Cheese Is Gaining, Milk Is Losing

A new report shows how women's employment, farm subsidies, pamphleteers, and technology have determined what there is to eat.

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When was the last time you ate molasses, or even heard the word?  For the uninitiated, \mə-ˈla-səz\ is a syrupy byproduct of refining sugar: “the brownish liquid residue left after heat crystallization of sucrose.” It sounds, and looks, quite a lot like shoe polish.

We rummaged out a bottle of the stuff last fall to make gingerbread, but it hadn’t been opened for a long, LONG time. It will likely be years before we unscrew that dusty bottle again.

A new report from the Economic Research Service shows that our molasses deficit is ordinary. A hundred years ago this goop was “one of the“three M’s” in Southern sharecroppers’ core diet—meat (salt pork), molasses, and meal (cornmeal),” but these days, though supply and consumption of sweeteners are way up, molasses is generally out of the mix. Corn syrup, says the ERS, now accounts for nearly 40% of our sweetener supplies, because of a combination of federal actions: subsidies for corn, changes in trade, and investments in higher corn yields.

“Tracking a Century of American Eating” proves that what we eat is as susceptible to fads and trends as hemlines are.

President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act into law in 1946, at the peak of U.S. per capita supplies of milk.

ERS has been measuring U.S. food supplies since 1941, to follow changes in the national’s nutrition and our eating patterns. The study shows that what we put in our mouths depends not just on our taste buds but on an array of other surprising features:

The labor market: As more women work full time, and families eat more meals at restaurants, supplies of cheese and oils increase, cheese for the abundant Italian and Mexican restaurants, oil for frying potatoes and the other mainstays of “fast food” dining.

Technology: Chicken supplies are five times higher than they were in 1910; in the mid-1950s major advances in chicken breeding and processing made broilers far less expensive.

Health trends: A Yale nutritionist labeled milk a “protective” food in 1918, setting off a lactose craze, especially among grocery-buying mothers, that lasted until the mid-20th Century. “Milk availability is down from its peak of 44.7 gallons per person in 1945 to 20.8 gallons in 2008,” as soft drinks and bottled water gained popularity.

Economic Research Service
Improvements in chicken breeding brought the price of broilers down and changes in processing (boneless breasts, nuggets) have led to a booming chicken supply over the past century.

The new ERS report documents food supply not consumption, though of course they’re fundamentally related. Using another measure – of “loss-adjusted food availability” – the ERS calculates  per capita food supplies also taking into account spoilage. (Pity the apple seller!) According to this adjusted measure, U.S. citizens have, per capita, more than adequate supplies of grains and meat, and less than nutritionally adequate supplies of fruits and vegetables.

Supersizing’s a cinch with sodas, buns and burgers. When’s the last time you had supersize chard?

 

Topics: Food
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