In 1888, the American chemist Wilbur O. Atwater devised a series of formulas that would help people get the most energy from the least food. Economics and physiology would be joined in what he called “the pecuniary economy of food.” Atwater pioneered a movement that came to be known as “scientific eating.”It didn't work, except in adjusting the menu in prisons, where money was saved. People wanted their pleasures. How does that historical experience apply today — as McDonald's begins posting calorie information? Our food is already cheap, and if you're eating in a restaurant, you're not going to find anything significantly cheaper than McDonald's. That 19th century experience was about saving money, and it's that pasta and sugared drinks approach to eating that is making us fat. I bet a switch to red wine and red meat would work as a weight-loss diet for most adults who've gotten fat eating McDonald's style.
The notion appealed to French physicians, who had been looking for ways to improve working-class health and budgets. They believed that these households spent too much on meat and alcohol. Their program of “rational eating” aimed to instruct the poor to keep food expenses within the limits of their (modest) budgets. They urged the substitution of protein-rich legumes for red meat, pasta for sausages, and sugared beverages for wine.
These reformers believed that ignorance was the problem and information the solution. Nutrition facts were put next to the items on the menu cards in factory canteens and in working-class restaurants. Scales at the entrance to eating places helped customers to monitor their weight. A menu board, listing carefully calibrated culinary options, would allow workers to assemble nutritious meals from a set of limited options.
Bruegel notes the obvious: People enjoy eating and they eat what they like. You can give them more scientific information, but how can you tell them what to like? Bruegel, who seems to be French, ends with drippy sympathy for the poor Americans who suffer in "an era of stagnant wages, dystopian politics and cultural anomie" and chomp cheeseburgers as their last best hope for pleasure. He says "we" shouldn't blame "the poor" — who are "we" and how does he know we're not poor? — but should blame our "culture that relies ever more on unhealthy foods to breathe meaning and purpose into everyday life."