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Guess what's for dinner...

(Photograph) - Well, they do say you shouldn't go shopping when you're hungry. Look what happens: you come home with 699 bottles of milk, 578 pounds of meat, 1,190 pounds of vegetables and 440 pounds of fruit, and 131 dozen eggs plus flour, sugar, bread and cereal. Two-and-a-half tons of food.

Enough, in 1951, to feed an average American family of four - Mr and Mrs Czekalinski and their two boys - for a year.

They look pretty well on it. And no wonder. The Fifties were boom times in America, when the country's economic output and personal incomes more than doubled. Americans made up just 6 per cent of the world's population but they consumed one-third of the world's goods and services, and produced two-thirds of its manufactured goods. It was a time of growth - and not just economically. As diet improved in the first half of the century, life expectancy increased by 20 years and children grew several inches taller.

This is an optimistic snapshot, and a version of the family diet as wholesome and homely as Mama's apple pie. Even the brand names - Pink Lady tomatoes and Sunnyfield Family Flour - evoke impossibly pastoral idylls. But look again and you can already see, in the Ched o Bits and Extra Big Pak of Wheaties, the beginnings of processed food and packaging.

But while Americans were tucking in, Britain was tightening its belt. Post-war rationing ended here in 1954, followed by the appearance of the first self-service supermarkets, exotic vegetables like red peppers and avocados, and electrical appliances like freezers and food mixers.

Fifty years ago we ate twice as much sugar, bread, cakes and red meat, and less cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables. Pasta, pizza, ice cream, yoghut, wine, olive oil, fruit juice and mineral water - virtually unheard of in1950 - are available everywhere now and in endless varieties.

One hundred years ago, the working classes survived on bread and jam or dripping, washed down with black tea. The army's height restriction for infantrymen was 5ft because so many recruits were undernourished, and rickets was widespread among city schoolchildren.

Nowadays, diet is a problem but for different reasons. Waistlines and wastefulness have increased as processed foods, heavy in salt, sugar and fat, have proliferated. A quarter of all American women and a fifth of men are officially classified as obese - only slightly more than the proportion in this country.

The 19th-century French gastronome and author of The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, said: "The destiny of nations depends upon the manner in which they feed themselves." Who knows where nations in the developing world, unable even to feed themselves, are going.

Meanwhile, in the western world, our consuming passions are fed by advertising and we know where we are going: we are going shopping.

We load up our trolleys, wonder what's for tea tonight, ponder menus, phone for take-aways, throw away the leftovers, eat out, eat in, but mostly just eat too much. It's a world of plenty, depending on where you live in it of course. Still hungry? Photograph by: Alex Henderson

* Web links

Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food, including National Food Survey:

Friends of the Earth genetically engineered food

Life and works of Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin: www.bsjc.orgpatronindex.htm

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