Canada’s Food Guide Reveals Appetizing History

Prof studies smorgasbord of cookbooks


Ian Mosby

Canada’s Food Guide has gone through a number of transformations since the creation of its predecessor – the more sternly named Canada’s Official Food Rules – 70 years ago. In comparison to the original Food Rules, the current Food Guide has fewer food groups, no specific recommendations about eating four to six slices of “Canada Approved Vitamin B Bread” per day, and definitely no rifle-toting milk bottles marching off to war on the posters and pamphlets promoting it.

As post-doc Ian Mosby found in his doctoral research on the history of food and nutrition in Canada during the Second World War, the original Food Rules document certainly bore the mark of its wartime origins.

“The war was very much the catalyst for the creation of Canada’s Official Food Rules,” he says, “and this was captured in the slogan that often accompanied it: ‘Eat Right, Feel Right – Canada Needs You Strong.’” Mosby found that despite wartime claims that more than 60 per cent of Canadians were suffering from some form of malnutrition, the authors of the Food Rules were less concerned with preventing illnesses like scurvy or pellagra than about ensuring the maximum efficiency and effectiveness of Canada’s soldiers, war workers and mothers.

“You can see this in the early imagery of the wartime nutrition campaign,” Mosby explains. “Besides the images of bottles of milk marching with rifles, they showed war workers drinking milk out of the bottle, and smiling soldiers eating scientifically-designed rations.” The Food Rules were typically accompanied by educational materials suggesting mothers were to blame for the poor health of their families and that only by reforming their shopping and cooking practices would they make a real contribution to the war effort.

Mosby is currently in the process of finishing his book manuscript entitled Food Will Win the War: The Politics, Culture and Science of Food During Canada’s Second World War. The manuscript is based on his PhD dissertation, which he completed at York University in 2011.

The result of extensive archival research, including a number of trips to the culinary collection in the U of G archives, Mosby’s book will include detailed examinations of wartime nutrition research and public education campaigns; popular responses to food rationing and price control efforts; the mobilization of women’s patriotic voluntary labour; the production and use of wartime recipes and cookbooks; and the role of nutrition experts in postwar reconstruction planning.

According to Mosby, his favourite part of this research has always been the recipes from old cookbooks – and he has gathered quite a collection over the past six years. “There’s something about being able to taste, smell and eventually eat your primary sources that makes food history unique and always interesting,” he says.

Among his favourites are a milk-less, egg-less, butter-less and sugar-stretching dessert called Canada War Cake and a bizarre recipe for a “green salad” containing ingredients such as gelatine, green food colouring and horseradish. “I think one of the real mysteries I hope to solve through my research is why these kinds of unfortunate salads became so popular in the 1940s and 1950s,” he jokes.

It’s possible that Mosby might come up with at least a few answers to this question through his new research project which is tentatively titled, “Engineering Dinner: Postwar Food Technology and the Industrial Transformation of the Canadian Diet.” This new project looks at six foods that represent some of the profound changes in Canadians’ eating habits that took place between 1945 and 1990: enriched white bread, diet soda, fish sticks, canola oil, frozen French fries, and instant macaroni and cheese.

Sound like a typical student menu? Maybe, but the reality is that these foods only recently entered our food chain, and Mosby is curious about how they became so popular with Canadians. Novelty, he suggests, clearly played an important role early on. “We look at these as junk foods, but in the late 1940s, they were seen as modern foods.”

Another factor, he says, is that people’s ideas of the value of a woman’s time began to change. With more women entering the workforce, but still expected at that time to handle cooking and housework, saving 10 or 15 minutes at dinner time with a convenience food was definitely worthwhile.

“Many people genuinely saw potential for liberating women through the increased availability of processed convenience foods,” Mosby says. “Although the reality may not have lived up to the expectations, it’s fascinating to try to figure out how people responded to the first boxes of fish sticks or bags of frozen French fries arriving at the grocery store.” In addition, he suggests, many of these foods were popular with children, and this fit into the idea of the more child-centred family of the post-war era.

He’ll be diving into the community cookbooks in the archives once again to see when and how people began incorporating these foods into their everyday cooking. “The culinary collection is really an amazing resource, and Guelph is lucky to have it,” Mosby says.