If we lived in a world where fresh fruits and vegetables were suspect and fast-food hamburgers were considered pure and healthful, would we be carefree and content? Sadly, no. Americans have suffered through such times. And if we’re condemned to repeat the history we cannot learn from, we’ll be reassessing white bread in the near future.

It is fitting, then, that a historian fascinated with food has mustered the evidence. “Fear of Food” is based in part on recent lectures by its author, Harvey Levenstein. The professor of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has published two previous books that zero in on the modern American diet: “Revolution at the Table” and “Paradox of Plenty” (both 2003; the latter is a revised edition). Plus, he’s a guy who, according to interviews, considers himself a pretty good cook.

Levenstein has us pegged as a nation of gastronomic hand-wringers. We have heeded research endorsed by medical associations without scrutiny. Since around 1960, the middle class has been gripped by lipophobia, which sounds like an affliction of the cottage-cheese-thighs variety but is a fear of dietary fat. The term was coined by French sociologist Claude Fischler in 1990 but is rooted, the author recaps, in our overindulgence and affluence.

What’s worse, we’re not even original, cycling back into established patterns of worry and dismay, deprivation and overkill. Trace our attitudes toward milk and red meat, and you’ll find a pendulum swing along the lines of what Woody Allen’s character declared so perceptively in the 1977 film “Annie Hall”: “Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat . . . college.”

Levenstein’s examples have a can-you-imagine-that quality. The risk of germs loomed large in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Warnings against pets and dirt filled newspaper articles and prompted thousands of New Yorkers to turn in their dogs to be destroyed — even though the city health commissioner said the animals were not a health hazard. Schoolchildren across the country were offered cash prizes for bringing in dead flies. The era begat the selling of processed and packaged foods as “clean.”

'Fear of Food' by Harvey Levenstein (University of Chicago Press)

Even as late as 1940, flies were (incorrectly) being blamed for a mass outbreak of polio. Water supplies were cleaned up, but then milk become an object of fly-infested, bacterial angst. Infant deaths were pinned to “bad milk.” Levenstein says urban consumption dropped 40 to 60 percent before large-scale pasteurization was introduced and federal muscle was put in place to tout milk as necessary for good health.

Lest you think germ hysteria was quaint and distant, you need time-travel no further back than the 2004 SARS epidemic and the subsequent boost in sanitizers and air purifiers — although the disease was spread by a virus and therefore not to be smote by such disinfectants.

Once we found out that our processed foods contained chemical additives, natural goodness reemerged as a guidepost. Yogurt and its purported properties have cropped up again and again. Long-lived peoples in foreign lands seemed to be all the proof we needed, until an American champion of a particular diet regime died of cancer or heart disease.

Throughout this slim volume, Levenstein is adept at connecting trends with famous names and fads of certain eras. He illuminates the folly of various theories but seems keener to expose the motivations and money behind health advocacy groups — chief among them the American Heart Association.

In the past 30 or 40 years, medical research and the media propelled cholesterol as a villain we need to be afraid of, but we have waged war against it haphazardly. Margarine and vegetable oil were deemed healthful substitutes for butter and lard, but when the incidence of fatal heart disease continued unabated, economist John Kenneth Galbraith declared it an illness of affluence. (Later in the book, the author counters with footnotes suggesting that low socioeconomic status is the greatest risk factor of all.) So we worried about overindulgence, delivered with a side order of guilt. Of course, evidence that reducing dietary fat would decrease high cholesterol was far from conclusive; in 2008, studies showed that high-fat diets were not the sole culprit, yet we still couldn’t let go of the fear.

To combat the feelings, Levenstein prescribes skepticism and independent thought. He finds moralism at the heart of “blame food” campaigns and warns us to watch out for it, promoting the eating of most things in moderation as the true path. Unfortunately, he closes by endorsing the full-on appetites of Julia Child, who advocated the liberal use of butter and cream — understandable for a gourmand but difficult for the more wary among us to swallow.


Bonnie S. Benwick is interim editor of The Washington Post’s Food section.


A History of Why We Worry
About What We Eat

By Harvey Levenstein

Univ. of Chicago. 218 pp. $25