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. World War II was also an opportunity to really get the message out regarding food nutrition. The State of Oregon notes that officials from various nutrition-based committees went into different communities to teach those on the homefront best practices when it came to preserving the nutrition in food. Enter lentils: an enduring superstar of meatless nutrition nearly a century later.