what to leave alone. Every microbe and bacillus has a different way to kill us And in time will claim us for their own There are germs of every kind in every food that you will find In the market and upon the bill of fare Drinking water is just as risky as the so-called "deadly" whiskey And it's oft en a mistake to breathe the air.

Even house pets were caught in the dragnet. In 1912 when tests of cats' whiskers and fur in Chicago revealed the presence of alarming numbers of bacteria, the city's Board of Health issued a warning that cats were "extremely dangerous to humanity." A local doctor invented a cat trap to be planted in backyards to capture and poison wayward cats. The Topeka, Kansas, Board of Health issued an order that all cats must be sheared or killed. The federal government refused to go that far but did warn housewives that pets carried germs to food, leaving it up to the families to decide what to do about them. What some of them did was to panic. A serious outbreak of infantile paralysis (polio) in New York City in 1916 led thousands of people to send their cats and dogs to be gassed by the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, despite the protestations of the city health commissioner that they did not carry the off ending pathogen. From July 1 to July 26, over 80,000 pets were turned in for destruction, 10 percent of whom were dogs.

But the most fearsome enemy in the war against germs was not a lovable pet, but the annoying housefly. Dr. Walter Reed's investigations of disease among the American troops who invaded Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898 had famously led to the discovery that mosquitoes carried and spread the germs that caused yellow fever. But yellow fever was hardly present in the United States. Much more important was his subsequent discovery that houseflies could carry the bacteria causing typhoid to food, for that disease killed an estimated 50,000 Americans a year. Although Reed's studies had shown that this could happen only when flies were practically immersed in human, not animal, excrement, his observations soon metamorphosed into the belief that during the war typhoid-carrying flies had killed more American soldiers than had the Spanish. This was buttressed by a kind of primitive epidemiology, wherein experts noted that typhoid peaked in the autumn, when the fly population was also at its peak.

The number of diseases blamed on flies carrying germs to food then multiplied almost as rapidly as the creatures themselves. In 1905 the journal American Medicine warned that flies carried the tuberculosis bacillus and recommended that all food supplies be protected by screens. That December a public health activist accused flies of spreading tuberculosis, typhoid, and a host of other diseases. "Suppose a fly merely walks over some fruits or cooked meats exposed for sale and [infects] them," he said. "If the food is not cooked to kill them the person who eats them is sure to have typhoid." The New York State Entomologist pointed out that during the warm months "the abundance of flies" coincided with a steep rise in deaths from typhoid and infant stomach ailments. "Nothing but criminal indifference or inexcusable ignorance is responsible for the swarms of flies so prevalent in many public places." A New York Times editorial agreed, saying, "It is cruelty to children to allow flies to carry death and disease wherever they go." Flies, the paper contended, "bear into the homes and food, water, and milk supplies of the people not only the germs of typhoid and cholera, but of tuberculosis, anthrax, diphtheria, opthalmia, smallpox, staphylococcus infection, swine fever, tropical sore, and the eggs of parasitic worms." A Philadelphia doctor opined that flies likely infected food with the germs that caused cancer.

The December 1905 Times piece had ended by saying that it was no wonder that "sanitarians are now beginning a warfare against the fly." And indeed, the first shots in that war had been fired earlier that year in Topeka, the capital city of Kansas, by Dr. Samuel Crumbine, the state director of public health. Crumbine was a short man who had begun his career by ostentatiously toting a large six-shooter through the violent streets of Dodge City, the legendary cow town. Now, in Topeka, he began putting up "Fly Posters" and distributing a "Fly Bulletin" warning of the dangers posed by the insect. His campaign bore little fruit until, at the opening game of the Topeka baseball team's 1905 season, inspiration struck. After hearing fans calling for hitters to "swat the ball" and hit a "sacrifice fly," he leaped to his feet, shouting, "I've got it!" He meant not a foul ball, but "Swat the Fly," which became the slogan that galvanized his campaign. A local schoolteacher then came to him with a brilliant new weapon, a yardstick with a square of wire mesh attached to its end that he called a "fly bat." Crumbine immediately rechristened it a "fly swatter," and the rest, as they say, is history.

Crumbine then enlisted Kansas schoolchildren as mercenaries in his war: they were paid in cash or movie tickets for bringing piles of dead flies to school. In ten weeks they presented their teachers with thirty bushels, or an estimated 7,172,000 flies. Crumbine's campaign, and the flyswatter, drew national attention, and for years thereafter many of the anti-fly campaigns that swept the nation adopted the slogan "Swat the Fly."

The war on flies lasted for over ten years and was fought on many fronts—swatting flies, strewing poisons about, hanging flypaper in stores and houses, and using screens (another new invention) to cover windows, doors, and food itself. Using the slogan "Dirt Fattens Flies and Kills Babies," New York City authorities warned that "the little fly on the wall" spread the germs of typhoid, tuberculosis, and other diseases when it landed on food. They said it was "more dangerous than the tiger or cobra, and may easily be classed as the most dangerous animal on earth." The Massachusetts Board of Health warned against allowing the "filthy insects" near food, and the city of Boston appropriated $100,000—then a very large sum—for their eradication. Women in Rochester, New York, petitioned their government to do the same. Nurses' associations, university scientists, Boy Scouts, and businessmen joined the effort. In 1911 Edward Hatch, a member of the New York City merchants' anti-fly committee, commissioned a photographer to go to England to take pictures of "flies and their dangerous activities" through a new kind of microscope. Upon his return, the pictures were assembled into a movie that was shown all over the country. The New York Times praised it for bringing "millions of people to realize how great is the danger from flies." Socialites spending that summer in Kennebunkport, Maine, distributed hundreds of free tickets to the Bijou Theater, which showed nothing but "The Fly Film" for an entire week.

By the summer of 1912, hundreds of communities were engaged in what was called "The Greatest Anti-Fly Crusade Ever Known." Federal government publications labeled it "the typhoid fly." Doctors now held it responsible for spreading the germs that caused tuberculosis, cholera infantum, gastroenteritis, spinal meningitis, and infantile paralysis. Home economists urged housewives to keep these "germs with wings" off their food. State boards of health, county commissions, municipal governments, private companies, and women's associations gave detailed instructions on how to poison, trap, swat, or otherwise bring flies' lives to a quick end. A pamphlet told Ohio schoolchildren that flies are "the most deadly enemy of man. They kill more people than all the lions, tigers, snakes, and even wars." The state of North Dakota called its fly-killing instructions "A Fly Catechism." Indiana and other states put up posters with colored cartoons for those who could not read.

Many communities took a leaf from the Kansas book and offered monetary bounties to people who brought in the largest number of dead flies. One enterprising twelve-year-old impressed the editors of a Worcester, Massachusett s, newspaper by presenting them an astounding ninety-five quarts of flies, walking off with their $100 prize. Only later was it discovered that he had bred the flies himself in heaps of fish off al. Yet the zealous crusaders refused to let this fraud deter them. After all, said the New York Times, "Those at the head of the movement realized that children ... would kill off more flies than the parents would have the time to find." So, schoolchildren throughout the country continued to be offered cash prizes for bringing in dead flies, but with a new proviso: time limits were set, amounting to less time than it took for flies to gestate and breed.


Excerpted from FEAR OF FOOD by Harvey Levenstein Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Harvey Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He has published a number of books on American history, including Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America.

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Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
excellent book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago