Wartime Food Facts & Myths

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A look at the truth behind wartime food propaganda

For numerous people, the wartime indoctrination not to waste anything, especially food, was a maxim that they carried with them long after the ending of war.  For many children born in the 1950s, the exhortation, from their elders, to ‘eat up your vegetables because they are good for you’ was an all too often repeated refrain.  It was a legacy of the importance the government attached to keeping the nation healthy and fighting fit during the war years.  A primary objective of the wartime government was to ensure an adequate and nutritious diet.  To that end, the Ministry of Information was especially keen to educate the public about the value of vitamins.  Propaganda such as ‘the scientists tell us that we should eat vegetables rich in vitamins’[1] was ubiquitous. Vegetables and potatoes, which were not rationed during the war, became a mainstay of the daily diet.

It was during this period that magazines, books and leaflets began to recommend specific intakes of the amount of proteins, fats and carbohydrates that were needed to ensure a healthy diet.[2]  Such was the success of this campaign that by the end of the war, one housewife wrote to the Ministry of Food to complain when her local shop failed to provide her with sufficient ‘body building, energy-giving and protective foods.’[3]

1504

The BBC broadcast the Kitchen Front programme, which gave advice on how to make the best of whatever food was available.  Experts such as Marguerite Patton, a food advisor, who was employed by the Ministry of Food Advice Division, conducted cookery demonstrations ‘to show what interesting things could be made…with the foods available.’[4]  The recipes given were very inventive, although perhaps, not always to everybody’s taste. Parsley honey, which was very rich in vitamin C, was supposed to taste like heather honey. However, as one lady remembered:

‘I saw a recipe on how to make honey…It was made from 2lbs of fresh parsley, an enormous bunch which I grew in the garden.  The parsley was boiled & boiled & supposed to turn into paste tasting like honey.  It was ghastly.’[5]

The Ministry of Food’s ‘Food Facts Sheets’ exhorted the population to ‘think of the potato! Think of it as a weapon of war…it is what science calls a ‘protective food.’[6]  It will protect you ‘from illness and fatigue and keep [you] full of vitality.’[7]  There were characters such as Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot, which were particularly aimed at encouraging children to eat vegetables.

1503

Doctor Carrot was heavily promoted, and carrots were suggested as a universal substitute for other fruit or vegetables. There were the interesting and inventive recipes, such as ‘mock apricot flan’ (use carrot as a substitute for apricots) and carrot jam.  There was also carrot cookies, carrot and orange marmalade, curried carrots, carrot buns and Carrolade, a drink of carrots and swede juice.[8]

1502

The Government issued a poster with the slogan ‘Carrots keep you healthy and help you see in the blackout’. The myth began not to encourage children to eat more vegetables but to divert attention from the RAF’s recently perfected Airborne Interception Radar,[9] which was used with great success to identify and eliminate enemy aircraft.  The diversion took the form of a story about Flight Lieutenant John ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham. He was attributed with exceptional night vision, which was ascribed to his love of carrots.  This disinformation was probably effective, because it had some basis in fact.   It was known among scientists, at that time, that carrots contained high levels of beta-carotene, a pre-cursor to vitamin A,[10] a deficiency of which causes night-blindness.[11]  The condition is reversible with the return to normal vitamin A levels. Thus, while carrots didn’t actually make you see in the dark, they did help!


[1](Carter 1941 inside cover)

[2] (Good Housekeeping ‘Menu for Battle’ August 1944)

[3] (Longmate 2002, 152)

[4] (Patten 2002, Forward)

[5] Imperial War Museum ID No: 2836 Misc 171 (2627)

[6] Whitby Gazette 24th January 1941

[7] Whitby Gazette 24th January 1941

[8](Minns 1999; Patten 2002)

[9] (Goebel 2008)

[10] (Munsell 1940, 314)

[11] (Dowling 1958)

Carter, Frederick William Pearson. 1941. The Penguin Book of Food Growing, Storing and Cooking: Allen Lane: Harmondsworth, New York.

Dowling, John E., and George Wald. 1958. Vitamin A Deficiency and Night Blindness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 44 (7):648-661.

Goebel, G. V. 2008. Greg Goebel / In The Public Domain, 01 May 2008 [cited 6 May 2008]. Available from http://www.vectorsite.net/index.html.

Longmate, Norman. 2002. How we lived then: a history of everyday life during the Second World War. London: Pimlico.

Minns, Raynes. 1999. Bombers and mash: the domestic front, 1939-45: London: Virago.

Munsell, Hazel E. 1940. Vitamins and Their Occurrence in Foods. The Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 18 (4): 311-344.

Patten, Marguerite. 2002. Victory Cookbook, Nostalgic Food and Facts from 1940-1954. London: Chancellor Press.

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