The Enduring Effect of Home Economics Research


The “discipline” of Home Economics is a curiosity of American culture, a discipline, as American as apple pie –and like apple pie it occupies a hindmost position to more substantive food. Departments and Schools of Home Economics and more recent incarnations, such as colleges of “Health and Human Development” and “Family and Consumer Sciences”, are ubiquitous in American Education. Schools of Home Economics boast specializations in food preparation and nutrition, child development and family studies, design, and restaurant management (related to food preparation). For many decades, the disciplines of nutrition, child development, and the study of the family were represented on college campuses only by home economics. Faculty politics insured jealously guarded fiefdoms, so only home economics departments had access to children while psychologists were relegated to laboratory animals, rats and pigeons.

Schools and Departments of Home Economics owe their existence to the US Department of Agriculture, the politics of rural states, and agribusiness. Since the inception of Land Grant Colleges endowed by an Act of Congress in the 1860s, support for applied disciplines relevant to the rural economy, such as agriculture and animal husbandry, were a mainstay of state institutions of higher education.  Subsequent federal legislation in the 1930s endowed “agriculture experiment research stations” at land grant institutions with an ample pipeline of money to support the “rural” disciplines. Through the behest of Federal and state funds, home economics never lacked for faculty salaries or grant money. Schools of Home Economics, and their descendents, remain entrenched at virtually every Land Grant  university in the US.

Academic departments generally do not have explicit mission statements, but if Departments of Home Economics were to have mission statements, the mission statements would have defined home economics as an applied discipline dedicated “To make home and child management efficient and scientific”.  Because Departments of Home Economics owe their existence to the Department of Agriculture, this means efficient and scientific in the spirit of growing corn or soybeans. Within this framework, efficient and scientific is evaluated in terms of short-term costs and gains to the producer, not basic science. This spirit motivated generations of home economics research. Home economics nutritionists wiled away the time (and tax payer money) with research questions such as “Does canned orange juice have more or less vitamin c than frozen orange juice?” Home economist nutritionists, with a little inspiration from the Department of Agriculture, described the “food pyramid” and the “four basic food groups” in effect from 1956 through 1992 –to the benefit of the milk, meat, and grain agribusinesses. Unfortunately, often trivial research of home economics nutritionists still informs much American dietary philosophy. Forty or fifty years of home economics research did not alert US consumers to acrylamide, the risks of trans fatty acids, the problems associated with soy consumption, or the issues with homogenized milk. Virtually all advances in nutrition have come from chemists, biochemists, epidemiologists, and cell biologists. Regrettably during its many years of dominance, little basic science discovery or innovation came from mainstream dieticians and nutritionists trained in departments of home economics.

The same cost-benefit mentality that dominated home economics nutrition studies inspired home economics child development research. In the interests of efficiency (and probably the dairy lobby), home economists in the 1940s and 1950s investigated “demand” versus “scheduled” feeding.  The pejorative term “demand feeding” was employed to characterize the parental response to the infant’s natural propensity to eat when hungry. The term “scheduled feeding” was employed to describe parental control of feeding times. Demand and scheduled feeding are conceptually independent of breast or bottle feeding.

However, in everyday life, demand and breast feeding are correlated. Hungry babies are often crying babies. Breast-feeding mothers typically feed hungry babies –otherwise, the baby has little interest in sucking. Sucking elicits release of oxytocin from the pituitary that promotes expulsion of milk. In as few as three days, post-partum, mothers experience the “let down” reflex in response to their baby’s cry alone. Just as nature harnesses the baby’s cry as a signal of hunger, nature conditions maternal response. But the typical pattern of infant cry for food and maternal lactation may be changed. Breast-feeding mothers can pump their breast milk or intentionally schedule feeding so that babies are fed at foreordained intervals.

Just as a demand feeding favors breast feeding, bottle feeding and scheduled feeding go together. Bottles must be washed and sterilized and formula mixed and warmed. These tasks take time, and ad hoc preparation in response to the infant’s cries tends to elicit exasperation from infant and mother. Therefore, formula feeding promotes scheduling.

During the 1950s, dozens of studies of home economics studies investigated the effects of demand and scheduled feeding regimes. In the literature of the period, the dependent variables chosen for investigation were consistent with the Agriculture Experiment Research Station orientation of home economics. These included measures of growth such as height and weight and a measure of “ease of management”, i.e., infant crying. Infants who were breast fed gained more weight for the first six months or so, but by twelve months, breast and bottle fed babies weighed about the same. Infants who were feed on demand cry less than babies placed on schedules. Eventually however, by two or three months of age, the crys of infants on a three-hour schedule diminish. “Benefit” was subsumed by narrow measures of infant weight and length of crying. Even by these measures, the best that could be said for scheduled feeding was that by one year of age, scheduled and demand fed babies weighed about the same.

The results of these “straight-ahead” home economics research projects were not exactly reassuring, but implied that no harm was done. This is exactly the kind of “research” that causes purveyors of infant formula, bottles, sterilization equipment, and experts to thrive. Due to this research, scheduled feeding with a bottle seemed as equally desirable as breast feeding (on demand). This cleared the path for formula manufactures to inundate pregnant mothers with slick brochures with pictures of chubby, smiling babies along with bottles, tins of formula, and discount offers. In the 1950s and 60s, nurses and hospitals appeared to give mothers the message that breast-feeding was “old fashioned”, inefficient, and little was done to correct popular misconceptions about “loss of shape” associated with breast-feeding. The same preference for formula feeding appears encouraged at some hospitals even today where formula samples are freely available to mothers during the period following delivery.

In fact, scheduled bottle-feeding is efficient for the work place and for shopping. The faster a mother gets back to work the better. The quicker a mother can return to shopping (but with more things to buy) the better. In America and much of the industrialized world, these are not trivial values, but the wellspring of meaning in life.

In contrast to the animal husbandry approach to child rearing associated with home economics is the research reported by pediatricians, specialists in immune disorders, cancer, obesity, sociobiology and cognitive psychology. Children who are bottle fed are more prone to upper respiratory disorders, diarrhea, failure to thrive, sudden infant death syndrome, eczema, asthma, obesity, problems of bonding, and delayed cognitive development –and mothers who bottle feed, to post-natal uterine problems, spongy uterus, infections, and in the long term, a higher risk of cancer. In other words, a very different picture from the back-to-work-without-missing-a-step  emerges from the literature on breast versus bottle-feeding. What was largely ignored in the “classic” studies was infant and maternal health. Babies who are fed formula have more than twice the risk for ear and upper respiratory infections and a many fold increase for eczema and allergies. These studies largely ignored the emotional and psychological cost to the infant and parent.

The Department of Agriculture worldview is the perspective of agribusiness and big business –perhaps an unintentional effect of an approach to outcome that subordinates values to “yield”. The approach maintains its position not by virtue of its superiority to other methods and more broad based results, but by its collusion with the interest of the American consumer mindset. It’s convenient to believe that nature designed children for pasteurized cow’s milk, soy milk and sugar.

Mothers, by and large, are conscientious and want their babies to become healthy children and adults. The weight of evidence is simply overwhelming that children, if they are to be healthy, are enormously benefited by breast-feeding. Mothers, too, benefit, but the hang-over from years of “practical” research inspired by agribusiness endures. Beliefs and attitudes infused into an earlier generation, willy-nilly, are transmitted to the next.

Leland van den Daele, is an author, professor, psychologist, and psychoanalyst.