Superfoods Through the Decades

Four Decades of America’s Most Popular Health Foods

Throughout history, there’s always been a new superfood making headlines. From frozen yogurt to the nation’s current kale frenzy, the diverse range of what we used to consider “healthy” is pretty surprising. Now with a greater understanding of daily nutritional needs, the lens on these “superfoods” has greatly shifted. Take a look at how the biggest “health food” trends have changed.

The 80s

Known for its sudden low-fat craze, the eighties was a decade marked by fat-conscious and low-calorie foods. Due to an increase of heart attacks and the burgeoning research of poor diet related deaths, the government started regulating the fat content in American foods.

Frozen yogurt: Originating in Arkansas in 1981, TCBY opened its doors introducing America to its new favorite low-calorie dessert. Compared to ice cream, frozen yogurt averages 175 calories per cup while one serving of ice cream averages 250. When opting for this slightly less self-indulging dessert, just be sure not to load up on calorie-dense toppings. Instead, stick to fresh fruit.

Lean Cuisine: Started in 1981 to appeal to the more health-conscious fan base, Lean Cuisine checked both the boxes of calorie-controlled diet and convenience. Today, there are scores of premade, calorie-controlled meals you can find in the freezer section at the grocery store. The most popular brands include Healthy Choice, Amy’s, Earthbound Farms, and of course, Lean Cuisine.

Artificial sweeteners: In 1981, the first aspartame (artificial) sweeteners hit the market to eager dieters and Diet Coke drinkers alike. During the 80s health craze, aspartame replaced more than one billion pounds of sugar in the American diet – regardless of claims that it could be linked to cancer.

The 90s

What most notably marked the 90s health scene was the rise of the first “superfood.” Many too-good-to-be-true, low-calorie and low-fat foods also continued to dominate Americans’ shopping lists.

Blueberries: Before açaí hit the health circuit, it was all about the humble blueberry. Dubbed as America’s first superfood, this “granddad of the superfood trend” became famous for its high levels of antioxidants.

SlimFast: Marketed as a meal replacement, this once popular smoothie lacks significant nutritional value. Chock-full of added sugars – 19 grams to be exact, SlimFast appealed to dieters looking for a quick fix to quell hunger. Unfortunately, even with its 10 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber, the positive nutritional benefits don’t nearly outweigh the bad.

Margarine: Unfortunately, cutting calories with butter substitutes may be doing more harm than good. While the health risks that come with saturated fats (like real butter) remain unclear, trans fats in margarine pose a significant risk for heart disease.

2000s – Present

By the 2000s, superfoods were in full swing. Seemingly every year, a new and noteworthy food is making headlines. Here are a few that you may have in your pantry today.

Turmeric: Catching on to what India has known for centuries, this is the spice that gives curry its yellow color and is known for its medicinal properties. Curcumin, the active component in Turmeric, works as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant best absorbed into the bloodstream when combined with black pepper. It’s also known to help reduce your risk of cancer and aid digestion.

Kale: Flying under the culinary radar for years as a garnish, kale recently skyrocketed into popularity. United States kale production has increased by nearly 60 percent between 2007 and 2012. While its fame appears to be cultivated by a PR firm in New York City, this cruciferous vegetable walks the walk; Kale contains an abundance of fiber, vitamins A, C and K among other benefits.

Non-Dairy Milk: Non-dairy milk products are on the rise – a 30+ percent rise from 2011 to be exact. In fact, research shows that over half of Americans now drink non-dairy milk, something unheard of only a decade or so ago. Partly due to individuals’ newfound lactose intolerance, and partly due to varying nutritional benefits non-dairy milk provides.

While history has often missed the mark on producing health food that’s actually healthy, it’s definitely allowed us to learn from our dietary mistakes. Bottom line, if you stick to lean proteins, unadulterated greens and limit your intake of added sugar, you should be on the right path to health - no matter the decade.