Processed Foods History: 1910s to 1950s

Processed Foods History:

1910s to 1950s

Let’s step back in time and see exactly how we became a society where fast, high-fat, processed food is so popular.


Nathan’s original restaurant, circa 1920
Coney Island, New York

Trans fats were invented in the 1890s and entered the food supply in the 1910s. Some processed foods became available as early as the 1910s:

  • Nathan’s hot dogs
  • Aunt Jemima syrup
  • Hellmann’s mayonnaise
  • Oreo cookies
  • Crisco
  • Marshmallow Fluff


In the 1920s, women were growing weary of preparing foods from scratch, and ready-to-cook foods were becoming more available. World War I brought about new methods of food processing, including canned and frozen foods. Processed food ads promised to save time for housewives. Gas stoves, electric refrigerators and other kitchen tools and appliances were in more and more homes, so more types of food could be purchased and stored. Condiments opened tastebuds to new flavors, thanks to the immigrants who introduced them.

Processed foods from the 1920s:

  • Baby Ruth candy bar
  • Wonder Bread
  • Yoo-Hoo beverage
  • VanCamp’s canned pork and beans
  • Reese’s peanut butter cups
  • Welch’s grape jelly
  • Popsicles
  • Wheaties
  • Kool-Aid
  • Peter Pan peanut butter
  • Velveeta cheese


In the 1930s, with the Great Depression looming, families had to get by with less, be super-thrifty and stretch meals … reducing protein and adding more vegetables and beans. Colonel Harland Sanders invented his secret formula, spicing the fried chicken at Sanders Court and Café in Kentucky (a.k.a. Kentucky Fried Chicken).

Processed foods this decade:

  • Snickers Bar
  • 3 Musketeers
  • Spam
  • Kraft Macaroni & Cheese
  • Ritz Crackers


With World War II raging, the 1940s saw rationing to feed the fighting soldiers. After the war, many new “convenience foods” were introduced (dehydrated juice, instant coffee, cake mix) … the result of military research. Adding to convenience in the kitchen, Tupperware and Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil were introduced.

The first Dairy Queen and McDonald’s fast food restaurants opened, and on the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, James Beard’s first cookbook was published.

Farmers used fertilization and irrigation to increase crop yields, decreasing the vitamins and minerals in those plants. Government subsidies for corn and soy led to a food industry with a financial incentive to use high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, modified corn starches, etc. to produce lots of highly processed (and unhealthy) foods. The U.S. issued guidelines for adding iron, vitamin B, thiamine and riboflavin to bread and other grain products to offset nutrient deficiencies.

Some 1940s foods:

  • M&Ms
  • Pillsbury cake mix
  • Cheetos


This decade was a low point for American cuisine. Fast food restaurants were everywhere, and processed foods were mass distributed, thanks to the new highways. The popularity of television, the invention of the remote control and the introduction of the first microwave for home use didn’t exactly add to America’s health!

Ready-to-eat foods were all the rage, and busy housewives were oh-so-happy to save time by using quick, canned and frozen foods. The FDA’s 1958 Food Additives Amendment required manufacturers to prove the “safety” (whatever!!) of new additives.

Processed foods invented in the 1950s:

  • Swanson TV dinners
  • Cheez Whiz
  • Tang
  • Sweet ‘n Low
  • Diet Rite, the first diet soft drink

28 responses

  1. I’ve been making our bread since April. I listened to a lady named Sue Becker, owner of Bread Beckers in Woodstock, GA, talk on the health benefits of milling wheat and using that flour for all baking needs. She inpired me to sell most of my vacuums and carpet cleaners to be able to purchase a grain mill and heavy duty Bosch Universal mixer so that I could easily make nutricious food for my family. Turns out she grew up on our street, 13 Colonel Estill Ave. We had a fun time learning that we grew up that close to each other 10 years apart.

    “Prior to the 1900’s most flour was milled locally and the bread baked at home. God designed the wheat kernel, as well as other grains, to perfectly store the nutrients within. Once broken open, as in milling, the nutrients immediately begin to oxidize. Within about 72 hours, 90% of over 30 nutrients are virtually gone due to oxidation. Also since the germ oil causes the flour to turn rancid very quickly, only enough grain was ground fresh each day to meet the needs of the community. This meant that just about every family was “gathering” their manna daily. However, in the 1920’s new technology allowed enterprising millers to separate the wheat components. By removing the germ, germ oil, and the bran, the remaining white flour could be stored indefinitely. This began to eliminate the need for local milling and people began to relinquish their own responsibility of preparing their bread daily.

    Lucrative markets were also found for the nutritious “by-products” of this new milling process. The bran and wheat germ were sold as high protein food supplements for cattle. Local mills soon went out of business as the large roller mills produced huge volumes of long lasting white flour.

    This appeared to be a great advance in technology. In just a short time, however, cases of beriberi and pellagra began to drastically increase. Both of these diseases are the result of vitamin B deficiencies and health officials traced the problem to the new white flour. The new milling process strips the B vitamins as well as about 24 other nutrients from the wheat kernels.

    Health officials urged mills to return to producing whole wheat flour again but they did not want to lose their very profitable market of selling the germ and bran as cattle feed. Instead, millers chose to “enrich” the white flour by replacing 4 vitamins for the 25-30 that are removed. This solved the problem of beriberi and pellagra, however, we are now plagued with many diseases that are directly related to our consumption of white flour (appendicitis, diverticular disease, hiatal hernia, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and more!).

    Knowing this information we were convicted to purchase an in-home grain mill and to begin making all of our own bread from fresh milled grains. The health benefits were immediate. We felt more energetic, constipation was totally relieved for me and our cravings for sugar were greatly reduced. This enabled us to virtually eliminate white sugar from our home, consequently we have seen much less sickness.”


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  9. Hello, I am writing a research paper about how Processed food has affected history and I was wondering if I could use some of your information. I will appropriately cite your work and reference. Thank you for the information provided on your blog!

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