The reading public, the theatergoing public, the skindiving public, the horseplaying publicall these and others fill substantial roles in U.S. life, but none is so varied, vast and vigilant as the eating public. The Department of Agriculture averaged out U.S. food consumption last year at 1,488 Ibs. per person, which, allowing for the 17 million Americans that John Kennedy said go to bed hungry every night, means that certain gluttons on the upper end must somehow down 8 Ibs. or more a day. That mother hen of the weight-height tables, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., clucks that 48 million Americans are overweight.
Through previous centuries, eating changed by nearly imperceptible degrees, and mostly toward just getting enough. Now big forces buffet food. For the first time in history, the U.S. has produced a society in which less than one-tenth of the people turn out so much food that the Government's most embarrassing problem is how to dispose inconspicuously of 100 million tons of surplus farm produce. In this same society, the plain citizen can with an average of only one-fifth his income buy more calories than he can consume. Refrigeration, automated processing and packaging conspire to defy season and banish spoilage. And in the wake of the new affluence and the new techniques of processing comes a new American interest in how what people eat affects their health. To eat is human, the nation is learning to think, to survive divine.
Fads, Facts . . . Not all the concern for health is well directed. From the fusty panaceas of spinach, eggs and prunes, the U.S. has progressed to curds, concentrates and capsules. Each year, reports the American Medical Association, ten million Americans spend $900 million on vitamins, tonics and other food supplements. At juice bars in Los Angeles' 35 "health" stores, a new sensation is a pink, high-protein cocktail, concocted of dried eggs, powdered milk and cherry-flavored No-Cal, which sells for 59¢ per 8-oz. glass. Grocery stores sell dozens of foods that boast of having almost no food value at all.
But a big part of the public wants to know facts about diet and health, and a big group of U.S. scientists wants to supply them. The man most firmly at grips with the problem is the University of Minnesota's Physiologist Ancel Keys, 57, inventor of the wartime K (for Keys) ration and author of last year's bestselling Eat Well and Stay Well. From his birch-paneled office in the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, under the university's football stadium in Minneapolis ("We get a rumble on every touchdown"), blocky, grey-haired Dr. Keys directs an ambitious, $200,000-a-year experiment on diet, which spans three continents and seven nations and is still growing. Pursuing it, he has logged 500,000 miles, suffered indescribable digestive indignities, and meticulously collected physiological data on the health and eating habits of 10,000 individuals, from Bantu tribesmen to Italian contadini. He has measured the skinfolds (the fleshy areas under the shoulder blades) of Neapolitan firemen, studied the metabolism of Finnish woodcutters, analyzed the "mealie-meal" eaten by Capetown coloreds, and experimented on Minneapolis businessmen.