The History of Real Food: Michael Pollan, Wonder Bread, and the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938

09 Oct

It would be easy to blow off the idea of Real Food as yet another term made up by a bunch of nutrition fanatics who think they’ve got it all figured out.  After all, who gets to decide if a particular food is “real” or not? And is there such a thing as fake food?

Actually, there is.  Or at least, there used to be.  The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 imposed strict rules mandating the word “imitation” to appear on any product that did not adhere to the traditional standards.  In the Act’s own words:

There are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting …[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.’

This Act could be considered the birth of the Real Food movement not because it introduced the notion of Real Food, but because it introduced its opposite.  To apply yet another concept from International Relations Theory (it’s strange how often the opportunity arises), alterity is the idea that identity is based, at least in part, on a sense of otherness.  Would we understand “cold” without the knowledge of what it means to be “hot?”  Would the word “happy” exist if there was no “sad?”  Would there be such a thing as “swimsuit season” if the earth didn’t tilt in varying aspects to the sun? (stupid axial inclination!)

If the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was still standing today, many of the foods in our modern supermarkets would either bear the pejorative “imitation” label or they’d be absent from the shelves altogether. To illustrate, a loaf of bread used to be made with flour, water, yeast, and salt.  Now it can be composed from wheat gluten, high fructose corn syrup, soybean oil, molasses, mono and diglycerides, exthoxylated mono and diglycerides, dough conditioners (sodium stearoyl lactylate, calcium iodate, calcium dioxide), datem, calcium sulfate, vinegar, yeast nutrient (ammonium sulfate), extracts of malted barley and corn, dicalcium phosphate, diammonium phosphate, and calcium propionate (you know, to retain “freshness”).  And that’s just what you’ll find in single loaf of Wonder Bread!

According to Michael Pollan’s account in his book, In Defense of Food, the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was repealed in 1978, buried in a mountain of what was supposed to be more consumer-friendly FDA guidelines on nutrition labeling.  The FDA still regulates how fast ketchup must flow from the bottle and whether or not cheese whiz is “cheese” or “cheese food,” but the imitation label is no longer a requirement on most  imitation food products.

What are your thoughts on the history of Real Food?  Do you think “Real Food” is a useful term?  Is food something that can be real or not?

*This post is a part of Fight Back Friday hosted by Food Renegade.

A Cellulite Investigator Update

Thanks for stopping by The Cellulite Investigation.  Things are a little quite around here at the moment.  I’m taking an extended break as I get married and settle into married life and a new home.  Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon!


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