Stanford historian traces military’s influence on modern American nutrition

During the 20th century, the U.S. government funded research on nutrition and human physiology to address a perceived “masculinity crisis” in wartime America. Its effects are still being felt today, argues a Stanford historian.

Cold pressed juice, the food pyramid, sliced bread, international food aid: These staples of American nutrition have a surprising origin story behind them. As new research by Stanford scholar Hannah LeBlanc reveals, these and many other aspects of what we eat today have been profoundly shaped by the U.S. military.

Hannah LeBlanc

History doctoral candidate Hannah LeBlanc’s dissertation research reveals that many aspects of how and what we eat today have been profoundly shaped by the U.S. military. (Image credit: Philip Sands)

LeBlanc’s doctoral dissertation, “Nutrition for National Defense: American Food Science in World War II and the Cold War,” shows that from 1939 to 1970, the U.S. government poured funding into research on human physiology, food processing and hunger surveys so that they could physically prepare U.S. soldiers and civilians for war against Germany, Italy and Japan – and, later, against communism.

LeBlanc’s project highlights the degree to which the U.S. military affects civilian society and our daily lives in ways that aren’t always obvious. “It’s like a mushroom colony – a network that’s mostly invisible, and that pops up in all these places you wouldn’t expect,” said LeBlanc, who is a history doctoral candidate in the School of Humanities and Sciences.

That hidden influence has real repercussions for the scientific record and our health. For instance, “Why do we have so much information today into the area of exercise physiology and not much about, say, the gut microbiome?” LeBlanc said. “Part of the reason is that what we now call exercise physiology was really important to the military – and long-term trends in health weren’t.”

To track the relationship between nutrition in American society and the U.S. armed forces, LeBlanc weaves together a wide range of primary sources, including military memos, propagandistic cookbooks, governmental lab and committee budgets, and educational nutrition films. These documents are drawn from a dozen archives throughout the United States.

WWII: Nutrition and physiology

LeBlanc argues that the U.S. military’s interest in nutrition research exploded in the 1940s, after it began seeking healthy recruits to deploy in World War II and found a male population physically weakened by years of malnutrition during the Great Depression. One ninth of potential draftees were rejected due to apparently nutrition-related diseases, a statistic that boded ill both for American battle-worthiness abroad and for staffing war industries at home.

The military’s solution: Pump American men full of vitamins and minerals. The burgeoning field of nutrition had only recently discovered the importance of these elements for the human body.

The government hired nutritionists, funded surveys of American eating habits and issued propaganda films and recipes aimed at teaching women to cook nutrient-rich meals to prepare their husbands and sons for war. But women’s bodies weren’t seen as particularly important either to nourish or to study, said LeBlanc, whose dissertation draws on her undergraduate degrees in both gender studies and neuroscience.

Lasting nutritional legacies of this war-oriented research include Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) – one of the first frameworks to break down how many calories, vitamins and proteins people need to stay healthy.

The U.S. government also invested in the study of physiology to improve soldiers’ physical endurance in the extreme environments of war. According to LeBlanc, many of the protocols that government-sponsored labs developed to monitor the human body’s performance, such as the Harvard Step Test of cardiac health, are still used in medicine and sports today in various forms.

The government’s field experiments with rations also left their mark on American food processing – giving, for instance, the stabilization technologies that keep sliced bread and cold-pressed juice fresh in grocery stores and at home.

Communism at home and abroad

America also treated nutrition as a matter of national security during the Cold War, said LeBlanc.

From the 1940s to the ’70s, the U.S. government feared that “where hunger goes, communism follows,” LeBlanc said. “This is in part psychological: If you’re hungry, communism’s promises of food and well-being are going to be appealing.” LeBlanc also found that many U.S. politicians and nutritionists believed malnutrition would make people mentally weak and, therefore, more vulnerable to the supposed seductions of anti-capitalist ideologies.

Thus, combating hunger both at home and abroad was seen as a matter of protecting democracy. The U.S. government created the International Committee on Nutrition for National Defense (ICNND), an organization dedicated to measuring and counteracting malnutrition in both recently independent countries abroad and impoverished areas of the United States where communist politics might find a foothold.

The resulting domestic welfare and international food aid policies carry the American military’s ideological imprint to this day.

Relevance today

LeBlanc’s work underscores that nutrition is always politically inflected, in 2019 no less than in 1941.

LeBlanc points to current discussions about obesity. “In the hysteria around the so-called ‘obesity epidemic,’ we have lost sight of the way that obesity and diabetes are often connected to food insecurity” and, therefore, to economic and racial inequities, LeBlanc said.

Londa Schiebinger, the John L. Hinds Professor in the History of Science and LeBlanc’s advisor, said that LeBlanc’s work is a reminder that in order to be savvy consumers of scientific information, we must remain keenly aware of who is funding, directing, benefiting from and excluded from research.

“Since the 1950s, there’s been this idea that science is merely objective,” Schiebinger said. “And, yes, we discover truth in science, but research priorities are very much determined by society.”

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LeBlanc’s research is funded by Stanford’s Ric Weiland Graduate Fellowship, Marilyn Yalom Research Fund, Lane Research Grants and the Department of History.

Media Contacts

Ker Than, School of Humanities and Sciences: (650) 723-9820, kerthan@stanford.edu