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. Instagram could spin-off an entirely new social network just for the mountain of food pictures its users post, and food-related documentaries continue to flood Netflix and other streaming services.
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.
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 as many animals as efficiently and as 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, corporatized 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.
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, the kind that have 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.
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, more than 60% of what we eat consists of processed foods.
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.
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 largely 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.
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.
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."
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 supersized 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.
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 more than 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.
Like grain, products like butter, cream, and oil also account for a big chunk of the growth of America's portions over the last half-century. Consumption of oil and fats grew from about 350 calories per day in 1970 to nearly 600 in 2010.
In the early part of the 20th century, a lack of in-home refrigeration forced most of America to rely on daily or near-daily milk deliveries, often accompanied by deliveries of ice. Even in the 1960s, about 30% of America's milk was delivered by a character from America's past that is now all but extinct: the milkman. Soon after, the rise of the supermarket, improvements in packaging, the mainstreaming of in-home refrigeration, and the corporatization of dairy farms led to the virtual extinction of the milkman who now exists almost exclusively as a nostalgic symbol of simpler times for people of a certain age.
Milk was not part of the mainstream diet until after World War I, when it was propagandized as a kind of early superfood—a reputation that it would enjoy for decades. Milk, however, has fallen out of favor over the last 50 years. In 1975, the average American drank 130 liters of milk a year, compared to just 66 liters in 2017. Domestic sales have dropped by 15% since 2012 alone.
Modern Americans are now more privy to the treatment of animals by the dairy industry as well as the industry's impact on the environment—an awakening that coincided with the modern health food revolution. The alternative, plant-based milk industry has emerged to fill the void, and once-niche products like soy milk and almond milk are now readily available at the average supermarket. In fact, nearly half of all shoppers now leave the grocery store with plant-based milk as part of what has become a $16 billion industry.
Dubbed by Forbes as "the Olympics of home cooking," Thanksgiving has long been about family, friends, food, and hours of kitchen prep followed by more hours of cleanup. That last part, it appears, has turned many off to the traditional home-cooked meal. Huge segments of the population are now spending Thanksgiving at restaurants that lure diners in with specials, deals, and group discounts. About one in 10 Americans now spend Thanksgiving at a restaurant, up from 6% in 2011.
Most 19th-century American cities and large towns sponsored gatherings where local growers and makers could hawk their fresh produce, meat, eggs, and other edibles to hungry residents. The rise of supermarket culture in the 20th century rendered the traditional farmer's market obsolete—or so it seemed. By the 1990s, Americans—more health-conscious and aware of what they were feeding their families—longed for a return to simple, fresh, local ingredients. By 1999, there were 2,600 farmers markets in the United States, 50% more than just five years previous; today, there are nearly 9,000.
Sustained public outcry has forced roughly 200 major companies, including every major fast food and supermarket chain, to use only cage-free eggs by 2025. Together, those two industries account for half of the 7 billion eggs produced every month in the United States.
With roots dating back to the 1940s, cooking shows are as old as television. But the world didn't meet its first true, bona fide celebrity chef until 1963 when Julia Child's "The French Chef" debuted on PBS. The moment sparked a movement, and the ensuing decades introduced America to the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Emeril Lagasse (bam!), and Anthony Bourdain.
Known as the father of organic farming, J. I. Rodale coined the term "organic" in the 1940s to describe crops that were raised without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. In the 1970s, organic farming began to catch on as Americans became more health-conscious and concerned with pollution and other environmental degradation. The last 50 years (and the last two decades in particular) have come with a meteoric rise in the organic trend. Organic food sales more than doubled from less than $20 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion in 2015.
From protein powders and workout-recovery aids to weight gainers and creatine, more than half of all Americans have taken a dietary supplement in the last 30 days. The supplement industry is booming, more than doubling from $17.2 billion in 2000 to $36.1 billion in 2017, thanks in part to the massive success of stores like GNC and relentless industry marketing. The popularity of supplements can be traced to 1976 and the passage of the Vitamins and Minerals Amendment, which altered early 20th-century legislation, removed power from the FDA to regulate dietary supplements and gave producers nearly free reign to peddle their potions to the masses.
Few inventions in recent history have impacted food more thoroughly than the microwave oven, which first emerged a little more than 50 years ago in 1967. By the 1970s, companies began making and advertising microwave-specific foods, and by the 1980s, microwaves were the rule, not the exception, in the American home. Microwaves took the chore out of cooking, particularly for small, quick meals, not to mention the re-heating of leftovers, by eliminating the need for heat and multiple pots and pans while saving at-home chefs countless hours in the kitchen.
In the 1950s and early 1960s, soda companies began marketing low-calorie, low-sugar drinks—not to dieters worried about their figures, but to diabetics. In 1963, however, The Coca-Cola Company unveiled its own diet soda, Tab, which quickly gained wide popularity among the health conscious. Pepsi followed suit with what would become Diet Pepsi, Diet 7-Up hit the market in 1979, and Diet Coke began appearing on store shelves in 1982.
Until the late 1960s, almost no food sold in America contained a list of ingredients or other nutritional information. It was first suggested in 1969 that the FDA start requiring food companies to include this crucial information. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 finally mandated that virtually all food sold in the United States provide clear labeling of ingredients, serving sizes, and daily intake recommendations.
Fifty years ago, most Americans had probably never heard the word "vegan." A combined concern for animal welfare and for the environment, increased awareness about the sources of America's food chain, and emerging information about potential health benefits of a plant-based diet changed all that. Over the last two decades, veganism has exploded from a small, peculiar, and often-mocked niche into a chic, popular, and celebrity-packed subculture that is putting the substitute meat and dairy industry on course to becoming a $40 billion venture by 2020.
The link between gluten and the immune disorder celiac disease was discovered in the 1940s, and by the 1970s, scientists discovered the gene responsible for the disorder. Although gluten is not harmful to non-celiac sufferers—99% of the population—the elastic, wheat-derived substance that gives bread its shape took a bit of a hit starting in the 2000s. By 2013, the gluten-free food and beverage industry grew to $10.5 billion.
Humans have been artificially selecting and manipulating crop strains for thousands of years, but everything changed in 1973 when Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen developed genetic engineering (GE). In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the patenting of GE products was constitutional and in 1992, Flavr Savr tomatoes became the first GE food crop to win USDA approval. In 1995, the USDA approved the world's first insecticide-producing crop and a year later, herbicide-resistant crops were developed.
By the late 2000s, the approval of GE patents led to the consolidation of American agriculture into the hands of a few enormous corporations, most notably and most infamously, Monsanto, which controlled virtually all the American soy and corn seed market by 2009.
Although the first drink marketed specifically as an energy booster debuted in Japan in 1962, it was the invention of Red Bull in 1987 that fueled the rise of one of the biggest trends in beverage history: the energy drink craze. The sugar, caffeine, and taurine-based drink came to America 10 years later in 1997, and soon after, it seemed that the tall, skinny, silver cans were everywhere. The early 2000s brought Monster Beverage, 5-Hour Energy, and the controversial Four Loko to the market, and today, more than 20 years later, the energy drink industry is approaching the $20 billion mark.
As processed, sugary foods made America fatter, the food industry branched out into the obesity remedy business. Heinz bought Weight Watchers in 1978, SlimFast was sold to the company that owns Ben & Jerry's and Wall's sausages in 2000, and Jenny Craig was gobbled up by Nestle, the chocolate and ice cream giant that was the most profitable company in the world in 2011.
The last 50 years have witnessed a merger between the food industry and the chemical industry. Giant firms that bill themselves as "flavor companies" design and use chemicals that affect everything from a food's color to its flavor, aroma, and texture. Words like "mouthfeel" and phrases like "repeat appeal" are buzzwords in the world of so-called flavor companies, whose services are used by everyone from fast food giants to candy makers.
Cheap, long-lasting, and easy to mass produce, margarine enjoyed a spectacular rise over the last 50 years, followed by a dramatic decline. By 1976, the average saturated fat-phobic American was consuming 12 pounds of margarine per year compared to just five pounds of butter, but brands like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! would soon tumble. As new and more accurate dietary research partially vindicated fat, Americans began longing for more "natural" products over processed oils. That's when butter came back into vogue, overtaking margarine once again in 2005.
Bloomberg in 2015 reported on one of the most dramatic and unprecedented shifts in the way Americans have consumed food throughout all of U.S. history. For the first time ever, Americans spent more that year dining out than they did on buying groceries to cook at home.
Chains like Panera Bread, Shake Shack, and Chipotle have helped introduce the so-called fast-casual restaurant concept, which relies on freshly made food built from quality ingredients that costs only nominally more than fast food in terms of money and time. One of the fastest-growing segments in the industry, fast-casual now owns nearly one-fifth of the $268 billion limited-service market, leaving only 82% to traditional fast food.
The rise of personal computers coincided with a shift in an office culture that required more and more workers to man their desks and cubicles for longer periods of time. Perhaps to compensate for the burden, that culture commonly included free office snacks, which rat racers continue to gobble down out of boredom, to relieve stress, subconsciously while multitasking, or simply because it's there. Nearly one in four Americans today get free snacks at work for an average of nearly 1,300 extra calories per week, the vast majority of which comes from foods well outside of dietary guidelines.
Mentioned heavily in ancient texts like the Bible and even in Egyptian hieroglyphics, bread has been a staple of human food consumption for at least as long as humans have been writing things down. The end of the 20th century, however, witnessed vilification of carbohydrates and the foods that contain them, with things like potatoes, rice, grain, and bread suffering hits to their long-standing reputations. The rise of the low-carb, high-protein Atkins Diet encouraged people to eat things like bunless burgers, and while the Atkins Diet faded, the ketogenic diet that dominates today's Google searches enforces a similar severity toward carbs.
Although the practice of raising fish in contained areas has ancient roots, the game changed forever in the 1950s with the invention of artificial granulated fish food, which made fish farming practical on an enormous scale. By the 1970s, aquaculture expanded to marine fish thanks to the emergence of cheap, light, and durable materials like fiberglass and PVC. By 2013, farmed fish overtook the rapidly dwindling wild-caught stocks and by 2030, two-thirds of all fish consumed are projected to come from fish farms.
The culinarily challenged got a huge boost in kitchen skills starting in 2007 when the first meal kit delivery service emerged in Europe. The concept soon spread to America, where cooking amateurs flocked to the concept of preparing meals that would otherwise be out of their league thanks to delivery kits with pre-measured, pre-prepped, high-quality ingredients complete with tutorials that even novices would have to try to mess up. Companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh rose quickly but were soon met with stiff competition from grocery chains and giants like Amazon that longed to muscle in on an industry that is expected to reach $66 billion by 2021.
The loosely defined farm-to-table movement, which focuses on sustainability and eating local, began in earnest in 1971 when a champion of those concepts named Alice Waters opened the iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. The concept began gaining traction in the 1980s and by the year 2000, the movement was so entrenched—as it remains today—that some schools even began sourcing student meals locally.
One of the saddest changes in food to take place over the last 50 years is the sheer volume of waste that has become the norm. America's throwaway culture produces 35 million tons of food waste every year—upwards of 40% of all our food. The average American tosses 300 pounds of food, or $2,200 per household, every year.
Partially in response to the epidemic of food waste and partly as a parallel thread to the sustainability movement, people and restaurants have recently embraced a concept called nose-to-tail eating, which had previously been the norm for millennia. In making use of the entire animal, just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did out of necessity, both amateur and professional chefs began rediscovering lost cuts of meat that would have otherwise been discarded and found use for previously shunned parts of the animals we eat.
For much of the last 50 years, most Americans would have lived their whole lives without ever hearing about, much less trying, so-called ancient grains like quinoa, farro, amaranth, and spelt. Thanks to a widespread rediscovery of these high-protein, high-fiber, vitamin-rich grains, lower-quality "modern" grains are being forced to make room for a resurgence in grains that once sustained societies like the Aztecs. In just one year ending in 2018, shipments from distributors to U.S. foodservice outlets increased by double-digit percentage points.
The rise of online retail in the 2000s changed the way Americans shop and forced traditional stores to evolve or die. Now, a race between the world's biggest companies to corner the budding grocery-delivery market is poised to do the same thing for food shopping and grocery stores. Walmart, Amazon, Target, and many other big retail names have gotten in on the action, each hoping to emerge as the leader of the industry, which is expected to capture 20% of the grocery market by 2025 for $100 billion in sales.
Unlike fat, sugar, and carbs, one building block of food that has not gone in and out of vogue over the last 50 years is protein, a perennial favorite of scientific and medical studies over the decades. Weightlifters have long gobbled superhuman portions of chicken and tuna while supplementing with whey protein shakes. The rise of the supplement industry and stores like GNC, however, brought the protein obsession to the masses.
Although there's no way to know exactly when the first smoothie was made, pulverizing and pureeing food has been around for hundreds of years. The health-food movement of the 1960s, however, launched what has become a 50-year bonanza of smoothie mania. A lactose-intolerant teenager who wanted to enjoy milkshakes with his friends went on to open Smoothie King in 1973, a franchise that today boasts more than 800 stores. By 2014, Dole Packaged Foods, the largest frozen fruit company in the world, estimated that 60% of the frozen fruit it sold was blended into smoothies.
The produce section was long relegated to the perimeter of the American grocery store; but as America's hunger for healthy, fresh, and exotic fruits and vegetables has grown, the produce section has expanded dramatically and in some cases moved to more prime real estate. Over the last two decades, shoppers have seen an expansion of not just organic and exotic offerings, but also an increase in so-called value-added items, like pre-peeled or pre-cut fruit and veggies. In some cases, as with the Kroger chain, grocery stores are for the first time moving their produce section to the middle of the supermarket.
One of the most unusual recent changes in the relationship between people and their food is the rise of intermittent fasting, which actually has roots dating back to antiquity. Parents have long told their children not to eat right before bed, but in the last 10 years, everyone from celebrities to runners to regular office workers are cramming their entire daily caloric intake into windows as short as four to six hours and abstaining from eating for the other 18 or even 20 hours. Adherents, which include many medical professionals, insist that intermittent fasting—which requires long periods of restricted caloric intake—promotes not just weight loss, but also mental clarity, disease prevention, and overall well being.
There's an old saying that brunch without cocktails is just a sad, late breakfast—but this philosophy was not accepted by the masses through the 1950s when day drinking was still widely frowned upon by the middle class. Then, around 50 years ago, the Bloody Mary became standard fare at brunch tables across America—possibly because it was perceived to be a hangover remedy for those who partook the night before—and the eggs Benedict was invented in New York City. By the 1980s, brunches were once again fancy affairs, harkening back to the upper-class roots of American brunch from the 1920s, and today, Sunday late mornings are among the busiest times for restaurants across America.
By the 1960s, roughly 60% of American households had televisions. That tipping point signaled the rise of a 50-year onslaught of advertising, often directed at children, courtesy of the food and beverage industry. Food has become among the most heavily marketed products on Earth, and ad spending by the grocery store industry alone now tops $190 billion a year.
The human brain evolved to find food, and social media influencers have capitalized on the brain's primal reward system with a bizarre and intensely popular genre of media known as food porn. From celebrities to regular people, businesses to civic groups, social media users flood their accounts with a nearly perpetual stream of food-related imagery that has been proven to promote unhealthy eating, make people hungry, and disproportionately tempt people who are already overweight.
The biggest change involving food in the last 50 just might be the fact that, for the first time in all of recorded human history, people have too much food. Americans are literally eating themselves to death. Nearly four in 10 Americans—93.3 million people—are now obese, a condition directly tied to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other leading causes of preventable premature death. Food has become so cheap and readily available that America's overfed, under-exercised bodies—not to mention the country's health care system—are at risk of collapsing under the enormous weight of it all.