New edible fats with names like Hogless Lard and Cottolene entered the American diet in the late 19th century, and Americans sought help from the first generation of home economists to understand these novel foodstuffs. For the next century, experts in home economics and allied disciplines grappled with questions about the taste, affordability, and healthiness of fats. Cornell home economists deftly navigated early controversies, and then as national food policy shifted during World Wars and the Depression, helped shape new outreach campaigns explaining practical uses of the new fats and the science behind them. In the post-war era, debates over fat, cholesterol, and heart disease demonstrated the continuing importance of home economists as communicators who translated technical--and often contradictory--research findings for public audiences.
In a public seminar given at Mann Library on March 16, 2017, historian Jonathan Robins examines the changing debates over new fats in the 20th century American diet, highlighting the role of home economists in this history and the ways in which researchers in other disciplines appropriated nutrition as their own domain, divorcing food from its social context.
Robins is assistant professor of global history at Michigan Technical University, where he researches and teaches the history of commodities. He is the recipient of the 2016 College of Human Ecology Dean's Fellowship in the History of Home Economics.