Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking

Looking for a book that puts a positive spin on the industrial food system in America? If so, I have a treat for you in the form of Baking Powder Wars. Linda Civitello provides an alternate view of the food industry and the consumer than what we are used to reading about. Be forewarned, however, as the food industry can end up being one of the food scientist’s worst enemies. Although it doesn’t emerge until almost the end of the book, the author asks and then answers the critical question “Does the food industry lead the consumer or does the consumer lead the industry?”

Canned, which has been the protagonist in my last four posts, provides the food movement’s view of the food industry as told through the history of canning. Baking Powder Wars presents a different perspective, primarily from the view of a cook trying to put food on the table for a hungry family. Along the way Civitello also asks and answers “How important is convenience to the American consumer?” In addition she is interested in the changes in home cooking in the United States for the last 200 years and the role that one ingredient played in that transformation. As in past selections, I let the author identify key ideas in her own words in bold quotes.

“Revolutionary new chemical leaveners made cake convenient, cheap, quick, and easy to bake.” Prior to the development of baking powder, yeast was used to make bread and other pastries. Chemical leavening is achieved by producing a chemical reaction to form carbon dioxide. Baking powders consist of an acid and a producer of carbon dioxide such as sodium bicarbonate (baking soda). In the presence of water the two compounds react to generate the carbon dioxide, which causes the dough to rise.  In my introductory food science course, most students were unable to grasp the importance of chemical leavening. Most of these breakfast-biscuit eaters wanted nothing to do with chemicals in their bread in answering a test question to that effect. Civitello explains that baking powder revolutionized baking in the 1800s saving the harried home cook time with baked items that were softer, sweeter and better in color than they had made previously. It was an ingredient that had introduced convenience to the 19th Century housewife.

“The pioneering advertising campaign played on the public’s fear about chemicals in general and adulterated food in particular,” Earlier I placed some blame on Rachel Carson for demonizing chemicals in Silent Spring, but the food industry has been the worst enemy of those who believe chemicals have a place in processed food. In the early days there were two basic types of baking powder on the market—those based on cream of tartar and those using alum. Cream of tartar is a much more expensive component, so those companies resorted to marketing campaigns that appealed to consumer hopes, fears and biases as an equalizer. Chemicals have always been scary—associated with the dark arts. Alum is a chemical, a potassium/aluminum salt, but cream of tartar is also a chemical—potassium bitartrate. Baking powder companies combined advertising campaigns with corporate cookbooks to engender brand loyalty.

“The court looked first to the dictionary for the definition of ‘baking powder’ then for the definition of ‘food,’ ” The name game is not a new thing, and neither are lawsuits about food. Plant-based milk, anyone? Royal, a cream of tartar company, sued their competitors in 1903 claiming that alum was an adulterant. The courts first had to determine if baking powder was indeed a food. They concluded that it was not a food as it didn’t “supply nourishment.” The skirmish shows how then as well as now over a century later how a name can make or break a product or ingredient. If some additive sounds like a chemical, then it is deemed objectionable. If not, the ingredient qualifies for clean-label status.

“Wiley began a new career at Good Housekeeping magazine where he would continue his crusade against Calumet and other alum baking powders,” In both food science classes and the popular media, Harvey Wiley has been designated a saint. He was the push behind Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and established the FDA. In Canned we hear of him as a leading voice in establishing bacteriology as an arbiter of food safety in canned foods. Who knew that he used his celebrity to work as a muck-raking journalist? Certainly not me! For most of us in food science we leave him happily reigning over the FDA. Wiley, however, was very concerned about chemicals in food—particularly the mislabeling of Coca Cola because it did not contain cocaine as its name implied thus misleading the public. He was even more concerned about the presence of caffeine in the popular beverage. For this and similar stances, the Taft administration forced Wiley to resign in 1912. He then accepted a position at Good Housekeeping.  In that capacity he rated products for safety and quality which may have been the genesis of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

“General Foods and Standard Brands radically altered the way baking powder was advertised and the function of the individual companies they acquired.” In Baking Powder Wars we learn about the major transition that occurred in food distribution in the 1920s and 30s when small food companies were consumed by larger ones to form conglomerates. Big Food was born and the predatory advertising driven by the manufacturers of baking powder was muted for more subtle approaches. More emphasis was placed on the positive attributes of the products and in creating a wholesome image. Still, small companies engendered trust and loyalty that became suspect when they became part of large corporations. At about the same time supermarkets began to appear taking over from the general stores with “barrels of food with flies swirling around them” to chain stores with “hygienically packaged brand-name foods with individual price tags on open shelves.” Maybe the good old days were not as good as some of us would like to remember.

“However, as the history of baking powder shows, consumer demand has been driving the corporate train.” Unlike what we are led to believe, Civitello suggests that Big Food is not all that successful in manufacturing demand. Companies become rich by meeting consumer demands not by creating them. I contend that demand is created by pop nutritionists in the latest book, series of articles or social-media post. Big Food then asks their product developers to create new products that chase the latest fad until the next one comes along. Successful companies are the ones that are able to meet consumer needs for clean labels, a healthy image, non-fattening language AND convenience. Successful baking-powder companies became that way by matching consumer needs with clever advertising and delivering on convenience, the weak spot of the American food preparer. Along the way the author calls out male writers like Pollan and Moss for telling women that they need to be cooking more with fewer convenient, time-saving ingredients.

“Americans today are used to eating foods leavened with baking powder, although they are unaware of it, as they were unaware that there ever was any question about it.” The concluding remarks of Baking Powder Wars provide a very different perspective than those of Canned. Baking powder was one of the first effective applications of chemistry to making a mass-market, processed-food ingredient. Today we don’t think of baking powder as a chemical ingredient. It is up there with the cleanest of the clean ingredients. In our rush to condemn modern chemicals, we seem to have forgotten the older ones which have made culinary history. It was George Santayana who said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Canned vs. Baking Powder Wars

In the last four weeks, I responded to key points made in Canned about how the food industry has lost the trust of the American people. This week I contrasted what I read in Canned with what I learned in Baking Powder Wars. A key question is who drives demand? Anna Zeide, in Canned, suggests that we are victims of what the food industry produces, take it or leave it, while Civitello claims that consumers drive demand. Zeide squarely places the blame for the decline of trust in processed food on the food industry itself by being so concerned about marketing and not nearly concerned enough about safety. Civitello indicates that the baking-powder industry used advertisements to downgrade each other’s products and that corporatization stopped some of the attack ads, but chemicals still seem to be fair game.

We hear that consumption of processed foods is declining. Certainly, traditional brands are taking a hit, but clean labels and processed products that don’t look as processed are doing well. Even meal kits that promote convenience in making fresh, healthy meals rely on processed ingredients. In Baking Powder Wars, we learn that there will always be a place for processed foods and ingredients as long as food preparers value convenience. Both books provide a rare glimpse into the history of processed food in America. I recommend reading Canned for an appreciation of why processed food has become so unpopular. Read Baking Powder Wars to learn why, despite its unpopularity, processed food still sells.

HF ten

Ingredients from Hello Fresh meals that I prepared for me and my wife

Next week: The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South


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