The Future of Protein Dinner
Additional course content
The Green Revolution - The Year 1950
After World War II, the American agricultural system was transformed by the use of industrial inputs such as fertilizer. This shift, combined with government subsidies for calorie-dense crops like corn, wheat and soy, contributed to the creation of a farming system that produces large quantities of inexpensive calories. These cheap ingredients, in turn, constituted the basis for the production of a variety of highly processed foods - and therefore became a profound influence on what food is produced and then eaten.
By the end of World War II, Americans longed both for a return to normalcy and for a lifestyle rich with the benefits of wartime industrial investment. A welcome vision of a post-war world of plenty was disseminated through advertising campaigns. Consumers became increasingly interested in faster, more-convenient meal preparation, especially as women, the traditional home cooks, began to participate increasingly in the workforce.
As a result, frozen dinners - initially designed as in-flight foods - became popular at home, in the form of “TV Dinner” trays: A meat protein entree, coupled with two sides and a dessert. By 1959, 6 years after their roll-out by the Swanson company (purchased by Campbell’s in 1955) more than 250M TV dinners and a total of $2.7B of frozen food was sold. Soon, it was not unusual to find the whole family eating in front of the new TV set, and the tradition of the family meal began an evolution that continues to this day.
While total calories supplied by the US food system was at 3000 cal/person/day - about 1000cal less than it is today - the rise of highly processed food, together with aggressive ad campaigns, set the stage for ever-increasing intake of cheap and calorie-dense foods - rich in refined oils, refined carbs and fatty meat.
America has always been a nation of meat eaters, and in the 1950s we already consumed twice as much meat as the average European. Interestingly, while the overall meat consumption had an increase of more than 60lbs/yr/capita the proportion of red meat to poultry in the 50s (> 5:1) was much higher than it is today (~1.5:1). Lower quality in animal feed produced red meat higher in saturated fat with respect to the leaner, minimally processed cuts of the previous century. This led to public health and consumer concerns regarding fat and cholesterol in the late 1980s with progressive substitution of poultry for red meat.
Driven by the goals of maximizing caloric output of each acre of land at the lowest possible cost, increasing mechanization and application of industrial fertilizers and pesticides came to dominate the American approach to agriculture. As a result, natural ecosystems were gradually replaced with systematically simplified and homogenized growing environments, causing soil degradation, damage to waterways and increasingly deleterious ecological side effects.
Mass production became the norm, as large food manufacturers developed symbiotic relationships with an increasingly important player in the food system: the large supermarket chains. Cheap, processed food with longer shelf life had easier access to supermarket aisles and to consumer exposure.
The push to increase efficiency and reduce costs took its toll on the quality of the primary protein source: modern feedlot operations involving as many as 100 000 cattle emerged in the 1950s and have developed to the point that a characteristically obese (30% body fat) 545-kg steer can be brought to slaughter in 14 months.