Food cops never miss a chance to blame the so-called “obesity epidemic” on an illusory “toxic food environment.” Never letting the facts get in the way of their pursuit of “fat taxes” and other restrictive policies, nutritional nags like Marion Nestle and Kelly Brownell continuously insist that our diets are worse than ever before. But a simple look at the changes in the Joy of Cooking — the unofficial bible for food enthusiasts — and an examination of government statistics tells a different story.

The gang of food scolds from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) regularly complains that Americans dine out at restaurants twice as much as they did in 1970. The assumption, of course, is that our diets are worse for the change. As if the American menu used to consist solely of bean sprouts and bananas before the rise of fast food, the CEO of one multi-billion-dollar foundation announced in November: “I think the data shows that the most prolific weapons of mass destruction in this country are a cheeseburger and a soda.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture paints a far different picture of our changing eating habits. According to their data, from 1970 to 2000 some of the per capita shifts include:

Fresh fruit consumption increased 30 percent;
Fresh vegetable consumption went up 35 percent;
Dark-green leafy vegetable consumption increased 378 percent (with consumption of escarole, romaine and leaf lettuces increasing 1300 percent);
Broccoli consumption went up 365 percent;
Fish and shellfish consumption increased 22 percent;
Consumption of beans, peas, and lentils rose 23 percent;
Skim milk consumption rose 150 percent; and
Direct use of lard decreased 47 percent.

The Department of Agriculture also noted:

Nationwide, the market for fruits and vegetables has expanded in recent years, with many consumers benefiting from an ever-widening array of fruit and vegetable choices in their local supermarkets. Supermarket produce departments typically carry more than 400 produce items today, up from 250 in the late 1980s and 150 a decade earlier.

To see more tangible changes in the American dinner plate, just look at the differences between the 1953 edition of the Joy of Cooking and its 1997 counterpart. In the older version, there are recipes for “stewed pigs feet,” “larded sweetbreads with wine sauce,” brains wrapped in bacon and topped off with butter, and two concoctions that require a calf’s head. One recipe simply called for adding six skinned frankfurters to an earlier recipe for macaroni. Needless to say, the more recent edition includes none of those delights.

Reflecting the trend toward greater concern for nutrition, the Joy of Cooking now includes:

An entire chapter on fruits;
An entire chapter on “beans and tofu”;
Improved nutritional information, now listing fat, carbohydrates, and protein as well as calories; and
A chapter on “Diet, Lifestyle & Health.”

Despite evidence of nutritional improvements, CSPI director Michael Jacobson laments the centuries-long trend toward better variety and taste in our food. “Records of English manors in the 1600s reveal that the peasantry feasted on perhaps a pound of bread, a spud, and a couple of carrots per day,” he asserts. And that, to Jacobson, is “basically a wonderfully healthy diet.” No wonder Jacobson “is proud about finding something wrong with practically everything” we eat now — he’d rather we eat like serfs than enjoy surf and turf.

Memo to the food police: the Joy of Cooking didn’t change because big government demanded it, but because that’s what readers wanted. The same goes for restaurants and our favorite snacks: when consumers demand different options, they get them. The customer (or consumer) is always right — and you are not.