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Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat Hardcover – April 15, 2012

4.4 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“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)

“Harvey Levenstein, professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, documents the reasons behind such overblown anxiety as ‘vitamania’ in this fascinating and entertaining book. Why has fear superseded pleasure in dictating food choices? Levenstein traces the junk science, vested interests, misleading advertising, governmental ineptitude, constantly changing advice, media hype, venal food corporations and more to provide the answers, and a shameful history it is.”

(National (UAE))

“Picking warily at its plate, America remains baffled not only by contradictory nutritional headlines but, says Levenstein, by new personalized-medicine prods to mind one's intolerances to lactose, glucose, gluten, what have you. He's meanwhile given up his last vitamin supplement, E, after studies suggested it may increase the chance of prostate cancer, and shamelessly relishes the memory of a lamb sandwich Julia Child once fed him—with mayonnaise.”

(Chronicle of Higher Education)

“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)

“Harvey Levenstein guides us through an entertaining series of obsessions—from the outsized fear of flies spreading germs (leading to the 1905 invention of the fly swatter) to a panic about germ-ridden cats infecting human food (which led to a 1912 Chicago public health warning that felines were ‘extremely dangerous to humanity’). . . . Levenstein’s roster of American food nuttiness is entertaining and enlightening.”

(Boston Globe)

"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."

About the Author

Harvey Levenstein is professor emeritus of history at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He has published a number of books on American history, including Revolution at the Table: The Transformation of the American Diet and Paradox of Plenty: A Social History of Eating in Modern America.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (April 15, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226473740
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226473741
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #777,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on April 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Professor Harvey Levenstein performs a great service with his short, easy to read history of American fad diets and food scares.

To the consumers of today: Relax and be reasonably skeptical. Any given food story in the headlines is apt to be over-hyped, triggered by the egos of medical/nutritional researchers and/or the media manipulation by the various public advocates with an axe to grind, e.g., NGOs, commercial food companies, charities tied to finding specific disease cures, governmental agencies, etc. etc.

This book should be read as a cautionary tale by all those who would try to make widespread and dramatic changes in something as complex as an entire society's diet.
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Format: Hardcover
Harvey Levenstein noticed, while doing research for two books he wrote about American tourists in France, that Americans have a very different attitude toward food than do the French. While the French have what seemed to him, a normal and healthy relationship with food, Americans have a love/hate relationship with food. The very fact that we have a "relationship" with food rather than just eating and enjoying it seemed a bit off to Levenstein.

In his introduction, Levenstein says he hopes that by looking at the history of our food fears, we might lessen our anxieties and increase our pleasure when it comes to food. If only.

The book takes a chronological approach, starting with the early years of the 20th century. Each chapter deals with a food fear of the time, and you just know that if he had wanted to include more food fears, there would have been plenty of material for a much bigger book. But Levenstein wasn't out to write a comprehensive history, he wanted to show some representative food fears through the century and up to the current day.

Expecting to read about amusing food fears of a hundred years ago, I instead read about food fears that aren't much different from the ones we have today - fear of contaminated meat, fear of fat and cholesterol, fear of not getting enough vitamins. He doesn't stop with fears, though. He also writes about food myths, such as the miracle foods that promised to prolong our lives (yogurt, red wine, the Mediterranean Diet). We Americans expect food to either enable us to live forever or to kill us.

I don't know how Levenstein expected his book to allay our fears. The information we get about food changes from decade to decade, even day to day. Eat margarine instead of butter. No, don't! Eggs are the perfect food.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
You expect for a topic such as this, the book would be very thick, but it's a thin book, which a good bulk of it being appendix. None the less, I hear about this book through one of the NPR food podcasts and decided to check out the book for myself. Other reviewers hit the highs and the lows already, but it was a nice summation of WHY we currently eat the way we do. Although canned meats and other foods were highlighted upon, I felt there could have been more emphasis on why this changed the way we eat in addition to our fears of canning and even frozen foods. We fear not getting enough vitamins, we fear we're eating the wrong oils/fat in our diets, and we fear too much and just stopped enjoying our food. Overall, it is a very good quick read book that just touches on the highlights and history of why modern Americans fear so much with their food, who the researchers (and quacks) who came up with the reasons we still have these deep rooted fears, even if modern research has shown the opposite. I had a giggle, because the 'Hunza' diet study reminds me so much of today's vegan 'China Study' diet - both created and written about in praise, but hiding the obvious flaws, or throwing out the data that disproves your diet or way of eating.
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I found this a very well researched study of food fads. The author doesn't give his own opinion, he just gives you the history and you can make your own conclusions. Anyone interested in how food choices are manipulated by just about every interested group should read this.
In the epilogue the author gives us his views of what he learnt from his reseach. This is one of the most worthwhile parts of the book, and amounts to: "Eat what you want, but in moderation". Good advice!
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I would normally wait until I finished the book to write a review, but in just 3 chapters I have learned more about why we as Americans are all pill poppin' bores to eat dinner than the thousands of articles, and hundreds of books I have read on the subject of nutrition.
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My girlfriend recommended this book while reading another book. I'm a nutrition major at UC Davis and take the subject seriously, despite the stigma it has placed on eating and health, especially in developed countries.
I haven't finished the book, but I'm well into it and love it.
The book starts off with a brief intro about WHAT we fear about food and WHY. this resonated with me because I hold a rather cynical view of nutrition, indeed science, especially after serving in the Army. At a major research institution, I've realized that scientific research, while advancing our knowledge and generally benefitting the WORLD, is also done so with profits in mind. The point of research is to bid for grants and contracts to "prove" this theory or that hypothesis in hopes that it will satisfy one's own ambitions. Unfortunately, and despite our current knowledge, we still have MUCH to learn regarding food and it's role in our diets and health.
TO THE BOOK: Levenstein starts off with a tour of the Germ Theory, which set the stage for public paranoia regarding food safety, which then spurred research into vitamins and minerals and other key nutrients, which led to our understanding of the function of food. The story goes on, with a witty yet serious tone regarding how we see food and the grip nutrition has on our minds (and tummies).
I recommend this book for those seeking to understand the complexities of food anxiety and current and former research in nutrition.
Other readings I suggest are "Eating Right In America" (by a UCDAVIS professor!), "Fat: An Anthology", and "The Great Cholesterol Con", also "Fat Chance".

Enjoy the book, and rethinking what we "know".
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