Dec. 20, 2021

Christmas Food Traditions & The Carcinogenic Cranberry Scare

This episode is the epitome of bittersweet… 

We discuss the origins of everyone’s favourite holiday food traditions, including Christmas cookies, advent calendars, and the one and only - cranberry sauce! We then cover the history of the ‘Poison Squad’, the volunteer government initiative that ultimately led to the foundation of the FDA. This gave rise to the Delaney Clause and the time that the cranberry industry almost collapsed in one of the nation’s first food safety scares - The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959.


This is an independently produced podcast and your support means a lot to us. Please rate, review, and follow wherever you listen!

If you would like to contribute to our show, you can do so on our Patreon page.

Follow on Instagram and Twitter @unsavorypodcast

Follow Sarah & Becca on Instagram @sarahdoesnutrition and @thenutritionjunky

This podcast was produced by Geoff Devine at Earworm Radio.

Follow Geoff @ewradio on Instagram or visit

Thanks for listening!



Allen, S. (2010). A Brief History of Advent Calendars. Mental Floss. 

American Council on Science and Health. (2004). Facts Versus Fears: A Review Of The Greatest Unfounded Health Scares 1962-2004 (Fourth Edition). 

Blakemore, E. (2015). A Brief History of Cranberries - Pucker up: Thanksgiving (and plenty of cranberry sauce) is almost here. Smithsonian Magazine.,person%20to%20successfully%20cultivate%20cranberries. 

Chen, A. (2015). We Tried A Futuristic Cranberry. It Was Fresh And Naturally Sweet. NPR. 

Gamble, R. (2019, ). Poison squad: Not for every appetite. Expositor (Brantford). 

Greiger, L. (2019). The great cranberry scare of 1959. YouTube.  

Phillips, M. (U.S. Agency for International Development, Washington, D.C.), & Gianessi, L. P. (1998). An analysis of the economic benefit provisions of the food quality protection act. Review of Agricultural Economics, 20(2), 377-389.  

Pruitt, S. (2017). Don’t Forget Santa’s Cookies and Milk: The History of a Popular Christmas Tradition. 

Tortorello, M. (2015, Nov 24). The Great Cranberry Scare of 1959. The New Yorker. 



See for privacy and opt-out information.



Since this is technically our Christmas episode, it only seems appropriate for Sarah to share the history of our favourite holiday foods. Then I am going to tell you about the time that the cranberry industry almost collapsed in the nation’s first great food scare. This is weirdly the foundation of a lot of the misinformation we come across today. And you’ll see what I mean. But this scare also pushed the cranberry industry to get creative and is actually how they became a year-round global commodity, rather than a seasonal product over Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is another one of those amazing historical stories that describes why things are the way they are now. And I think you’re really going to like it.



I’m going to give you a little history and some fun facts about some of our favourite Christmas & holiday treats, so first I want to know what your favourite Christmas cookie is. 


Discuss cookies 


Each year around the holiday season, kitchens all across the world fill the warm, delicious scents of holiday baking. For those who celebrate Christmas, that probably means cookies and squares filled with chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar, and butter, and for those who celebrate Hannukah, it might be sweet breads and apple cakes. But have you ever wondered why baking seems to come to the forefront of this wintery holiday season? 


SInce the beginning of human civilization, there have been solstice celebrations all around the world to honor the changing of the seasons. In Norway, Africa, Ireland, India, and North America, people have gathered for a large feast before the winter cold takes over. However, by the middle ages, the Christmas holiday season had largely replaced the solstice festivals in Europe and around the same time, spices and dried fruits started becoming widely available due to increasing trade routes. So things like nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, and dried apricots and dates were becoming more mainstream, but these items, along with baking staples such as sugar, butter, and lard, were still a bit expensive for the average family and so they would be purchased for the most important holiday of the year and families would do large quantities of baking leading up to the Christmas holiday. Cookies quickly became the star of the show because you could easily share some of your cookies with friends and family. One classic cookie, and one of my personal favourites, is gingerbread which is made with molasses (check out our Boston Molassacre episode), was first famously cut into the shape of a man - a gingerbread man - by Queen Elizabeth the first of England, who had her ginger cookies cut into the shape of her favourite courtiers. 


Now, another fun Christmas cookie tradition is leaving cookies & milk out for Santa and maybe some carrots for the reindeer as well. One theory is that this tradition took off in North America during the 1930s, during the Great Depression. Parents started this tradition in an effort to teach their children the importance of sharing with others and apparently the tradition stuck. Another theory is that this tradition stems from Norse mythology, in which the Norse god Odin had an 8 legged horse named Sleipner, and during the Christmas season children would leave carrots out in hopes of getting a visit from Sleipner and Odin and getting some gifts in return. A variation of this still exists in Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands.


There are many different variations of this “cookies for Santa” tradition around the world. British and Australian children might leave out sherry and minced pies, Swedish kids leave out rice porridge, in Ireland they do Guiness and cookies, and French children leave a glass of wine and fill their shoes with hay and carrots. 


I’m going to train my kids to leave me a rum & eggnog with ginger cookies on the side. 


Next up, we have Advent calendars! What’s the best advent calendar you’ve ever had? 


Historically, Advent is the 4-week period beginning on the Sunday following November 30th, which is the feast day of St. Andrew the Apostle, but now it is more commonly associated with the 24 days starting on December 1st and leading up to December 25. A German man named Gerhard Lang is widely considered the inventor of the modern advent calendar. As a child he had received 24 cookies sewn onto the lid of a box by his mother and he was allowed to eat one of them every day during the Advent period. Around the same time, a German newspaper published a print advent calendar and from then on they became very popular. Most advent calendars throughout the past century have contained small chocolates, bible verses, or christmas ornaments, but today, modern day advent calendars can be found in all sorts of niches. For example, there are perfume and cosmetics advent calendars, cheese calendars, wine and liquor calendars, tea calendars, beer calendars, pretty much whatever your want.


Have you heard of the Chanel advent calendar controversy?


I found an article from 2007 that said most expensive advent calendar ever was $50000 from Harrods and it was a 4-ft christmas tree shaped structure carved from elm and walnut wood and it’s 24 compartments contained pieces of chocolate from Green & Black chocolate company- which does not sound worth it at all. However, since then, many luxury brand have launched very expensive advent calendars - like the $150,000 Tiffany’s advent calendar, which featured surprises like their 18k Gold Triple Drop Earrings ($4,600 USD) and a Sterling Silver Harmonica ($695 USD), or the $1 million Porsche advent calendar, of which only 5 copies were made and only one available per continent, which features luxury items like a Porsche Design P’6910 Indicator watch in rose gold, an individually customisable Porsche Design Kitchen worth about $200,000 and an 8.5m motor yacht. 


& I’m going to wrap it up by talking about a common festive flavour or side dish - cranberries! Whether you’re enjoying dried cranberries in your baking, mixing cranberry juice with gin and rosemary for a festive cocktail, or serving sweetened, jellied cranberries on the side of your roasted turkey, cranberries are a wonderful holiday staple, and turns out, they have an interesting history as well! 


Cranberries have been a dietary staple for Native Americans for centuries, as they would harvest them and use them in different traditional remedies and dishes. Commercial cultivation of cranberries really started around 1816, when Captain Henry Hall found a cranberry vine in the sand and allegedly became the first person to cultivate them. Cranberries are actually cultivated on vines in bogs - if you google ‘cranberry farming' or just check out the pics we posted on our instagram for this episode, you'll see these huge ponds just filled with cranberries, and it’s actually really cool! But canned cranberries, the jelly log that holds the shape of it’s can so well, weren’t around until 1912, when a lawyer named Marcus Urann bought a cranberry bog and started canning. His little canning operation would later be renamed to Ocean Spray and is still around today! There is actually a team of cranberry breeders at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been working diligently on creating a sweeter version of cranberries called Sweeties and the research is looking promising :) & that’s where I’ll leave you for today! 



Ok so some of the sources I used include articles by the American Council on Science and Health & Tortorello and a video by the History Guy on the topic. As always, you can find these references in our show notes on our website at


What happened?


When it comes to fear mongering around food choices, there’s one theme or chemical agent that has a tendency to really stick and spread like wild fire. Do you have any ideas of what I’m talking about?


I am talking about carcinogens - specifically cancer-causing foods or elements on or within food products. We’ve talked about this before, but when a cancer-related food research story hits the news, it is often picked up pretty quickly. And news headlines are often manipulated versions of what the research actually says. Even while I was doing this research I came across recent news headlines stating that there is “some evidence that artificial coloring may trigger cancer-causing processes in the body.” And one of the articles was paired with photos of candy canes…


And on that note, I’m going to tell you the events of the very first nation wide food scare. But first I need to give you some background on what came to be the US Food & Drug Administration, aka the FDA and the Delaney Act. In the 1800’s, the US was experiencing the industrial and agricultural revolutions. Systems were pushed to become more efficient to service a growing population. With this came the introduction of new pesticides, herbicides, and preservatives. But food producers did not have to follow any government regulation, and ingredients weren’t even listed on products (imagine trying to be gluten intolerant at this time). One chemist named Harvey Wiley was working hard to ensure that these preservatives were safe for consumption. Wiley was a government worker with the Department of Agriculture and he decided to put together a new initiative to test the safety of these chemicals...on human subjects.


In 1902, 12 male volunteers from Washington, DC were promised three meals a day for at least six months, which was an incredible offer for many Americans living in poverty at this time. In turn, they had to agree to consume the chemicals in question. This group became known as the ‘Poison Squad’ - they would record their weight, pulse, and temperature before eating, and collect all their bodily waste for analysis. 


Some of the tests included salicylic acid, sulphuric acid, and sodium borate, or borax - which I remember using as ant poison as a kid. Borax was commonly used to help preserve animal protein. The test subjects took borax pills for weeks until they began experiencing symptoms like headaches, cramps, and depression. One volunteer died of tuberculosis 4 years after this study and his family blamed the borax consumption, but Wiley denied any connection and nothing really came of it. These tests caused a lot of friction between government and industry, because as Wiley and other scientists uncovered the impacts of some of these chemicals, ther effects would be exposed to the public. 


The final ‘Poison Squad’ trial was with formaldehyde. The volunteers became so ill that they had to stop the research completely. Then in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food & Drug Act, also known as the Wiley Act to protect consumers from certain chemicals used in foods. And 24 years later, in 1930, Wiley’s division became the FDA. Almost all of the preservatives that were tested on the 12 volunteers were banned from being used in food. Wiley also tried to warn consumers about tobacco, but a formal warning wasn’t issued until about 40 years later. So despite the fact that this guy tested presumably harmful chemicals on humans, he was a huge advocate for consumer protection (Gamble, 2019).


In 1937, a pharmaceutical called elixir sulfanilamide (SULF-AN-ILLA-MIDE) was improperly used instead of the strep antibiotic sulfanilamide. This resulted in a mass poisoning of 100 people. At this point the FDA created a new Act or law called ​​the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act that gave the FDA more power to prevent something like this from ever happening again. One amendment to the Act in 1958 was put forth by a man named James Delaney. Delaney wanted to better study the chemicals used on and within consumer food products, which seems like a good initiative. EXCEPT the Delaney amendment clause stated “the Secretary of the [FDA] shall not approve for use in food any chemical additive found to induce cancer in man, or, after tests, found to induce cancer in animals.” (Greiger, 2019).


This change has been criticised for being too restrictive as it states that there can’t be any risk of cancer with these chemicals. And as we know, in most cases, the dose makes the poison. So many things safe in moderation can be lethal if consumed in excess. I think it was our Subway Yoga Mat episode where we talked about water toxicity. An element of nature - a natural chemical - that we physically need to survive can also kill us. I don’t think pure water has ever been linked to cancer, but you get my point.


Following this amendment in 1959, one of the very first tests done on food was done on...cranberries! Like you mentioned in your intro, cranberries have been a dietary staple for centuries. BUT prior to the 1960’s, the cranberry business was very much seasonal, with the fruit really only being purchased by consumers for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and exclusively in the form of cranberry sauce or whole cranberries to make cranberry sauce. But even with its seasonality, it was still a 50 million dollar industry. At this time the main producer and distributor of cranberries was Ocean Spray, processing between 70-80% of North American cranberry crops. And I’m pretty sure Ocean Spray is still the main producer and distributor today.


Because cranberries require pretty specific conditions to grow, an herbicide known as aminotriazole was used to clear some of the bog weeds to help the cranberries thrive. Growers would typically use the chemical after the harvest to avoid getting it on the fruit, but trace amounts were found on some berries in Washington and Oregon state when tests were done to follow the Delaney Amendment. 


In November 1959 - just 17 days before American Thanksgiving - the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Arthur Fleming, announced that aminotriazole had been traced back to some domestic cranberry products. Fleming wanted them to limit the distribution of the berries within Washington and Oregon until the company had a plan to remove the contaminated berries. And he wanted to warn the two states in the meantime. But when a reported asked whether a housewife should buy cranberries for her family for Thanksgiving, he answered that if a housewife wasn’t sure of the origin of the product, then she shouldn't buy it (Greiger, 2019).


This statement spread nationally. Cranberries were taken out of grocery stores, restaurants, and were even banned in some communities. The first lady, Mamie (MAY-ME) Eisenhower served applesauce with her turkey instead of the traditional cranberry sauce. The next day it made headlines in the Associated Press stating “No Cranberries for President”. In response to this, Richard Nixon, who was campaigning for president at the time, ate four servings of cranberry sauce to kinda prove how strong and brave he was which also made headlines in the Washington Post. JFK then downed 2 glasses of cranberry juice, which isn't the cranberry juice we know and love today since it was super bitter and rarely ever consumed. In drinking the juice, he toasted his opponent and their “braver stomachs'. 


But people were still losing their minds over these berries. Market researchers found that half of shoppers planned to never buy cranberries again. Ocean Spray was forced to seize barrels of their fruit, even though they had also made a statement that any human would have to consume carloads of berries for any ill effect. Growers were demanding Flemming be fired for his statement, and Miss Cranberry of Modesto, California even hung a dummy of Flemming at an event to demonstrate their hatred towards him. People actually wondered if he was in cahoots with the brussel sprout or sweet potato industries, trying to take over (Tortorello, 2015).


Barely anyone purchased cranberries that year. Thanksgiving sales were down 70% and Christmas sales were down 50% even though the company was able to release the uncontaminated fruit back into the distribution chain. But the damage was already done. Over 20 million dollars was lost by January and Ocean Spray was forced to lay off ⅓ of their employees. For Christmas, magazines began publishing cranberry-like alternatives for their meals, like spiced crab apples, frosted grapes, and plum and currant preserves (Tortorello, 2015).


The government created a 10 million dollar subsidy for the cranberry growers over the winter and spring - I think because they felt guilty. It turned out that only 1% of the entire crop that year had trace amounts of aminotriazole; meaning that 99% was not contaminated. There were also no reported instances of harm because of the berries. And the research had actually shown that rodents who consumed large doses of aminotriazole over long periods of time had developed thyroid cancer. This would be the equivalent of a human eating about 15,000 pounds of cranberries with trace amounts of the chemical every day over the span of several years. The risk was minute, but the food industry stopped using it completely for fear of public outcry. But it is still used today in non-agricultural settings like to clear grass and weeds from highway mediums (American Council on Science and Health, 2004; Greiger, 2019). 

The Rise of Cranberry Juice/Craisins


With all this new information, the cranberry market began to recover the next fall in 1960. This whole incident really forced the industry to rethink its strategy. Since the berries were so seasonal, they were left vulnerable to future disruptions in the market. So they decided they needed to diversify their revenue streams. Ocean Spray began playing with some niche products. Cranberry juice was consumed in some areas, but mainly as a treatment for scurvy because of its vitamin C content. It was bitter and super concentrated. They tried adding more water and sugar to it, making what is now known as cranberry juice cocktail. This new product then turned into difference juice blends like cranapple. 


Craisins were later invented as a snack and ingredient for baking and cereal products. It should be no surprise that they got their inspiration from raisins. There were also a few products that flopped, like a cranberry meat glaze called Dip n Bake. All of these products other than the meat glaze are now year-round global commodities. Which is incredibly inspirational in my opinion. 


The Aftermath 


Ultimately, in 1996 President Bill Clinton removed the Delaney Clause from legislation because of its zero-tolerance for any potentially carcinogenic food additives. This also sparked some controversy, a lot of which came from misinformed citizens. But the retraction of the clause was based on the fact that the results in animal studies will almost never be reproduced the same way in humans - so some perfectly safe substances to humans can be cancerous to animals. Sensitivity testing had also improved, showing that a lot of additives and even just foods in general could be carcinogenic if consumed in mass quantities (Tortorello, 2015). So the clause no longer made sense.




Even though the cranberry business did recover eventually, we still experience the aftermath of this scare today - it exposed some of the tension that occurs between industry and government, and it imposed consumer mistrust and confusion around hypothetical hazards. New scientific technologies and sensitivity testing also revealed new ingredients with undesirable lab results - like sweeteners and nitrites in meat.


But we have to remember that the majority of these chemicals were designed or introduced to the food system to ensure food safety and ultimately the safety of the public. Like in Canada, we likely wouldn’t make it through the winter with enough food if it weren’t for some of these chemicals and preservatives. And I think a lot of people forget that. 


In nearly all instances of North American food law, the protective role of something like a pesticide has to outweigh any potential health risk; and it must prove to be a necessity in maintaining food supply. So basically these things help protect consumers against adverse health effects and they help protect us from food supply disruptions (Phillips & Gianessi, 1998).


So the moral of the story, as always, is to be cautious of news headlines based on 1-off studies or quack science, as well as be wary of quote unquote “advocates' who express strong chemophobic views. We are having such a credibility crisis when it comes to our food system - which we could do a whole other episode on. There’s even a branch of psychology called credibility psychology that looks at the believability of information.


And that’s the story of the Great Cranberry Scare - the first and one of the greatest unfounded health scares to this day.