Half-Life of Facts: Nutrition

By Claire Layton

In this series of artifacts of the week, we will examine the paradox that knowledge is in fact tentative in particularly consistent ways, through a number of examples right here in the house. We will trace how we come to understand particular things as ‘truth,’ and the importance of critical thought and openness to the precariousness of fact. The mission here is twofold, also acting as an example of the potential for valuable and relevant research within a historical library and archival collection; to not regard a museum as a static entity.

We dug through the Hillary House collection of cookbooks and nutrition advice to find some ‘facts’ about health and nutrition that have fallen victim to the inevitable trend of overturning facts. A useful venue for these kinds of facts was clippings from advice columns in newspapers. For example, one particular article boasted the value of apricots as containing as much iron as liver, though a quick search now would indicate otherwise.

Additionally, there are a number of diet books that have been accumulated over the years by members of the Hillary Family which provide interesting insight into the way nutrition and dietary knowledge rapidly changes. One book in the collection if titled Watch Your Weight Go Down, by Fredrick Kerr, published in 1962. It boasts a program of a low-fat and high-carb diet with lots of grains, which has now been proven to not decrease weight, cancer-rates, or heart disease. As well, the ‘fact’ that salt should be restricted in order to lower blood pressure and reduce heart attacks and strokes has been overturned; there is no scientific evidence to prove this claim.

Though dietary ‘facts’ have changed due to an increase in evidence against prior claims, there is also an important note to be made that some nutritional advice will inevitably (and has already) changed due to the genetic modification of the food that we are consuming. This is not necessarily negative, though it is important to keep in mind and to continue to stay in-the-know.

A popular nutrition-related ‘fact’ that has been recently debunked is the Food Pyramid. It likely played a significant role in much early childhood education regarding nutrition, with government-led programs disseminating pyramids throughout cafeterias to guide nutritional decisions. This program was first introduced during the first Bush administration in 1992. Since that time, dieticians and nutrition experts have criticised the pyramid for its allowance of dietary choices that have also been linked to heart disease and other health ailments. There is also no counsel regarding recommended portion sizes within these food groups. This led to a call for the total overhaul of the educational campaign, subsequently dismantled in 2011 for the new Food Plate program.

Visit us and see if you can find these and any other examples from the past. If you have any questions about these items in our collection, please inquire or schedule an appointment to work with our curator to find out how other “facts” have changed over time.

Works Cited and Further Reading

Kerr, Fredrick. 1962. Watch Your Weight Go Down. Pyramid Books.

The Problems with the Food Guide Pyramid and MyPyramid