American Food Timeline {from Native people to present day}

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Who would have guessed that infant formula and high-heat processed vegetable oils were already developed and being marketed as healthy in the late 19th century?!  Or that processed cheese was consumed in greater quantity than real cheese as early as the 1940’s?  I hope you enjoy this look at the history of food in America.  Feel free to add to my American Food Timeline (below in the comments) if you know of a date or data that I missed!  I’d love to read your contribution and have it added to our knowledge and understanding of how we got where we are and why.

In the meantime, let’s keep returning to the wisdom of early native traditions.  Also, comment below on what fact most surprised you!

American Food Timeline

  • 1493- Christopher Columbus saw the Native people of the Americas and remarked at their beautiful, robust stature and homestea health, ate of the foods, described the foods with awe and pleasure.[1]
  • 1500-1600- Pemmican was consumed by Native Americans as a way of preserving their meat source. Locusts and other insects were not stigmatized, but consumed readily, according to availability, as with all food sources. They also used a symbiotic growing practice of planting corn, beans, and squash together. One provided height structure, the next nitrogen to the soil, the third, defense against weeds and soil moisture.[2]
  • 1600-1700’s- Rice became a staple of the American diet and a major cash crop.
  • 1800’s- Lewis and Clark and the new settlers moving west subsisted on huge amounts of wild protein and very few vegetables. The settlers also ate corn, beans, rice, and wheat or rye flour.
  • 1830- Per capita, American consumption of sugar is 15 lbs, mostly comprised of molasses. (Today, the consumption of sugar is 150 lbs. per person, mostly comprised of high-fructose corn syrup.)[3]

American Food Timeline {from Native people to present day} #foodtimeline #americanfood #americanhistory #foodhistory

  • 1869- Formula is first marketed in America as being superior to breast milk.
  • 1880-1910- One out of three people live on a farm and eat from that farm.[4]
  • 1899- Chemist David Wesson introduces high-heat processing of vegetable oils with his application on cottonseed oil. His discovery begins a century of misinformation, propaganda, and America’s unhealthy switch to vegetable oils from butter and lard.[5]
  • 1910- 70% of Americans are enjoying lard for cooking and baking. Butter consumption is still high; and the mortality rate from heart disease is below 10%.
  • 1900-1950- While many Americans were copying the lavish spreads and variety made popular by Queen Victoria, a supposed health-food expert was creating a meat alternative, corn flakes. Dr. Kellogg was soon rivaled by his former patient C.W. Post, who introduced Grape Nuts.[6]
  • 1910-1940- George Washington Carver, a revolutionary mind in science and industry, and an African American man, improved southern farming by advocating for a former Native American method of crop rotation for improved soil health.george_washington_carver
  • 1911-1917- Leading up to and during WW1, butter and eggs were in short supply and Crisco provided a recipe alternative for making cakes without these dairy ingredients.
  • 1920-1950- Convenience foods soar in supply and demand. They include dairy-free cheeses like Velveeta, canned foods, Jell-o, Kool-Aid, margarine, non-dairy whipped cream and frozen foods. (Apparently spelling also went out the door at this time: change the ingredients to be fake, make a new, fake word to coin the phrase. We never see bad spelling of whole foods do we? As in, “Let-us! Sold here.” It just wouldn’t make sense. Fake words indicate fake ingredients!)
  • 1929-1939- The Great Depression meant decreased nutrition to most families, less food, less meat and living produce, because they were more expensive.
  • 1930’s- Weston A. Price traveled among indigenous people groups comparing their dental health with their diets and theimagescontrast with Western dental health and diet.
  • 1930- Margarine consumption exceeds butter consumption for the first time.
  • 1937- Cottonseed oil consumption exceeds coconut oil for the first time, and continues in this pattern.[7]
  • 1940’s- Peanut butter is economical, popular, and a common food for soldiers during WW2. Monosodium glutamate comes into use, borrowed from the Chinese who developed it in 1908. Factory-made cheeses take the place of traditional cheese making; Americans now eat more processed cheese than real cheese.[8]
  • 1943- The US begins adding vitamins and minerals to bread and grain products to make up for nutritional deficiencies.[9]
  • 1948- Obesity and diabetes are on the rise as Americans eat less animal fat and increase their consumption of trans fats.
  • 1949- The FDA publishes what becomes known as the “black book,” an industry guideline for appraising the toxicity of chemicals in processed foods. The pasteurization of milk also becomes mandatory.
  • 1940’s-1950’s- Natural and artificial flavors are invented. Bouillons and processed sauces take the place of bone broths and their inherent nutrition. As Sally Fallon puts it, “Your tongue is tricked into thinking that you are consuming something nutritious, when in fact it is getting nothing at all except some very toxic substances.”[10] Cake mixes, instant pie and roll mixes are greeted with enthusiasm.
  • 1950-1960’s- The huge variety of processed and packaged foods increase, exalted and enjoyed by American families. The backyard barbecue also comes into vogue. Microwave dinners are launched with great success. Ancel Keys, an American professor, is followed as he leads the country with advice toward a low-fat diet to avoid heart disease. Studies continue to be published that reveal bread and sugar as culprits for obesity; and carbohydrates, not fat, are linked to heart disease. The research is of excellent quality and largely ignored.473588_ancel-keys
  • 1953- Swanson introduces frozen dinners, modeled after the trays served on airlines, to serve their own purpose of using up an oversupply of meat, 270 tons of turkey.
  • 1955- McDonalds and Ray Croc introduce the .15 hamburger as the “All-American Meal.”
  • 1960-1970- Pesticides and genetic engineering, as well as new forms of irrigation, are introduced and utilized by American farmers. Their yield is doubled and even tripled as a result and many have hopes of ending world hunger with these changes.2656982310
  • 1970’s- The post-Vietnam culture includes advocacy for vegetarianism.  Meanwhile, Dr. Atkins get wealthy with his high-fat diet books. And the FDA rules hydrogenated soybean oil as “safe.”
  • 1980’s- Buffalo, ostrich, antelope, and elk make a come-back, especially in certain restaurants, provided by small specialty farms. Obesity is still on the rise.
  • 1998- Time Magazine lists the greatest consumer products. Foods included are ConAgra’s ReddiWip.
  • 1990’s to modern day- Factory farms are called into question. Organic farms rise up all over the nation. More Americans want to know where their food comes from. Misinformation about what’s “healthy” continues as foods like oat bran, pasteurized orange juice, and breakfast cereals are marketed for their health benefits. Obesity is over 20% in 49 states.
  • 2004- Obesity levels exceed 30% of the general population!
  • 2005- Trans fats and saturated fat are wrongly labeled together as “bad fats” by the FDA. Butter outsells margarine, for the first time since 1957!article-0-07EA515D000005DC-771_468x608
  • 2007- The American Institute for Cancer Research continues to correlate animal fat and red meat consumption with weight gain and increased risk of cancer. (source) However, they encourage breast feeding and eating fewer processed foods.
  • 2009- 29 states allow the sale and consumption of raw milk in some form. (source)
  • 2009- 1% of the American population is vegan. (source)
  • 2013- The American Heart Association continues to preach a low-fat, low cholesterol diet for curing heart disease.
  • 2014-2016- Time Magazine slightly rescinds its earlier defamation of butter: “…research is mounting that saturated fat is better for you than processed carbohydrates like sugar and white bread, which have been linked to diabetes, obesity and heart disease…” but Americans on the whole still avoid fat and choose simple carbohydrate processed foods. (source)
  • 2016- Raw milk remains controversial and inaccessible in some states: “…the sale of raw milk in stores is legal in 13 states. 17 states only permit raw milk sales on farms; 8 of the states that prohibit sales allow acquisition of raw milk only through “cow-share” agreements; and in 20 other states all sales of raw milk are prohibited.” (source)


[1] The Log of Christopher Columbus









[10] She also adds, “Ninety-five percent of processed foods contain MSG, and, in the late 1950s, it was even added to baby food. Manufacturers say they have voluntarily taken it out of the baby food, but they didn’t really remove it; they just called it “hydrolyzed protein” instead.

An excellent book, Excitotoxins, by Russell Blaylock, (find it here) describes how nerve cells either disintegrate or shrivel up in the presence of free glutamic acid if it gets past the blood-brain barrier. The glutamates in MSG are absorbed directly from the mouth to the brain. Some investigators believe that the great increase in violence in this country starting in 1960 is due to the increased use of MSG beginning in the late 1950s, particularly as it was added to baby foods.

Comments 23

  1. The one thing of HUGE importance that you missed was the late 1960’s to early 1970’s change from natural dry-aged beef to “wet aged” beef found in grocery stores. People slowly stopped eating beef because the change in flavor made it unappealing. Farmer’s markets have brought back people’s desire for good dry-aged beef for healthy eating. BTW, I’m not really sure when they started adding “pink slime” to the beef. Maybe you could let us know that, too.

    1. Thank you, Marcia for your addition!! And for your comments in general. What is the pink slime you’re referring to? This is not ringing a bell for me. I’ll love looking into it when I understand better….

  2. You might also consider adding some information about traditional meat curing (bacon, ham,sausages, etc.) as well as potted meats. Rytek Kutas chronicles this a bit in his sausage making book. The government demonized & regulated nitrates & nitrites as well as the entire process. I want to say it was the early 70s this happened. And it drove out a lot of small producers. Of course, so did all the health department, USDA,and FDA regulations on food production. I can no longer sell you farm cured bacon. But I could in 1850. I think the loss of fermented meats & fats in our diets has been a big contributor to obesity and health decline.

    1. What appears the most problematic to me about this scenario is not how the meat trimmings were handled, for the centrifuge process is used in sausage making and it is good to use every bit of the animal that we can, but that the meat on the carcass was already contaminated with bacteria and had to be treated with ammonia gas or citric acid to make it safe to eat. Yikes!!! Yucky, big time. And, of course, these beef cows were not sustainably raised. So the meat itself wasn’t healthy to begin with.

  3. Love this article! I’d bet the FDA’s “black book” is just a list of who pays them the most to let their toxic chemicals be labeled as “safe.” 🙁

  4. Wow! I think I’m most surprised about when formula started being marketed as better than breast milk! 1800s! That’s amazing!! Fascinating read with so much good info!

  5. This was an amazing post to read! I didn’t know a great deal about American food history before seeing this… wow to the era where all the mis-spelled convenience foods were introduced. Would’t it have been nice if that never happened…

  6. This is most interesting! It really puts into perspective how far society strayed from real food with the promotion of manufactured “food.”

  7. Google Canola Oil and also Rape Seed Oil. Ever seen a Canola? Of course not. The name was fabricated so the Rape Seed Oil wouldn’t offend (although in this case it’s the name of the plant, not a verb.) The Rape Seed Oil info explains why Canola Oil is so bad for us.

  8. Love this post, it’s crazy how our perception of what is healthy has changed so much. It really goes to show you that you need to follow what is best for your own body and health.

  9. I had no idea formula was pushed in the 1800’s! I always thought it was a 1950’s thing. Love this article. So informative!

  10. What a great list you have put together! I am sure that so many points you made here have provided clarity and resonation to many people who are finding their way back to a traditional diet. I really like that you brought up name-changing: fake name indicates fake ingredients; and that frozen dinners were driven by over-supply of meats. For someone like me who didn’t grow up in North America, you provided so much insights in addition to the real facts! Thank you for doing all the tedious research to compile this easy-to-read timeline.

  11. I love love love food history! I just finished the book ‘A Square Meal : A Culinary History of the Great Depression’ – its SO fascinating how food evolves through history.

  12. Thank you for such a succinct and informative timeline! I was looking for a quick reference (so I wouldn’t have to get out my school books and videos!) as I work on a presentation about sugar, and this is wonderful.

    US food history is so fascinating to me. I collect vintage pamphlets and brand marketing booklets to mark and remember these shifts in technology, food and health. It’s such an important (and untaught!) part of learning what “healthy” means to us individually, and as a society.

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