It’s so white I know it’s pure!

Guest post by Josh the Spokesgay.

[Note: This is a hypothesis and it’s surely incomplete and might be badly wrong in some places. I’m not suggesting it’s a well-documented piece of research; criticism and correction is welcome.]

I wonder if anyone else has noticed this: The current obsessions with gluten, GMO crops, “chemicals,” and “clean eating” are expressions of the exact same set of purity concerns that animated the mid-20th century consumer love of —wait for it—-foods made in sterile, scientific factories.

Take a look through cookbooks and promotional materials from food companies published in the 1930s through the 1950s. They go on at length about the “hygienic conditions” in which foods like vegetable shortening and bread were made. Many proudly feature photographs of boxy, Brutalist-style factories where “safe, pure” foods were made. Enriched with extra vitamins to be wholesome, of course.

This was a cultural reaction to the new availability of standardized manufacture and quality control of foodstuffs. It was a reaction AGAINST what consumers believed (sometimes wrongly) were the unsafe, tainted foods produced by local family farms. Consumers often got it wrong. For instance, believing that locally baked bread was to blame for illnesses. Of course, most food poisoning came from bad dairy, meat, etc., not bread.

The appetite for canned (purified, protected) and frozen foods was enormous among the post-war US buying public. Homemade foods that we’d call today “local” and “artisan-made” seemed to be have been seen in the 1950s the way we see mass-manufactured “processed” foods like boxed macaroni and cheese. That is, they were the province of unsophisticated or dated homemakers.

You were seen as “country” or out of touch or not sufficiently worried about your family’s health if you served traditionally made foods. Good, Caring housewives served spinach from a frozen box and cheese sauce from a can. You didn’t reuse bacon grease like mother did, you used vegetable shortening. Spry-brand shortening was advertised on the basis of its “purity”, signified by its brilliant white color. One ad in my collection has a smartly dressed woman (picture Rosalind Russell in The Women) saying, “It’s so white I know it’s pure!”.

The preference for this kind of food was largely about the convenience that was available in food preparation for the first time in history. But it was also about misguided notions of purity and contamination, and about posturing through purchasing to show that you were Properly Concerned About Your Family’s Health.

The supermarket housewife stocking her larder with cans of Libby’s vegetables seems to me to be the cultural equivalent of the “crunchy moms” who ostentatiously patronize Whole Foods and claim never to let a non-organic potato pass the lips of dear little Kayden or Abigail.


  1. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    Addendum 1: I know that Celiac is real and I am not referring to people with a medical need to avoid gluten.

    Addendum 2: I know that some of the objections to GMO foods are not about food safety, but about concerns over the corporate practices of GMO producers. These are not the concerns I am talking about, so please do not take the time to defend yourself if this represents your view. I am not addressing that topic.

  2. guest says

    🙂 yes I have, and I think it’s all of a piece with a lot of other things going on in western, particularly American, culture at that time. I wrote a piece many years ago about how purity concerns were behind a lot of city planning/zoning initiatives, as well as the fad for monorails, skywalks, and other things that separate ‘us’ from the milling crowds. And I’ve noticed how in my social circle for a while ‘pure’ things were very hip–e.g. mixing your own personal scents out of a collection of single-source essences, drinking only single malts, etc.–but that that seems to have changed at some point without my noticing; now complex blended scents from Lush and complex blended drinks from popup cocktail lounges are the in thing.

  3. anat says

    Regarding current food trends – some are based in reality, some are over-extension of real claims outside their useful parameters and some are baseless. Processed foods tend to have too much sugar, sodium, and other cheap fillers. There is no nutritional reason why American breads have to be so sweet. There is no justification for the rise in sugar consumption shown here. But beyond simple criteria (total calories, sugar, sodium) or specific diseases, we know too little about how bodies respond to the composition of food to come up with rational advice. In the absence of rational advice, people looking for control over their health come up with irrational advice.

  4. PatrickG says

    Addendum 1: I know that Celiac is real and I am not referring to people with a medical need to avoid gluten.

    Partner and I are throwing a party later this year to celebrate 15 years of life together (oh my!). We had a serious debate about whether to put something on the RSVP about “If you request gluten-free, you better have Celiac Disease”. Conclusion was that we’re perfectly happy to piss off any of our guests who refuse to eat our food at the event.


  5. says

    Holy teeth, if I had a dollar for every misconception about GMOs that I’ve refuted in the last few years, I’d be a millionaire at the very least. The recent bill here in Washington to require labels on (some) GMO food was so poorly written, it was absolutely indecent. It proposed 18 different arguments in support of labels, of which exactly one had any validity, and that one was an economic argument that was basically “we will lose trade with other nations that already have these alarmist laws if we don’t pass the same law here,” and that is a summary of the well thought out section of that ridiculous bill. It’s amusing how when you start refuting these things, you inevitably get called a “(paid) shill for Monsanto” or something similar, though. I treasure those moments.

  6. screechymonkey says

    Interesting idea. I wonder if it doesn’t also match up with general attitudes towards science. I’m no cultural historian, but I have the impression that in the 1950s and early 60s, science was seen as important and good. Science helped win WWII for the Allies, and it was going to help us beat the Commies! So food that was prepared and packaged using the latest scientific practices must be good, too! That changed as distrust of corporations and governments overcame the gee-whiz science appreciation.

    Even science fiction tracks that a little — it goes from being all flying cars and rocket ships and rayguns and isn’t the future awesome (except for the scary aliens) to being dystopias and the dark aspects of technology.

  7. karmacat says

    This reminds me of the Jacques Tati movie, Mon Oncle. In one scene the boy’s mother is making him a meal and everything is ridiculously clean. The mother eve uses latex gloves. The boy goes out with his uncle who gets the boy from a vendor who is dirty and wipes his dirty hands on his apron

  8. Josh, Official SpokesGay says

    I’m glad you all find this interesting enough to talk about with me.

    Leaving this here because I wish I’d incorporated into the OP:

    And yes, this is extremely gendered. I’m not using “mom” and “housewife” merely because I’m too thoughtless to imagine men falling prey to marketing forces. I’m using the terms because, as has been the case since at least the 19th century’s archetype of the “angel in the home,” these concerns are seen as the ethical territory of the woman as mother and homemaker.

  9. says

    I remember seeing a newsreel (decades old already when I saw it) that showed future wonders of childrearing. It’s possible it was something to do with the 1939 World’s Fair.

    They showed a nursery with dozens of babies being washed and changed by machines, “never touched by human hands!” There were little enclosed steel and glass bassinets and probably feeding tubes, though I don;t specifically remember that…
    Little slings and conveyor belts moved babies around in a sterile environment. This of course was at around the same time mothers were being convinced not to nurse their own children, the preference being cow’s milk and then formula.

  10. says

    Holy teeth, if I had a dollar for every misconception about GMOs that I’ve refuted in the last few years, I’d be a millionaire at the very least.

    I wouldn’t mind a “Contains Monsanto Products” label though…
    It’s not just GMOs.
    I didn’t even bother to respond to one comment to me on Joe My God from someone who was outraged that Subway had had cellulose in its bread until protests caused them to drop it.

  11. says

    I wouldn’t mind a “Contains Monsanto Products” label though

    Probably be cheaper to just label the things that don’t contain Monsanto products.

  12. says

    JH @ 10 – yes and that’s also the time when mothers were being told to feed the baby on a strict schedule and ignore it all the rest of the time. Worst child-rearing advice in the history of the world. (It took that awful research at Goon Park to convince the “experts” that no, love and contact aren’t frivolous extras that spoil the baby, they’re essential for survival.)

  13. wannabe says

    “An example I often give is the New York dairy associations that successfully fought to prevent the pasteurization of milk from 1870 to 1917, because it would add a few pennies per bottle of milk. During this time they sickened and killed hundreds of thousands of their best customers — small children, including one of my great-grandmother’s children. They were finally forced to pasteurize when in WWI U.S. soldiers assembled on Long Island were sickened by contaminated milk.”
    — Jed Rothwell

  14. Lady Mondegreen says

    …But it was also about misguided notions of purity and contamination, and about posturing through purchasing to show that you were Properly Concerned About Your Family’s Health.

    I think there’s something to this, especially the “posturing” part (or maybe the word is, “performing.”)

    But don’t forget that the Germ Theory of disease didn’t really catch on until the 1870s, within the memory of some of those ’50s housewives’ grandmothers. And those housewives themselves probably grew up during the Great Depression. If they were from the country, their family might not even have owned a refrigerator.

    So concerns about “purity” might have made more sense in the ’50s–however confused. As Angela Carter wrote in one of her stories, “In…great-grandmother’s day, Summer and Salmonella came in together.”

    I remember my Aunt Betty (2nd cousin, actually) discussing her trip to America more than ten years later. She was deeply impressed by the cleanliness of the supermarkets here, especially the meat departments, with the meat all precut in little disposable trays and covered with plastic wrap. She made that visit in 1969. Nowadays, I imagine even small towns in Scotland have supermarkets.

  15. Lady Mondegreen says

    mothers were being told to feed the baby on a strict schedule and ignore it all the rest of the time. Worst child-rearing advice in the history of the world.

    John B. Watson was an evil man.

  16. Bespoke Spiders says

    I have noticed that in at least one case the labeling on a package of soy milk so heavily promoted its commitment to genetic purity that I think even the most die hard racist would blush.

    I went thought the trouble of tracking it down:

    “*By non-GM soy we mean Identity Preserved. Soy is the main characterising ingredient in So Good soy milk. By using an Identity Preservation process, every stage from seed to supermarket is controlled to maintain segregation and minimise the possibility of mixing identity preserved soybeans with any genetically modified soybeans.”

  17. says

    Mixed feelings about gluten free. Being a diabetic, I need to limit the amount of carbohydrates I eat. I do look at gluten free recipes. The ones that are nut flour based can be quite helpful. Any that use rice or corn, however, are much less useful. This is pointed out repeatedly in one of the closed diabetic groups I participate in.

  18. latveriandiplomat says

    I was told once that the preference for white bread of the Wonder bread ilk was a result of an extensive marketing campaign. Why did marketers want consumers to switch to bland, unappealing white bread? Because it had a longer shelf life, which saved money, because inventory is easier to manage and production can be industrialized.

    I think many other “pure” products were probably similarly motivated by maximizing shelf life, and then marketing that type of product as safer, more refined, etc. than grandma’s old fashioned ideas about what was good. Convenience was another hook, most likely, and still is for many people.

    While much of the desire for natural, and organic, products may have started from a well-intentioned place, it has also become fodder for marketing. “Organic” means very little, for example, it does not mean pesticide free, fresher, or more nutritious, though many people who pay more for organic produce think this is what they are paying for. “Natural” means basically nothing.

  19. says

    As happened a few days ago on Mano Singham’s blog (and many times elsewhere), disagreement with pro-GMO views is falsely and intentionally conflated with anti-vaxxers and 9/11 conspiracies.

    Not wanting GMO food imposed is the same as wanting traditionally produced insulin (from cow and pig pancreases) instead of synthetic insulin. People should have a right to choose the original form which still works, not have replacements forced on them.

  20. says

    People should have a right to choose the original form which still works, not have replacements forced on them.

    This comment is disingenuous and misleading. The controversy over GMO’s, right now, is not over whether or not they should be “imposed” upon anyone. It’s over labeling laws. Which, to date, have been extremely misleading and intellectually dishonest.

    You have every right to consume non-GMO foods. They exist. “Organic” is a federally regulated label, and GMO foods do not get it. Stop trying to say that anyone is FORCING anything on anyone. Buy Organic, and you won’t be eating GMOs. Eat any prepared food or non-Organic, and you probably will be.

    WRT “falsely and intetionally conflated with anti-vaxxers and 9/11 conspiracies”: well, the science is very much in favor of the value of vaccination, GMO’s, and the fact that 9/11 was not a huge conspiracy by the US government. So in that sense, a comparison of them is not a false conflation. If people compare them, perhaps it is because they are comparable.

  21. guest says

    I read a great article about selling bread a while back that pointed out that when bread started being manufactured instead of baked, and sold in opaque plastic bags on supermarket shelves, people who bought it couldn’t see or smell it, so the only way they had any idea what was inside the wrapper, or determining whether it was stale or not, was by squeezing it, hence squeezy bread.

    In my history of technology seminar we talk about the change from buying things made by people you know to buying things made by people you’ll never meet, and one of my students pointed out that in the latter situation there are only two things you can judge a product by–brand reputation and price.

  22. Anne Fenwick says

    I understand regulations on organic food are stricter in Europe than in the US where ‘organic’ might mean almost anything. I could be wrong about that, but I mention it because I have quite precise expectations. What I think organic food buys me, as far as ‘purity’ is concerned is a) animals (and fish) that have to be raised in such a way that they won’t require antibiotics, those ways incidentally being more humane to the animals and b) a reduced risk of polluting water tables with agricultural run-off which is an acknowledged problem in some areas.

    I suppose antibiotics and agricultural runoff are examples of contaminants I’m keen to avoid, and it would be possible to argue about whether that’s necessary or possible or whatever, but it’s a bit different from an unspecified urge towards purity.

    As far as GM goes I’m in the economic camp. I actually approve of it in some cases (anti-malarial mosquitoes, how’s that going?) and under certain conditions but Monsanto isn’t it.

  23. Anne Fenwick says

    @6 Mr FancyPants

    Re labeling, I’m interested to how you feel about the consumer’s right to choose their own criteria for purchase, regardless of which criteria the producers and re-sellers might prefer them to ignore.

    Right now, I can decide, rightly or wrongly, to support local produce because the country of origin is labeled. Could Chilean or Spanish farmers justifiably claim I shouldn’t have access to that knowledge?

    I can avoid all sorts of fats, oils, sugars, preservatives and food colorings because I get to know what they are, regardless of whether it makes as much difference as I think or not. And the label has to be printed in a language I can read.

    I can decide whether I think it’s worth paying the extra bucks for fizzy wine that’s actually grown in the Champagne region if ‘authenticity’ means something to me. Hard to say which of the producers is winning here, but couldn’t they claim the labeling is arbitrary and I shouldn’t have that choice? Or could I claim it’s arbitrary and they shouldn’t be allowed to offer that choice?

    For consistency, if consumers want GM labeling, is there an acceptable reason for denying them? If so, do all those other labels have to justify themselves on better grounds?

  24. says

    Anne Fenwick @25:
    I’m only interested in labels that are mandated by law, not hypotheticals. If you want some particular label for some other reason, you have every right to ask the food producers to put it on, and if they see an economic incentive then they probably will. Many organic food producers are already doing precisely that with their own “contains no GMOs” labels.

    Of course, you see the problem with that: without a legal, precisely defined regulation for what “contains no GMOs” means, it could be completely meaningless, and therein lies the problem with every GMO labeling law to date: the bills were written in a fashion that would not meaningfully convey information to the consumer. Here in Washington, if the bill had passed, certain packaged foods would have had the labels, but not the exact same foods when served prepared from the store deli twenty feet away. Raw materials would have required the labels (like flour), but not ready-to-cook foods (frozen pizzas using the exact same flour). Animals fed GMO grains and then processed for sale in meat departments would not have required labels. Processed derivatives from GMO crops that were used in making processed foods would not have required labels on the final processed-food product. No restaurant meals would have required any warnings or labels, even if the food was 100% GMOs.

    If you want GMO labels, ask yourself this: why? Presumably, it’s because you want to know if you’re going to be consuming food with GMOs in it. If you’re not getting that information, then what is the point of the label? It’s worth noting that the exceptions that I just described were not in initial drafts of these bills, but the outcry against the drafts that actually required informative labels was so great, that they started putting those exceptions in. As it turns out, the citizens were much more interested in the economic impact to themselves personally, than they were about having informative labels.

  25. carlie says

    People should have a right to choose the original form which still works

    Are you talking about domestically modified crop plants? Do you want to go back to the “original form” for that? Because then you’d have food that has high toxins, short shelf lives, and is extremely small and inefficient compared to the varieties we’ve been modifying for thousands of years.

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