Into the Mouths of Babes: Hyperactivity, Food Additives and the History of the Feingold Diet
Date: 11 June 2009
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
PhD in History
In 1974 Random House published a popular and controversial book entitled Why Your Child is Hyperactive. The author, San Francisco allergist Ben F. Feingold, claimed that hyperactivity was caused by food additives and was best prevented and treated with a diet, subsequently dubbed the ‘Feingold diet’, free of such substances. Reaction ...
In 1974 Random House published a popular and controversial book entitled Why Your Child is Hyperactive. The author, San Francisco allergist Ben F. Feingold, claimed that hyperactivity was caused by food additives and was best prevented and treated with a diet, subsequently dubbed the ‘Feingold diet’, free of such substances. Reaction to the idea was swift. The media and parents found Feingold’s environmentally-based theory intriguing, as it provided an aetiological explanation for hyperactivity that was both sensible and topical. The medical community, in contrast, was suspicious and designed double-blind trials to test his theory. The dominant perception emerging out of these tests was that Feingold’s hypothesis was incorrect and, soon after Feingold’s death in 1982, medical and media attention faded away. Drawing on unpublished archival material, medical literature, popular media sources and oral history interviews, this thesis explores the rise and fall of the Feingold diet. It examines the origins of Feingold’s idea, the manner in which his theory was disseminated to the medical community and the broader public, and analyses how physicians and patients evaluated whether or not Feingold’s hypothesis was correct. Aiming to contribute to the histories of allergy, psychiatry and nutrition, the thesis contends that social factors, rather than scientific testing, were largely responsible for the fate of the Feingold diet. Some of these factors include Feingold’s methods and approach to describing and promoting his diet, the professional and economic interests of medical practitioners and the food, chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and the difficulties inherent in following the diet. From a broader historiographical perspective, the history of the Feingold diet suggests that in order to understand how medical controversies are resolved it is essential to analyse the historical context within which they emerge.
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