Eat Bread for Health!

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Although we can trace some of the first diet fads to the 1830s (namely American Sylvester Graham’s campaign to use food as a tool for sexual self-repression), the interwar years were the “golden age” for some of the most outrageous dietary promotions. The diet movement of the 1920s and 30s was grounded on increased awareness of and interest in food health. Yet, as these 1937 and 1938 advertisements for bread found in the Canadian Home Journal indicate, corporate promotion of their food products, either consciously or not, often misrepresented what was then known about calories, vitamins, and minerals and how those elements shaped nutritional health, promising weight loss, health, vigour, wholesomeness, and a host of other positive outcomes often based on questionable, if any, scientific data.

During the interwar years, research conducted in Great Britain and the United States, mainly by Sir John Boyd Orr and Dr. Hazel Stiebeling, identified a “hidden hunger crisis.” Although people seemed to be eating enough to stay alive, their diets were not giving them the nutrients needed for optimal health. These researchers, especially Orr, further cast the issue as one of social equity, arguing that there was a direct connection between poverty and poor nutritional health. Subsequent research in Canada included scientific assessments of different foods, sociological surveys of community food habits, and experimental production of “proper meals.” By the mid-1930s, dietitians specifically critiqued processed white flour. They charged that milling out the bran transformed flour into the “nutritional desert” known as white bread. Influenced by nutritional public awareness campaigns, Canadians gradually decreased the amount of bread they consumed, replacing it with more fruits and vegetables.[1]

Yet these scientific findings and public awareness campaigns were not the only, or even the primary, sources of public information on nutrition for Canadians. The interwar era was also a period of commercialization and consolidation of food production. These large food corporations, along with their trade associations, often drove public discourse about nutrition through advertisements in large circulation newspapers and magazines. These ads paid little heed to scientific data, but Canada’s wheat farmers, flour millers, and bakers found them a useful counterweight to the public awareness campaigns that had damned their products as nutritionally empty.[2]

These two widely circulated Canadian advertisements for bread reveal the bread industry’s response to nutritionists’ critiques in the 1930s. Produced by Standard Bread Limited, a conglomerate of Ontario-based bakeries, the advertisements appeared throughout Canada’s print media and catered to multiple cultural ideals of the period. These particular images come from the Canadian Home Journal in 1937 and 1938, which is held at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa.

“You can play a whole period of hockey on 2 slices of Bread,” advertisement in Canadian Home Journal 34, no. 7 (Nov. 1937): 29.
“Reduce on New Bread Diet. Grow Slim…Radiantly Lovely!” advertisement in Canadian Home Journal 35, no. 1 (May 1938): 23.

Both advertisements pointed to supposedly scientific research and claimed that eating six slices of bread a day provided energy while also promoting weight loss. And, like all good diet fads, this one came with free stuff—a complete bread diet guide that identified one’s ideal weight and provided bread diet recipes to help reach that ideal. Standard Bread Limited claimed that “thousands of dollars in laboratory and research expenses” produced “the most valuable book on sensible dieting ever printed.”[3]

The hockey-themed advertisement catered to men and the ideal of masculine strength. The text asserted that bread provided “sustained energy” and was “one of the best sources of muscle-building protein.” In fact, it claimed a person obtained more “muscle food” from bread than any other food product. Knowing that women made most of the food choices for the family, the advertisement also tapped into a mother’s desire to provide good food for growing children who “burn up more energy than most adults.”

The second advertisement catered to a different demographic, alleging that “men instinctively turn toward the slim graceful woman…lovely, alert, glowing with health!” It claimed that bread provided proteins and carbohydrates without fat, thus providing energy without weight gain, Indeed, it offered Canadian women a path to weight loss that would not result in “jumpy nerves or loss of energy.” 

Clear examples of attempted consumer manipulation, neither of these advertisements provided specific references to the “scientific experts” who supported a bread-based diet. They relied instead on general references to protein, carbohydrates, and fat, and on vague terms like “energy,” “pep,” and “vitality.”

These documents, like thousands of other similar food advertisements from the 1920s and 30s, raise important historical questions. They reflect contemporary culture and underline the resonance of issues such as health reform, gender roles, and media techniques. But they are useful to historians in other ways as well by exposing the tug-of-war that emerged in these years between private commercial enterprises and the state over the nation’s food habits. Who should control what ordinary people ate?

Throughout the 1930s, the Canadian federal government increasingly sought to shape Canadians’ food consumption, arguing that it was a public health issue. If the state had a responsibility to provide its citizens with adequate health care, and if food consumption was a central element of an individual’s health (both of which Canadians increasingly saw as true), then regulating food production, distribution, and even consumption would naturally fall under the authority of the state. In this context, advertisements that falsely claimed a connection between a specific food and improved health challenged the Canadian government’s assertion to protect public health.

In 1920, the Canadian government passed the Food and Drug Act to regulate the production, import, export, transport, and sale (including marketing and distribution) of all food products. By the 1930s, the Department of Pensions and Public Health began to police more vigorously how companies could advertise their products as “healthy.” By 1940, Deputy Minister of Health Robert Wodehouse specifically targeted companies that were “misleading and exaggerating” the health quality of the foods they promoted. Under this new authoritative eye, advertisements that misled consumers regarding the healthfulness of their product by referring to “science” or “research” without specific supporting evidence came under the scrutiny of a state seeking to protect the health of its citizens from improper manipulation.

For historians, these food advertisements do more than simply reflect cultural assumptions about gender norms or health ideals; they also support an analysis of nutritional discourse about food policy during a critical period in the history of Canada’s public health system.

About The Author

Brian Payne teaches history and Canadian studies at Bridgewater State University (Massachusetts) and focuses on food policy, public health, and the environment during the 1920s and 1930s. This “Finding” is part of his current research project on Canada’s domestic and foreign food policy.

Endnotes

[1] Numerous studies conducted by the Department of Agriculture suggested a shift in Canadians’ diet. Although some of these consumer surveys are less convincing by modern standards they do suggest that the wheat industry (farmers, millers, and bakers) were concerned that Canadians were consuming less wheat. See Brian Payne, “Nature’s Bread: The Natural Food Debate in Canada, 1940-1949,” Agricultural History 93, no. 4 (Fall 2019): 608-635.

[2] The Dominion Cerealist for the Department of Agriculture did try to convince the wheat industry to transition back to a whole wheat flour that preserved the natural nutritional value of bread. The industry, however, refused to comply, fearing that Canadian consumers would reject whole wheat flour in favour of the more popular processed white version and would turn to American sources of processed flour. The consumer trend of the early 1900s certainly suggests that the industry was correct. Given the choice between processed white and whole wheat, consumers almost always chose white. See Payne, “Nature’s Bread: The Natural Food Debate in Canada, 1940-1949.” 

[3] “Reduce on New Bread Diet. Grow Slim…Radiantly Lovely!” advertisement in Canadian Home Journal 35, no. 1 (May 1938): 23.