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Of all of the things that have changed a lot in the past few years, our food supply is definitely one of them! And a lot of those changes have occurred in just the past century, too. There are many foods that might seem very commonplace to us today, but in the scale of human history, they are all very recent, “newfangled” foods that our ancestors never would have eaten because they didn’t even exist in previous centuries.
These newer foods are ones that many of our ancestors would have viewed with a lot of skepticism at first, and many of them are heavily processed or are ingredients that may have negative effects on our health.
And while people living in past centuries still had their fair share of exposure to toxic and hazardous substances (like mercury and lead, for example), in general their food supply was a lot more natural and less processed, especially for those living in the country who produced a lot of the food they ate on their own family farms.
(Note: I’m sure there are differences across cultures in various parts of the world for what foods were considered traditional foods and what was common for people to eat. Any historical information about food that I am referring to is mostly about what people in North America would have eaten in the past few centuries since that is the area of food history that I know the most about.)
10 Foods Our Ancestors Never Ate
1) Crisco and Other Vegetable Oils
Before the 20th century, people used traditional fats such as butter, lard, tallow, and sometimes olive oil or coconut oil depending on where they lived. In America, the most common pre-20th century fats were butter, lard, and suet or tallow. Many times, these traditional cooking fats were made at home from the cream and rendered fat of their own farm animals.
Crisco, made from cottonseed oil, was introduced in 1911, and it took some doing to convince skeptical housewives that this “newfangled” cooking fat was superior to the old-fashioned fats that they had been using. Thanks to an intense advertising campaign, including free recipe pamphlets featuring Crisco as an ingredient in every recipe, Crisco and other vegetables oils such as corn oil, soybean oil, and canola oil eventually became the staple fats in the standard American diet along with margarine, which is another newer cooking fat with an interesting history that took a while to become commonplace in the food supply.
2) High Fructose Corn Syrup
Up until the 20th century, the main sweeteners most people in America used were cane sugar (of varying levels of refinement), and molasses. Honey and maple syrup were used as well, although they weren’t quite as popular. Sugar was the preferred sweetener of most.
It wasn’t until just this past century that corn was processed into the highly concentrated high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup was unheard of prior to the 1900s, but its use is now widespread in processed and pre-packaged foods. Check the label of just about any box, whether it’s cookies or crackers, and the chances are you’ll see high fructose corn syrup (or it’s supposedly less unhealthy twin – plain corn syrup) somewhere in the list of ingredients.
Genetically-modified foods weren’t even introduced into our food supply until quite recently. Within the past couple of decades though, they have permeated our grocery stores to the point that just about everything that comes in a box or a package has at least one ingredient made from a GMO crop such as corn, soy, canola oil, cottonseed oil, or sugar beets.
These GMO foods are widespread now, and yet they didn’t even exist until just the end of the 20th century. Throughout the years, farmers have always tried to improve on their crops by selecting the strongest plants for saving open-pollinated heirloom seeds or by cross-breeding two different varieties to create a hybrid, but never before in our history have foods been modified to the extent that they are now by combining the DNA of completely different species, as could only be done in a scientific laboratory.
4) Pesticide-Laden Produce
Pre-20th century, there was no such label as “Certified Organic,” and, in general, most food grown on small family farms would probably have met organic growing standards. While some people may have tried experimenting with different forms of pest control in the past, they didn’t have the variety of chemical pesticides that are available today that are often used by conventional growers.
Before the era of chemical pesticides, the farming process was a much more hands-on experience. In many places, and especially in rural communities, the vegetables and fruits on your table were most likely ones that had been grown just a few feet outside your house in your own kitchen garden or in your neighbor’s garden. Farmers and homesteaders took care of their produce from the time of planting the seeds until harvesting, and they were involved in every step along the way and so they knew exactly how their food was grown.
5) Low-Cal and “Lite” Diet Foods
In earlier centuries, the focus was on eating wholesome, nourishing foods that would promote health. Even though our ancestors may not have known about vitamins and minerals and the role that those nutrients have in the health of our bodies, they knew that the quality of the food that they were eating was much more important than the quantity.
While absolute gluttony was frowned upon by our ancestors, low-calorie and low-fat diets were practically unheard of. Our ancestors ate plenty of butter, cream, eggs (including the yolks), breads and other baked goods, etc. Restricting macronutrients (fat, protein, and carbs) simply wasn’t done by the vast majority of people. And since they were eating homemade foods made from real ingredients, they weren’t eating all of the artificial flavorings used to make “lite” diets foods taste good either.
6) Artificial Sweeteners
In our grandparents generation and earlier, there was no such thing as Splenda, aspartame, or any of the other artificial sweetners that exist today. Foods were not marketed as being “sugar-free” or “made with zero-calorie sweeteners.”
In generations past, foods were sweetened in moderation with natural sweeteners, such as regular sugar (made from sugar cane, not GMO sugar beets), molasses, maple syrup, honey, and fruits such as dates, raisins, currants, etc. Our ancestors knew they were better off just eating a little bit of the real thing rather than trying to satisfy their sweet tooth with artificial chemicals.
7) Artificial Flavorings, and Dyes
Until the 20th century, you wouldn’t have seen the label “made with artificial flavorings” on any foods. Foods were made with simple, natural ingredients that you could pronounce without having to consult a dictionary. Flavorings were herbs and spices or natural extracts such as vanilla, lemon and orange essences, or rose water. When they wanted to add color to their food for special occasion cakes or other desserts, they used natural colorings, like beet juice for a pretty pink hue, for example.
8) Chemical Preservatives
There was no such thing as “TBHQ added to preserve freshness” back in the days before the 20th century. Old-fashioned preservation techniques used natural methods that didn’t rely on the use of chemicals the way most foods are preserved today.
Produce was typically preserved either by drying, pickling, canning, or root cellaring. At harvest time, apples were often sliced and hung by the fire to dry or turned into apple sauce and butter. Beans were often dried or canned, cucumbers and cabbage were turned into pickles and sauerkraut. Milk was preserved by being made into cheese and butter, and meats were often preserved by being smoked, dried, or salted.
These old-fashioned preservation methods may have required a bit more work and preparation, but they kept foods fresh without the use of harmful chemicals.
9) Factory-Farmed Meats
In earlier centuries, there was no need to label meats, eggs, and dairy products as being “grass-fed,” “pasture-raised,” or “free-range.” Cows were kept on pasture where they ate grass, and hay was harvested and stored aside for the cold winter months. Chickens were allowed to roam outdoors and peck around in the dirt for insects as they pleased.
While there were some cases in the past of animals being kept in poor conditions in crowded cities, the majority of animals in the past were raised on small farms. These animals were healthy and happy, never given synthetic hormones or antibiotics, and, instead of spending their days crammed into crowded barns and coops, they had full access to fresh air and sunshine when the weather was nice enough for them to be outside.
10) Convenience Foods
Back in great-grandma’s day, there were no such things as TV dinners or microwaveable 3-minute meals. There also weren’t any pre-prepared flavoring packets (usually loaded with MSG or other artificial flavorings) either.
Restaurants and taverns were a place to get food without having to go through the work of preparing it yourself, but for most people, they were reserved for traveling or for special occasions, and the food was still made from real, traditional ingredients rather than the processed fast food that we see everywhere today.
Even though it meant spending more time in the kitchen, our ancestors took pride in making their food “from scratch” and in serving their families wholesome, nourishing meals.
5 Foods Your Grandparents Didn’t Eat by The Darling Bakers
Why Your Ancestors Ate Chocolate and Never Gained Weight by LA Healthy Living
5 Ways Our Ancestors Were Healthier Than We Are by Yogi Mami
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The information in this post is not to be taken as medical advice and is not intended to diagnose or treat any disease.
Thursday 31st of January 2019
All beef grown in the country are fed hay. They would die without it because they have a rumen. Some eat corn or other grains, often the leftover hulls etc from the food that is processed into flour and soy products. Yes, it may have GMO, but the science is still out on that. It's easy to read info against it with and open mind but not to do the same for all the research that has been done if you are for it. The old saying, you tend to read what you already believe, is true in the instance. The beef from my generation, I'm in my 60's, was fed corn, corn stalks, weeds, wheat stalks, and yes, they sprayed chemicals on or around plants. I agree with most of what you say but I don't agree with the beef part. There are way too many farmers that grow their beef correctly but people are too lazy to search them out.
Saturday 2nd of February 2019
That's true what you say about it being much easier to read information with an open mind if you are already inclined toward believing it and that it's much more difficult to be open minded when you've already formed an opinion against something. And that's definitely true that there a lot of farmers that are growing their beef correctly. It's just unfortunate that, for most of the people buying beef at a grocery store rather than directly from a farmer, it can be really hard to tell the difference and to know how the beef was raised.
Sunday 7th of January 2018
Thank you for taking the time to publish this article. It reminds me of Grandma's cooking. My wife and I are trying to live as natural as we can. I wish we could get back to the basics of eating good wholesome food.
Sunday 7th of January 2018
You're welcome, and you're absolutely right that this style of cooking is reminiscent of the way our grandmothers and great-grandmothers cooked. It would be wonderful if everybody could return to this wholesome way of cooking!
Sunday 17th of May 2015
I just wanted to add that a sweetener used commonly on the US in the 19th century, especially in the South, was sorghum. Many people confuse sorghum with molasses which is a syrup made from sugar cane. Sorghum is the syrup derived from sorghum cane.
Wednesday 20th of May 2015
Good point, Carol! Thanks for sharing with us :)
Sunday 26th of January 2014
Totally true! It is becoming increasingly difficult to find "natural" foods. It puzzles me when shoppers insists on finding the "seedless" grapes in the supermarket, and then load up their shopping carts with packaged foods that have been processed to stay on the shelves. Shouldn't fruit have seeds? Clearly the foods we eat have contributed significantly to our illness and obesity, but, everyone is too busy to take the time to prepare healthy and nutritious meals. Food is our medicine, if we eat right now, we can extend our lives later.
Friday 24th of January 2014
Yea! Great article. We talked about all of those in nutrition class last night. One girl was afraid to go home and eat. Can't say I blame her.
Friday 24th of January 2014
I feel the same way sometimes. I have to try to forget everything I've learned about food when I'm eating out at a restaurant or I won't be able to eat anything at all!