Onions, Sugar, and Fluid Beef: How the 1918 Flu Impacted Food Choices

Learn what type of dishes were encouraged, and which were avoided, during the 20th century pandemic.
By Hayley Sugg
January 04, 2021

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, it's hard to not look back at humanity's most recent pandemic, the 1918 flu, and draw comparisons. Today, people are facing product shortages, looking to healthier food options, and avoiding crowded restaurants, all predicaments which are mirrored from a century ago.

So how exactly did these major changes impact the eating habits of your average American in 1918? We turned to Lora Vogt, Curator of Education at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, for some answers and interesting facts about this tumultuous time in our nation's history.

An advertisement for OXO's Fluid Beef product, said to help with resistance against "the attacks of the influenza organism."
| Credit: The National WWI Museum and Memorial

New Nutrition

Nutrition was a relatively new field at the time of the flu pandemic. "Late 1800s and early 1900s, there is this real big push of home economics and the science of nutrition," says Vogt. "There are minerals, there are calories, there are vitamins. These are all relatively newer discoveries in this time frame."

And with this new focus on nutrition, it made citizens more interested than ever about how what they eat could impact their susceptibility to influenza. This burgeoning curiosity prompted some companies, such as OXO with their "fluid beef" ad, to make health claims about boosting vitality and increasing resistance to illness.

There was a push to focus on consuming "perfect" foods with lots of nutritional value, such as whole eggs or milk. It was also thought at the time that the fewer components a dish had the better it was for you. "There's a concept that if you had too many ingredients in one food it might be hard for your body to digest it," says Vogt. "Clearly that's not science. They were getting there."

And as interest in the science of nutrition increased, so did the amount of "fad" nutrition advice, most of which made no actual impact on consumer's health. Vogt says that some ingredients, such as vinegar or onions, were viewed as potential cures or preventatives for influenza. But in reality, it's probable that dishes like onion soup (recipe below) made people feel better by simply being a nutrient-rich and warming meal.

Of all the ingredients to gain traction during the 1918 flu pandemic, sugar was the biggest contender. "The Food Administrators urged state representatives to make sure that flu victims got extra sugar to help boost their energy," says Vogt. Just like sugar was used to fuel troops on the frontlines of WWI, it was also used to invigorate those suffering from influenza.

An onion soup recipe from Allied Cookery, a cookbook to raise funds for French farmers after the German invasion.
| Credit: Allied Cookery / The National WWI Museum and Memorial

Restaurants of the Time

Just as the novel coronavirus has people avoiding packed restaurants today, so did the 1918 flu to some extent. "This is a disease from being around other people who had it," says Vogt. "So there was absolutely an encouragement to stay away from others, avoid crowded spaces." She goes on to reveal that some of the common advice about eating at restaurants during the time included avoiding sharing mugs or canteens, to not overeat, and "be fussy about the quality of your eats and drinks." While it's possible that some establishments shut down, it seems many restaurants stayed open (at least in major cities) as essential businesses during the pandemic to cater to kitchen-less apartment dwellers.

Credit: Cincinnati Museum Center / Getty Images

The War's Impact

Even though there was no government-mandated rationing during WWI, reducing consumption of goods like meat, wheat flour, and fat was considered a supportive act that could help fuel American troops on the front lines. This mindset didn't necessarily end with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, and blurred over into the flu pandemic. "We changed our relationship with the food for patriotic reasons with the war, but then because of the flu, we also have this shift as well," says Vogt.

The war also had a direct impact on consumers, tangling up products en route to grocery stores. "There are some shortages, but they come in many ways the same way our shortages occurred [now]. Not because we didn't have the things, it's not because there was a blight to the crops, it was because of supply chain," says Vogt. As millions of soldiers and volunteers traveled across the country for training, shipping out, and returning to U.S. soil, more passenger trains took over the rails, meaning fewer products were carried across the states.

Vogt expands upon how both the combination of a pandemic and major war changed America, "There's even a greater impact on the nation with the flu in some ways, there were more deaths attributed to that than necessarily for Americans in combat. So that all kind of mixes into one pot. In some ways similar to today."

Then and Now

As we all continue to grapple with today's challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to political elections to a dwindling economy, it's important to remember we're not the first (nor are we likely to be the last) timeframe of Americans to face these issues. Something as simple as knowing that people a century ago were also serving up soup to nourish sick loved ones can be a comfort. "There are so many great stories and it's complicated, and complicated time frames are the most helpful to be reading about to understand," says Vogt. "To help not only inform our present and our future, but also help kind of create this enduring impact."

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