Why Americans Started Eating More Lentils After WWII

Lentils might have accrued a reputation as a counterculture lifeblood, but don't get it twisted. This peace-and-love superfood got its start in the U.S. during wartime -– World War II (WWII), specifically.

There's a reason they've stuck around. Lentils are a type of legume, like chickpeas or other beans, but with an even higher protein content and less fat, per Food Network. Similarly to rice, lentils are cooked in water, where they soften and expand but retain their small, circular shape. According to Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., lentils' nutrient-dense makeup makes them a healthy and malleable meat substitute, via the Mayo Clinic. Recent food trends have shown just how versatile these little legumes really are, with uses from lentil burgers to lentil-based seafood options. They're also composed of 25% protein and are rich in iron, per Healthline -– both of which are often lacking in vegetarian diets.

According to America's Test Kitchen, early humans were foraging for a type of wild lentil as long as 13,000 years ago. Lentil traces were even found in Greek ruins from 6,000 B.C.E., per Continental. But lentils didn't establish a lasting foothold in U.S. kitchens until the 1930s, with the onset of WWII. Here's why.

WWII food rationing turned the spotlight away from meat

Lentils began as a wartime agricultural staple. By 1937, reports the New York Times, many farmers on the Washington-Idaho border began planting lentils into their fields as a rotation crop. Legumes restore nitrogen to the soil in between harvests of other crops like wheat or barley, explains the farming experts at Treehugger. Considering that WWII started just two years later, in 1939, per Britannica, lentils were in the right place at the right time.

On January 30, 1942, the U.S. enacted the Emergency Price Control Act to ration food supplies, via History. By 1943, it states, U.S. consumers couldn't purchase sugar, meat, cheese, or canned milk without a government-issued voucher. As rationing heavily limited access to staple foods, home cooks nationwide began thinking differently about how they put together meals. Without meat as the automatic focal point on the dinner table, lentils became the unlikely underdog to move into the spotlight.

According to NPR, lentils gained their enduring popularity thanks to their ready availability, low price, and high nutritional benefits. Food historian Dr. Annie Gray explains that WWII ushered in an era in which everyday consumers learned about nutritional science. "One of the impacts after the war was that there was a lot more knowledge about vitamin deficiencies and a recognition that you could suffer with malnutrition even if you were quite well fed," Gray says, via the BBC. Enter lentils: an enduring superstar of meatless nutrition nearly a century later.