How Long Have We Known What To Eat?

Since 1917, the USDA has created a series of food guides to help people figure out what to eat. Over the years, this guide has included between four and seven different food groups, evolved from a list to a pyramid shape, and now can be customized to individual nutrition needs. Over the last few months I’ve been researching a story about the author of the very first food guide, a home economist and USDA nutritionist named Caroline Hunt.

Hunt came to the USDA in 1909 after leaving her post as director of the Home Economics program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She wrote a number of brochures for the USDA on topics from mutton and it’s value in the diet to food recommendations for young children.

Her version of the food guide came out in March 1917 and was titled How to Select Foods. In the introduction, Hunt outlines what this particular bulletin will share with readers:

This bulletin does not attempt to make definite suggestions for obtaining food at low cost or to recommend any special foods or combinations of foods. It tells very simply what the body needs to obtain from its foods for building its tissues, keeping it in good working order, and providing it with fuel or energy for its muscular work. It shows in a general way how the different food materials meet these needs and groups them according to their uses in the body.

What’s interesting about this passage is that Hunt is proposing the reader needs to understand the science of what a person should eat to he healthy, then finds a way to simplify that knowledge in a way that’s applicable and useful for a busy housekeeper.

The guide goes on to give a series of food lists to get a sense of how much a single person or average family of five should consume in a week. But rather than going straight into her five food groups, Hunt takes time to explain all of the “substances” that a daily food intake should provide: mineral substances, protein, starch, sugar, fat, cellulose, “certain newly discovered substances in very small amounts,” and “flavorings and condiments.” The food pyramid I grew up with never bothered to break food down into it’s parts like this.

Hunt does simplify her food guide, diving food into five groups and noting which substances each group usually provides. The five food groups Hunt suggests are fruits and vegetables, meats and other protein-rich foods, cereals and other starchy foods, sweets, and fatty foods. That’s not exactly how we do it today, but pretty darn close. And Hunt also cautions to eat sensible portions and be frugal when you cook.

What strikes me about these suggestions is how much they still make sense today. In reading Hunt’s work, I’m starting rethink author Michael Pollan’s suggestion to only eat things your great grandmother would recognize as food. Despite all we’ve learned in the last 90-ish years, it seems like the basics of our diet have been figured out for quite sometime.

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