50 ways food has changed in the last 50 years
With combined sales of $5.75 trillion, it's hard to imagine any industry bigger than the food retail and services sector.
In modern America, chefs are celebrities and these food celebrities release cookbooks as if it's part of their job description. Even with (or perhaps because of) myriad food bloggers, cookbooks are one major book category surviving the shift to digital, with sales up 21% year-over-year in 2018. Personality, competition, and lifestyle food shows continue drawing huge viewership on television and online, exemplified by the likes of YouTube channels like Tastemade and Food Network stalwarts like "Chopped" and "Barefoot Contessa." Food-related documentaries like the acclaimed "Salt Fat Acid Heat" continue to flood Netflix and other streaming services. Once upon a time, naysayers questioned whether the Food Network could survive, but now Hollywood can't get enough culinary programming.
The same is true with food and social media. Instagram could spin-off an entirely new social network just for the mountain of food pictures its users post. #Food is the 25th most-used hashtag with over 252 million posts. Celebrity chefs who take Instagram seriously command millions of followers. Meanwhile, unknowns like Turkish meat purveyor Salt Bae can become overnight sensations, going from flamboyant chefs to worldwide celebrities with restaurants in the world's biggest cities.
From meticulous gardens to brutal slaughterhouses, the nature of food—how we cook it, grow it, raise it, eat it, buy it, and organize around it politically—has changed so much over the last 50 years that the modern consumer would scarcely recognize the cuisine and nutrition landscape as it existed in 1969. Read on to learn about the evolution of food over the last half-century, the driving forces behind the changes, and the impact those changes have had on nearly every corner of society.
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The American farm goes industrial
The single biggest change in food over the last 50 years is the conversion of America's small- and medium-sized farms into massive industrial factories designed to raise, contain, and slaughter animals as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. In the 1970s, hog, beef, and dairy farmers joined chicken farmers, which have been mass-producing poultry and eggs since the 1920s, in centralizing their operations and developing enormous, corporatist operations focused almost solely on production and profit. Today, roughly 94% of all animals raised for human consumption spend their lives on massive factory farms, a point which has drawn concern from animal activists and climate scientists.
'Ag-gag' rules sweep states
Over the past 50 years, the agriculture industry has lobbied for so-called "ag-gag" regulations, which make it a crime to film or photograph conditions on factory farms without the owner's consent. The laws are a response to undercover investigations from animal activists that produced disturbing footage of animal abuse. Multiple lawsuits have questioned the constitutionality of these regulations, citing free speech; in January 2019, a judge in Iowa overturned an ag-gag law on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment.
Food becomes 'food'
The history of processed food technically dates back 1.8 million years, when early humans first began processing their meat by cooking it with fire. The end of World War II and the baby boom that followed it, however, led to the rise of a different kind of processing, when refined sugars, additives, dyes, preservatives, and a vocabulary of unpronounceable ingredients became the foundation of the American diet. Today, over 60% of what we eat consists of processed foods.
The USDA introduces the food pyramid
Just about any GenXer is painfully familiar with the Food Pyramid, a government-produced graphic designed to convey the type and ratios of food Americans should eat to stay healthy. First unveiled in 1994, the Food Pyramid replaced the Food Wheel, which in 1984 replaced the Hassle-Free Daily Food Guide, first released in 1979. Each installment included changes and updates to reflect evolving standards and guidelines, and in 2005, the familiar Food Pyramid was replaced with the MyPyramid Food Guidance System, which was replaced in 2011 with the MyPlate graphic.
Fast food chains explode
America's fast-food culture can be traced to 1921 in Wichita, Kan., where the first White Castle triggered a revolution in cuisine. Although fast-food restaurants and their trademark drive-through windows were common sights across the country as far back as the 1950s, Americans over the last 50 years have devoured epic amounts of the cheap, delicious, and unhealthy burgers and fries, cooked up every day by America's 50,000 fast-food restaurants. McDonald's alone now sells 75 burgers a second.
Sugar consumption spikes
The sugar industry began funding research in the 1960s to minimize the health risks of sugar and emphasize the dangers of fat. The marketing campaign apparently worked, as sugar consumption exploded from a couple pounds per person per year to 123 pounds per person in 1970 and to 152 pounds today—or about 42.5 teaspoons per day, compared to the recommended 13.3 teaspoons.
High-fructose corn syrup spreads
First developed in 1957, high-fructose corn syrup began finding its way into the American diet in the 1970s. By 1984, the concentrated, corn starch-derived goop was the main sweetener in virtually every soda and sweet-tasting processed food. In the 2000s, however, the tide began to turn against high-fructose corn syrup, so much so that there was a campaign to rename it "corn sugar."
Portion sizes and calorie counts grow
The average muffin in the last 20 years grew from 1.5 ounces and 210 calories to 4 ounces and 500 calories, while the average bagel expanded from three inches and 140 calories to six inches and 350 calories. From super-sized fast-food options and all-you-can-eat buffets to so-called family sized snacks and gargantuan sodas, portion sizes have gotten consistently more enormous, right along with America's average waistline, over the last 50 years. The average daily caloric intake jumped by 20% from about 2,200 in 1970 to about 2,600 today.
Supermarkets sweep America
The grocery store was born in 1916 in Memphis, Tenn., when the world's first Piggly Wiggly opened. There, customers were dazzled by a huge selection of products arranged by category and marked down in price to reflect the new format's low overhead costs. By the 1950s, grocery stores had become supermarkets and were woven so deeply into the American landscape that Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited a Maryland supermarket in 1957 to see what all the fuss was about—the queen was reportedly fascinated by the collapsible carts people pushed around. The last 30 years have witnessed radical changes and gargantuan growth, with over 38,500 grocery stores now selling nearly $683 billion worth of goods per year.
Over the last half-century, Americans have gobbled up far more grain than ever before. Between 1970 and 2010, average grain consumption in the U.S. jumped by nearly 50% from a little over 400 calories per day to just under 600 calories per day.2018 All rights reserved.