Few things reveal as much about our culture as the food we eat. Going organic, for example, establishes that you care about what you put in your body and how you treat the environment.

A new book, Glazed America: A History of the Doughnut, by Paul R. Mullins, PhD, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, explores the development of America’s consumer culture through our relationship with the doughnut—beloved by many, and a symbol of temptation and unhealthiness to others.

Sometime in prehistory, someone dropped flour into oil, and the doughnut’s ancestor was born. Since then, every culture has fried flour, and many have added something sweet to the dough.

Modern doughnuts arrived on American shores in the early 18th century, when the Dutch pastry olykoek first appeared in New York and other cities, Dr. Mullins says. The first cookbook to mention them was an 1803 English volume that included them in an appendix of American recipes. By the mid-19th century, the doughnut looked and tasted like today’s easily recognizable pastry, and it was viewed as a thoroughly American food.

As with cars, automation came to the doughnut in the early 20th century. During the 1920s, machines began to make doughnuts in bulk, producing tons of them at a low cost to consumers. Unlike bagels, whose manufacture was closely controlled by unions, the mass-produced doughnut spread rapidly across the United States, becoming a staple of mom-and-pop establishments, regional outlets and national chain doughnut shops like Dunkin’ Donuts.

Over the last 25 years, doughnuts have survived onslaughts from competing foods and trends, including bagels, muffins and anti-carbohydrate diets. The most damaging attack has come from the health community, whose members remain concerned about the food’s contribution to the nation’s rising obesity rates.

Doughnuts have always elicited strong feelings among Americans, Dr. Mullins confirms.

“Americans don’t sit on the fence,” he says. “They either love doughnuts or they don’t. You just can’t say the same thing about lettuce or tomatoes or salt, all of which also have interesting cultural symbolism.”

And for the record: Dr. Mullins enjoys his doughnuts at an Indianapolis mom-and-pop shop that has been serving the fried pastries for 55 years. He’s also an avid runner who logs approximately 45 miles per week, often past his favorite doughnut shop.

As for organic doughnuts, they have legions of fans. Check out Dee’s Mini Organic Doughnuts in Northern California and the all-natural Doughnut Plant in New York City, which was featured in an episode of Ugly Betty.