Obesity and the Rise of Processed Food in the 20th Century


Between 1970 and today, the number of calories produced by the food industry in the United States has increased dramatically.  While that increase is a credit to improved production and distribution of food generally, it has also contributed to the current obesity epidemic in the country.  But, it wasn’t always this way.

The number of calories per person produced by the food industry actually declined from 1900-1950.  Most historians believe that this decline in production resulted from a decline in consumption of food as the industrial revolution reduced the need for manual labor.  Less manual labor, lower need for the consumption of energy producing food.  But, in the 1970s, for no outwardly apparent reason, the food industry began to increase the per person production of food again.


Processed Food, Boxes, Bags, Packages and Convenience

The 1970s was a notable decade for many reasons.  Watergate, oil embargos, cold war with the Soviet Union, etc.  But, in the food industry, it was a distinct change in how they operated.  That was the decade where our country went from a majority of lean and reasonably fit citizens toward a more overweight and obese population that we see today - and the trend is not slowing down.

  • The decade before, the majority of American households ate meals that were prepared from scratch in the home.  Most women who were part of a couple, dedicated time each day to selecting whole foods for a meal and preparing that meal at home.  The food industry noticed this trend and saw a market.  If they could produce products or services that reduced the time required for food preparation in the home, people would buy it.  And, buy it they did!


Technology to The Rescue? 

Some of the adaptations that the food industry helped to bring about included food preservation and packaging approaches which enabled products to stay on shelves longer and, once purchased, last longer in the home. This saved time shopping as consumers could buy food for an entire week or ten days and be assured it would not spoil as they stored it in their refrigerator or pantry preparing meals between grocery store visits.  The marketing focus was “saving time.”  There was no consideration by either the marketers or the consumers as to how these new prepared, boxed, packaged foods might be less nutritions or, in some cases, even harmful to our health.

Like many things in the marketplace, laws to protect consumers from potentially harmful and definitely unhealthy components in these products, was slow to react.  As a result, the mass production of these new food-like products occurred in a Wild West of an unregulated landscape.  Preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, all were introduced with little or no knowledge about whether long term consumption of these food additives was harmful to consumers.  The American culture quickly adapted to viewing food preparation as a burden that was eased by the availability of cheap boxed foods promising shorter preparation times and longer shelf lives.  We were all participants in a chemistry experiment that none of us really signed up for with knowledge of the risks.


The Path To Overeating

Because of the automated production of this new type of packaged, preserved food, it could sell for much less than nutritious, fresh, whole foods.  One early re-manufactured food was the transformation of the potato into the now ubiquitous potato chip.  Once this technological marvel was inserted into vending machines, potato chip sales dramatically increased.

This is the path to overeating.  It is not merely “will power” or some character defect in those of us unable to sometimes resist that potato chip or fast food burger.  The path to overeating is filled with products that are scientifically engineered to maximize their craving reaction.  The next time you think about munching on one of those processed food treats, keep in mind that their content was designed with you in mind - and not in a good way.