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Fear of Food

A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat

Fear of Food

A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat

There may be no greater source of anxiety for Americans today than the question of what to eat and drink. Are eggs the perfect protein, or are they cholesterol bombs?  Is red wine good for my heart or bad for my liver? Will pesticides, additives, and processed foods kill me?  Here with some very rare and very welcome advice is food historian Harvey Levenstein: Stop worrying!
In Fear of Food Levenstein reveals the people and interests who have created and exploited these worries, causing an extraordinary number of Americans to allow fear to trump pleasure in dictating their food choices. He tells of the prominent scientists who first warned about deadly germs and poisons in foods, and their successors who charged that processing foods robs them of life-giving vitamins and minerals. These include Nobel Prize–winner Eli Metchnikoff, who advised that yogurt would enable people to live to be 140 by killing the life-threatening germs in their intestines, and Elmer McCollum, the “discoverer” of vitamins, who tailored his warnings about vitamin deficiencies to suit the food producers who funded him. Levenstein also highlights how large food companies have taken advantage of these concerns by marketing their products to combat the fear of the moment. Such examples include the co-opting of the “natural foods” movement, which grew out of the belief that inhabitants of a remote Himalayan Shangri-la enjoyed remarkable health and longevity by avoiding the very kinds of processed food these corporations produced, and the physiologist Ancel Keys, originator of the Mediterranean Diet, who provided the basis for a powerful coalition of scientists, doctors, food producers, and others to convince Americans that high-fat foods were deadly.
In Fear of Food, Levenstein offers a much-needed voice of reason; he expertly questions these stories of constantly changing advice to reveal that there are no hard-and-fast facts when it comes to eating. With this book, he hopes to free us from the fears that cloud so many of our food choices and allow us to finally rediscover the joys of eating something just because it tastes good.

232 pages | 15 halftones, 2 line drawings | 6 x 9 | © 2012

Culture Studies

Food and Gastronomy

History: American History

History of Science


“With wit, charm, accessibility, and impeccable scholarship (a powerful and unusual quartet), Harvey Levenstein chronicles the long history of Americans’ food fears, tracing their origins, exposing and debunking the self-serving hucksters who promoted them, and, finally, offering his own ‘cure’:  healthy skepticism. It’s a riveting record of claims and counter-claims, greed and venality, that will keep you reading and, finally, reassessing your own diet.”

Susan R. Friedland, author of Ribs , Caviar , and The Passover Table

“In Fear of Food Harvey Levenstein explores one of the striking anomalies of American culture—its love/hate relationship with eating and the particularly perplexing choices that humans have to make about the food they eat because they can eat everything. The history of eating in America is thus the story of countless fads and special diets, designed to discipline the will rather than provide pleasure. Levenstein’s take on this peculiar history is at once witty, sardonic, and quite serious, even profound.”

James Gilbert, University of Maryland

“Harvey Levenstein’s entertaining social history of American food scares places today’s worries in a broader historical context, from the ‘germophobia’ of the 19th century to concerns about cholesterol and chemical residues in the 21st. Read this book and you’ll understand why warnings about the safety of your food should always be taken with a pinch of salt. (Just a pinch, though — too much could be bad for you.).”

Tom Standage, author of A History of the World in Six Glasses

“A welcome reminder that even before everyone had a food blog, there was a heck of a lot of conflicting information out there about what to eat and why.”

Zocalo Public Square

"When it comes to food, there are two large categories of eaters: those who do not worry about what they eat but should, and those who do worry about what they eat but should not. In Fear of Food,Harvey Levenstein focuses on the latter group, taking readers through a succession of American fads and panics, from an epidemic of ‘germophobia’ at the start of the twentieth century to fat phobia at its end. He exposes the instigators of these panics: not only the hucksters and opportunists but also the scientists and health experts.”

Times Literary Supplement

“With an authoritative and precise writing style, the sections of Fear of Food repeatedly reveal the insane marketing and production of the American food industry, and the irresponsibility in government control and (lack of) involvement that allows the manipulative industry to flourish.  Throughout the thoroughly researched book, Levenstein provides the history of germs, milk, the beef industry, vitamania, organic food, processed food, and fats to show the growth of a national eating disorder, and the media’s role in propagating a culture of fear surrounding food. . . . We are a nation so easily swept into fads, and Levenstein warns that we had better get a hold of ourselves, take control of our diet and our lives before it’s too late.  Fear of Food will give you just the push to do so.”

Coffin Factory

“Fear of Food offers a history of food scares in the US from the end of the 19th century up to the present day, beginning with (legitimate) concerns about the purity of milk in cities in the 1890s and ending with repeated outbreaks of E. coli resulting from intensive farming and butchery today. . . . Harvey Levenstein has fun and the book is entertaining.”

Times Higher Education

“If we are what we eat, then what does it mean when we become afraid of something we might have eaten happily the day before? Levenstein, a professor emeritus at McMaster University in Ontario, writes in straightforward narrative prose about the waves of anxiety about food that have swept across the United States from the 1890s until the present day, from the menace posed by fresh fruit and vegetables (since flies landed on them in open-air markets) to lipophobia (with any consumption of high-fat foods regarded as a form of suicidal behavior). It’s a well-researched but also very diverting book, with a large cast of public benefactors and corrupt operators. Not that you can always tell them apart.”

Times Higher Ed

“As Harvey Levenstein demonstrates in Fear of Food, it is much easier to make North Americans afraid of food than comfortable with eating it. We are frightened of cheeseburgers, and only after a large helping of time and soothing information could we ever eat them again without guilt. And by then, we’d be afraid of something else. Fear of Food lays out a century of American nutritional beliefs as a succession of contradictory orthodoxies, always hysterical and typically fleeting. One wrong idea gives way to the next, both supported by surprisingly meager evidence.”

National Post (Canada)

“The United States is a nation gripped by gustatory paranoia, says historian Harvey Levenstein. In this punchy, entertaining account, he reveals how US consumers have suffered for decades from anxiety over the provenance of a pork chop or the fat in fromage frais. An army of scientists, he says, stoked fear about everything from germs and a lack of vitamins to additives and industrial processing, inadvertently fostering the eating disorder that affects modern US society. Levenstein calls for moderation in all things — including moderation — to regain the joy of eating.”


“In his engaging, thoroughly researched, and well-written study Fear of Food, Harvey Levenstein offers a history of the major themes in pseudo-scientific dietary alarmism since the late 19th century. . . . Fear of Food is a delicious book.”

Books and Culture

"This is a necessary book, expertly researched and accessible, written with wit and verve."

Hamilton Spectator

"All readers can learn much from Mr. Levenstein’s lively and often stunning reconstruction of the history of American food fears and beliefs. So could today’s policymakers, regulators, politicians, journalists and corporate executives. The great value in Fear of Food, however, is likely the realization that poor science never seriously undermined official dogma. After all, they had a consensus! How could all these smart and powerful people — including Nobel Prize winners — be wrong?"

Financial Post

“Harvey Levenstein prescribes skepticism and independent thought. He finds moralism at the heart of “blame food” campaigns and warns us to watch out for it, promoting the eating of most things in moderation as the true path.”

Washington Post

"Harvey Levenstein deftly narrates the story of various phobias humans have developed following the mass production of food. . . . In the end, after many decades of advances in nutritional science, it is difficult not to conclude after reading this history that snake oil salesmen still control people’s images of food. . . . Highly recommended."--Choice


"Levenstein’s fascinating and important book charts America’s love-hate relationship with food. . . . There are no certain answers to questions about food and health, and Levenstein argues convincingly that scientists and journalists should show greater caution before telling us what to eat."

Guardian (UK)

"Levenstein is a fabulous storyteller, and this book is a delight to read."


Table of Contents


1 Germophobia
2 Milk: “The Most Valuable and Dangerous Food”
3 Autointoxication & Its Discontents
4 Bacteria & Beef
5 “Lucrezia Borgias in the Kitchen”
6 Vitamania & Its Deficiencies
7 “Hidden Hunger” Stalks the Land
8 Natural Foods in Shangri-la
9 Lipophobia
10 Creating a National Eating Disorder

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