This paper will demonstrate how noodle culture through Italian immigration has become a staple in American diets. As decades go by, the noodle has gone from beloved to an outcast as messages about nutrition have gotten mixed up with the American fascination of fad diets. The fad diets have affected the way we see our macronutrients and have influenced us to replace the noodle with healthier alternatives that do not contain as many carbohydrates. The phases of noodles in and out in our history has proven that these fad diets are not created for our wellbeing, but are influenced by the health and wellness industries in their efforts to feed off goals of looking and feeling better.
As Regina George once asked, “Is butter a carb” (Mean Girls)? Regina George is one of the main characters from the movie Mean Girls, a satire of American teen culture in 2004. She was in the middle of her high fat, low carb diet in an attempt to lose weight. This movie illustrated one of the biggest fad diets of the late 20th and early 21st century and how society was impacting the ways we thought about food and our health. This fat-free diet came about in the mid 1970s and stuck around for decades. It was hypothesized that this diet would promote weight loss and better health overall. This was later proved to be incorrect and was replaced by a number of new fad diets.
There are three macronutrients humans need to have in their daily diets that are essential to survival: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins (Van De Walle). While Regina’s beloved butter is not a carbohydrate, it does contain mostly fats with some protein. Each person has their own view on which macronutrients are considered healthy, but all of them are necessary for our health and normal development. Foods also have varying levels of each macronutrient. For example, meats have a high content of proteins while breads and noodles are loaded with carbohydrates. All three macronutrients have distinct benefits and drawbacks to our bodies and health.
Noodles, a carbohydrate, were not always a common or popular food found on grocery shelves in the United States. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that noodles were introduced due to a large population of Italians immigrating to the United States. Pasta has shaped what and how Americans eat, and the noodle has greatly impacted our culture, our diet, and our search for the alternative.
Italians immigrated to the United States to avoid oppression, poverty, and violence. In the late 19th century, Italy was united, but the people within each province were not. Rural south Italy and Sicily were struck with disease, and the government provided little support. The chaos and violence in Southern Italy initiated this large migration of millions of people. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, over four million Italians immigrated to America (The Great Arrival). They came over to start a new, better life when they first arrived at Ellis Island.
To begin their lives, they settled down in lower Manhattan, what is now known as Little Italy. Little Italy has some of America’s best Italian food and one of the highest Italian populations. This community allows them to preserve their language and their culture. Little Italy has continued to grow, and it is one of the few places in America that you can “get a taste of the areas once-bustling immigrant community” (McGovern). The immigrants brought their noodles with them and shared their style of food with the Americans. Noodles have now become one of the world’s most accessible foods, and almost every culture has their own version of this prevalent, beloved dish.
While noodles have many different ways of being prepared, they all share similar backgrounds and histories, whether they are formed in the shape of long noodles, dumplings, or ravioli.
Each country has different cultures and traditions when it comes to food and diets. In Italy, it is common to eat a large portion of carbohydrates, including noodles, breads, rice, and others during their meals. Italians follow a Mediterranean diet, which includes lots of fruits and vegetables with some grainy carbohydrates. The Chinese also eat larger portions of carbohydrates, specifically rice and noodles, and less proteins. Protein is not as important in these cultures as it is in American culture. In America, carbohydrates are looked down upon, and Americans are told by the health and wellness industries to only eat lean proteins and healthy fats; however, this has not always been the case. There has been an “ever-proliferating number of diet fads” (Lavin) which have influenced the way Americans think about these three main food categories.
Over the past 60 years, there have been a tremendous amount of new popular diets. In the 1950s, people were encouraged to pray their weight away, while in the 1970s, the grapefruit diet emerged (Rocketto). People believed that eating a grapefruit with every meal would facilitate weight loss thanks to a specific enzyme in the fruit that burns fat. This is a diet that Americans have continued even now.
The cabbage soup diet was also another popularized eating plan that included nothing but cabbage soup for a week. This diet promoted weight loss due to the low-calorie intake, but these effects are not long lasting, nor do they have much effect on body fat. Later, the cookie diet, the Scarsdale diet, and the Beverly Hills diet became popular. Eventually in the 1990s, people were encouraged to eat low-fat diets to decrease their overall body fat percentage. Fats were seen as the unhealthy macronutrient, and Americans began to cut it out of their diets. Over the years, this message has changed, and now Americans have turned on carbohydrates. This war against carbohydrates has begun a chain of fad “low-carb” or “carb-free” diets, and initiated social changes in our culture about the way we eat think about food today.
The fat-free food boom began in the 1970s when a significant number of senators were dying of heart disease, and soon researchers connected the dots between diets and diseases (Why We Got Fatter During the Fat-Free Boom). Eight United States senators died of heart disease within a period of 20 years. These senators were eating plenty of buttered foods and fatty desserts like cheesecake. Highly saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol levels in the blood, and this could create blockages in the bloodstream and major arteries. The theory was that fats were causing heart disease, so many people were “replacing milk and cheese and fatty meat with carbohydrates, with pasta and potatoes and rice” (Why We Got Fatter During the Fat-Free Boom). These researchers were not trying to promote unhealthy, processed carbohydrates; instead they were encouraging whole grains, fruits and vegetables as opposed to saturated fats. However, this message got lost in translation.
Americans determined that all carbohydrates are good, and all fats are bad. Due to this mindset, the greater population turned to eating noodles and other carbohydrates, and, as a result, noodles were perceived in a different way. No more pasta with alfredo sauce because it contained too much fat, no more macaroni and cheese, and no more cream sauces. These were mainly American conventions, as Italians still followed a Mediterranean diet of “lots of fresh vegetables, salads and pulses, along with serious bread, pasta, a good deal of fresh fish and fresh and dried fruit. Meat and dairy were not absent from their diets but were treats rather than staples” (Levy). Italians have lower rates of heart disease and diabetes, and it is due to their diet. Having a balance of healthy fats such as olive oil and carbohydrates from noodles can allow us to look at feel our best.
Americans followed suit by including more and more noodles in their diet, but they turned to tomato sauces and vegetable sauces, as these did not contain as much fat. Due to the low-fat diet, Americans began having pasta that contained more proteins and carbohydrates. Some examples are pasta bolognese and spaghetti and meatballs. Bolognese sauce is made with ground beef and tomatoes. This sauce originates in Bologna, Italy, and it has become very popular throughout the United States.
When Americans began to implement these low-fat foods into their diets, fat free and low-fat pasta sauces hit the supermarket shelves. These alternatives caught consumers’ attention thanks to marketing campaigns promoting healthier lifestyles and weight loss as a result of eating less fat. While these new products contained less fat, manufacturers increased levels of carbohydrates in order to imitate the flavors of the real thing. During this time, Americans were consuming more and more sugar and they were also getting fatter and fatter (Why We Got Fatter during the Fat Free Boom). There were also more people diagnosed as diabetic or pre-diabetic in America. Scientists realized that by addressing the heart disease problem by cutting out fats, other problems like obesity and diabetes were fueled. During this period, it became clear that cutting all fats out of our diets was not the key to staying healthy and losing weight; there had to be a different way.
Eventually, as this fat-free diet phased out, new meal plans were phased in. Carbohydrate-free and low-carbohydrate diets emerged, changing the markets in terms of foods and noodles. People began focusing on low carb foods such as lean meats and healthy fats. Trans fats were banned, saturated fats avoided at all costs, but many people began no carb diets as well. This diet can make people lethargic due to the lack of energy that they would normally get from carbohydrates. Noodles were now coming out that were multigrain or lower in carbs. This was the next phase of the changes in society that influenced the noodle industry.
Eventually, people began making alternatives for noodles that did not contain as many carbohydrates. Some options were the Japanese Miracle Noodles, spaghetti squash, and spiralized vegetables. The Japanese miracle noodles were a low-calorie substitute for the usual flour pastas. These noodles are gelatinous and contain konjac yams. Because this was a low-calorie option, it has been very popular; however, the consistency of these noodles differs greatly from traditional white flour pastas.
Others went a step further and turned to vegetable noodle alternatives. Spaghetti squash was a common substitution to normal noodles. Spaghetti squash is a type of gourd with a stringy flesh. When cooked, the flesh resembles noodles that you would see in a classic Italian restaurant, but these noodles are also differently flavored and textured. The last option was spiralized vegetables. This was an easy option because the noodles could be made out of almost any kind of vegetable. Using a handy kitchen device called a spiralizer, transforming vegetables into long strands of noodles became not just possible, but popular. Zucchini noodles, called zoodles, are the most common, but sweet potatoes, carrots, and beets also make great noodle alternatives as well.
Not only were the noodles themselves changing on the shelves, but the pasta sauces were as well. Brands like Trader Joes and Prego came out with carbohydrate free or sugar free pasta sauces to cater to their consumers. By eating less carbohydrates, our bodies are not able to function at the highest level. The manufacturers of these products understand the benefits and drawbacks to reducing carbohydrates in their products, and they know that this is what draws the consumers in. Americans strive to have the perfect body and good health, but are low-carb diets really the way to achieve that? Maybe the noodles themselves are not the issue, but what the manufacturers do to our food. The processed fats and sugars prevent us from being at our healthiest. These capitalistic motives of the health and wellness industries are what is causing Americans to change their lifestyles to be “healthier.” In balance and moderation, we can achieve this healthy lifestyle. We no longer need to turn against our noodles to reach our goals. Instead of binging on our foods and restricting ourselves, we can see noodles as a treat.
“The Great Arrival.” Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/italian3.html.
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Levy, Paul. “The Rise and Fall of the No-Fat Fad.” The Telegraph, 26 May 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk/foodanddrink/healthyeating/11631554/The-rise-and-fall-of-the-no-fat-fad.html.
McGovern, Kyle. “How to Find Old New York in Manhattan’s Vanishing Little Italy.” Thrillist, 26 Feb. 2019, www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/new-york/things-to-do-in-little-italy-nyc.
Mean Girls. Produced by Mark Waters, 2004.
Rocketto, Leah. “The Most Popular Diet Trends over the Last 100 Years.” Insider, 17 Jan. 2019.
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Why We Got Fatter During The Fat-Free Food Boom, 28 Mar. 2014, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/03/28/295332576/why-we-got-fatter-during-the-fat-free-food-boom.