If You Are What You Eat, America Tastes Like Chicken

By Alan BjergaAlan Bjerga, Dorothy GambrellDorothy Gambrell, Cindy HoffmanCindy Hoffman and Cedric SamCedric Sam

U.S. eating habits have undergone a slow transformation since the 1970s, as shown through annual consumption data tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it’s not a simple story of expanding waistlines and new ways to pig out. By looking at when different foods found peak favor and comparing their rises and falls, key moments can be isolated in the story of American eating.

In some ways, U.S. diets are richer in fresh produce and variety than ever, reflecting improved supply chains and technology that keeps food from spoiling. Greater food diversity has reflected greater population diversity, with avocados and mangoes going from almost unheard-of delicacies to mainstream choices. Price has inevitably played a role: See how chicken and beef intersected as their relative costs shifted. Even marketing has had a measurable impact. Some American dietary habits never die, but in general, we're eating healthier, fresher and more food.

Chicken and Beef

Retail weight available per capita, in pounds

88.4

peak chicken

+142%

from 1970

94.1

peak beef

36.0

low

53.8

−36%

1970

2015

88.4

peak chicken

+142% from 1970

94.1

peak beef

Higher animal-feed prices lower total meat consumption

U.S. Dietary Goals offer red-meat caution

53.8

−36%

36.0

low

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2015

94.1

peak beef

Higher animal-feed prices lower total meat consumption

88.4

peak chicken

+142% from 1970

U.S. Dietary Goals offer red-meat caution

53.8

−36%

36.0

low

1970

2015

1980

1990

2000

2010

94.1

peak beef

Higher animal-feed prices lower total meat consumption

88.4

peak chicken

+142% from 1970

U.S. Dietary Goals offer red-meat caution

53.8

−36%

36.0

low

1970

1990

1995

2015

1975

1980

1985

2000

2005

2010

Americans for generations were steak-eating stalwarts. But starting in the mid-1970s, beef was less in favor, while consumption of chicken, the number-three choice after beef and pork, started to accelerate. Their lines crossed in the 1990s, and today the chicken is reaching new heights. So what’s all the clucking about? By the mid-1970s, worries about health risks associated with red meat were entering the public consciousness, with government guidelines suggesting Americans watch their consumption. Meanwhile, chicken production was industrialized. An average broiler hen took 56 days to grow to a market weight of 3.62 pounds in 1970; in 2015, it took 48 days to reach 6.24 pounds, according to the National Chicken Council. That drove down its cost relative to beef, and consumers took notice.

We Drink Less Coffee

Green bean weight available per capita, in pounds

13.6

peak

10.3

−24%

from 1970

7.9

low

1970

2015

13.6

peak

Starbucks opens

its 1,000th store, coffee drinking starts rebound

10.3

−24%

from 1970

Frost in Brazil kills taste for coffee

7.9

low

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2015

13.6

peak

Starbucks opens

its 1,000th store, coffee drinking starts rebound

10.3

−24%

from 1970

Frost in Brazil kills taste for coffee

7.9

low

1970

2015

1980

1990

2000

2010

13.6

peak

10.3

–24%

from 1970

Starbucks opens

its 1,000th store, coffee drinking starts rebound

Frost in Brazil kills taste for coffee

7.9

low

2010

1970

1975

1985

1990

1995

2015

1980

2000

2005

With Starbucks seemingly everywhere, it may be a surprise that coffee-drinking has never recovered from a quarter-century of decline that started with the 1970 peak and bottomed out in 1995. Industry data show that drinking peaked in the 1960s, said Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association based in Santa Ana, California. Inflationary pressures pushed brewers to lower their quality of blends throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with the bottom dropping out in 1977, when frost in Brazil, the world’s biggest producer, pushed prices up, quality down and consumers away from coffee. The rise of coffeehouses has somewhat brought coffee back, but “Mad Men”-era coffee drinking never returned for two reasons, he said. First, more expensive espresso-based coffee is meant to be drunk one cup at a time, unlike pots of drip coffee. And coffee consumed outside the home doesn’t get dumped down the drain at the end of the day. “In the old days, the kitchen sink was one of the biggest consumers of coffee,” he said. Coffee sales still miss that key consumer.

Raisins Had a Moment

Processed weight available per capita, in pounds

2.1

peak

1.4

+8% from

1970

0.9

low

1970

2015

2.1

peak

California Raisin Advisory Board closes

Frost devastates raisins, driving

up prices

1.4

+8% from 1970

0.9

low

First California Raisins ad

1970

1980

2000

2010

2015

1990

2.1

peak

1.4

+8% from 1970

Frost devastates raisins, driving

up prices

First California Raisins ad

California Raisin Advisory Board closes

0.9

low

1970

2015

1980

1990

2000

2010

2.1

peak

1.4

+8% from 1970

Frost devastates raisins, driving

up prices

First California Raisins ad

California Raisin Advisory Board closes

0.9

low

1970

1975

1985

1990

1995

2015

1980

2000

2005

2010

Raisins were just another snack food, one whose consumption was affected by such things as frosts in California, until the mid-1980s. That was when the farmer-funded California Raisin Advisory Board hit marketing gold with the California Raisins, a fictional, Claymation-animated rhythm-and-blues group whose popular commercials had consumers suddenly feeling an urge to eat dried grapes. Consumption peaked in 1988, the same year that “Meet the Raisins!” aired on CBS. But like many blues masters, they had a messy decline. Pop culture moved on, and the board closed over disputes with the raisin growers who funded them over production costs that wildly outpaced the budget. Despite occasional cameos, the raisins never regained their marketing mojo, with demand now at 1.4 pounds per person.

Pineapple Consumption Stays Constant (Just Not From Cans)

Farm weight available per capita, in pounds

7.2

peak

fresh

7.1

peak

canned

3.7

low

0.6

low

1970

2015

7.2

peak

fresh

7.1

peak

canned

7.0

+900%

from 1970

3.9

−45%

0.6

low

1980

1970

1990

2000

2010

2015

7.2

peak fresh

7.1

peak canned

7.0

+900% from

1970

3.9

−45%

0.6

low

1970

2015

1980

1990

2000

2010

7.2

peak fresh

7.1

peak canned

7.0

+900% from

1970

3.9

−45%

3.7

low

53.8

−36% from 1970

0.6

low

1970

1975

1985

1990

1995

2015

1980

2000

2005

2010

Pineapple, once synonymous with your uncle’s trip to Hawaii and a staple of Christmas fruitcakes, has become everyday fresh produce, as Americans learned to cut the spiny fruit and eschew the perfectly round cuttings sold in cans. In fact, the amount of fresh pineapple eaten today is almost exactly the same amount of canned pineapple eaten in 1970. Credit goes to more sophisticated supply chains—your fresh pineapple probably comes from Costa Rica now—and different ways of packaging fresh foods, such as the plastic fruit cups you see in the grocery store. Pineapples also are literally sweeter than they were a generation ago, starting with the introduction of the Del Monte Gold Extra Sweet variety in 1997. That’s spurred additional sales

Spinach, From Canned to Frozen to Fresh

Farm weight available per capita, in pounds

2.3

peak fresh

0.94

peak frozen

0.85

peak canned

1970

2015

2.3

peak fresh

1.7

+479% from

1970

0.94

peak frozen

0.85

peak canned

0.7

0%

0.1

−45%

2015

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2.3

peak fresh

1.7

+479% from

1970

0.94

peak frozen

0.85

peak canned

0.7

0%

0.1

−45%

1970

1980

1990

2000

2010

2015

2.3

peak fresh

1.7

+479% from

1970

0.94

peak frozen

0.85

peak canned

0.7

0%

0.1

−45%

1975

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010

2015

1970

Pineapple’s story is repeated across fresh, frozen and canned foods, with canned foods declining and frozen-foods consumption bumping along as fresh-produce grocery aisles grow bigger and more diverse. Spinach, for example, shows not only the move from canned to fresh, but the danger of food-safety problems: Consumption has never rebounded from an e.coli scare that killed at least three people in 2006. The effect has been an overall increase in food consumption, period—a concern at a time when obesity is a major public health issue. Too much of a good thing? Not when you look at the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, which say fruit and vegetables, whether canned, fresh or frozen, are still underrepresented in the American diet.

In keeping with globalized food chains and increased freshness, some of the biggest changes in consumption came in such products as mangoes, limes and avocados, while canned goods saw the biggest drops. High-fructose corn syrup, a cheap sugar alternative, skyrocketed through the 1990s, then lost favor as sugar growers became more competitive and consumers worried about over-consumption.

Some Eating Habits Changed, Some Did Not

Most and least percent difference between peaks and lows

Most difference

Food

(farm weight, lbs.)

Percent difference

Fresh lima beans

High-fructose corn syrup (daily tsp.)

Dry edible peas and lentils

Fresh mangoes

Canned cherries

Canned spinach

Canned plums

Canned apricots

Fresh limes

Fresh avocados

 

Least difference

Peanut butter

Potatoes (chips and shoestrings)

Ice Cream

Pork (retail)

Fresh celery

Fresh apples

Canned tomatoes

Tea

Butter

Flour (wheat, white, durum)

200%

197

195

190

188

187

186

182

179

177

 

 

38%

37

35

34

33

33

31

31

29

29

Most difference

Per capita availability

1970-2015

Food

(farm weight, lbs.)

Percent difference

Peak

Low

Fresh lima beans

0.07

19.81

2.30

2.87

0.45

0.85

0.23

1.14

3.07

7.03

0.00

0.17

0.03

0.07

0.01

0.03

0.01

0.05

0.17

0.43

199.5%

196.6

195.4

189.8

188.2

187.3

186.7

181.8

179.2

176.8

High-fructose corn syrup

(daily teaspoons)

Dry edible peas and lentils

Fresh mangoes

Canned cherries

Canned spinach

Canned plums

Canned apricots

Fresh limes

Fresh avocados

Least difference

37.8%

37.4

35.2

34.1

32.9

32.8

31.2

30.9

29.0

28.8

Peanut butter

3.93

19.94

17.43

60.56

7.56

21.43

77.11

0.99

5.61

146.77

2.68

13.65

12.22

42.90

5.42

15.39

56.29

0.73

4.19

109.83

Potatoes

(for chips, shoestrings)

Ice cream

Pork

(retail weight, lbs.)

Fresh celery

Fresh apples

Canned tomatoes

Tea

Butter

Flour

(Wheat, white, durum)

Most difference

Least difference

Per capita availability

1970-2015

Per capita availability

1970-2015

Food

(farm weight, lbs.)

Percent difference

Percent difference

Food

(farm weight, lbs.)

Fresh lima beans

199.5%

196.6

195.4

189.8

188.2

187.3

186.7

181.8

179.2

176.8

37.8%

37.4

35.2

34.1

32.9

32.8

31.2

30.9

29.0

28.8

Peanut butter

Potatoes

(for chips, shoestrings)

High-fructose corn syrup

(daily teaspoons)

Ice cream

Dry edible peas and lentils

Fresh mangoes

Canned cherries

Canned spinach

Canned plums

Canned apricots

Fresh limes

Fresh avocados

Pork

(retail weight, lbs.)

Fresh celery

Fresh apples

Canned tomatoes

Tea

Butter

Flour

(Wheat, white, durum)

Most difference

Least difference

Per capita availability

1970-2015

Per capita availability

1970-2015

Food

(farm weight, lbs.)

Percent difference

Percent difference

Food

(farm weight, lbs.)

Peak

Low

Peak

Low

Fresh lima beans

0.07

19.81

2.30

2.87

0.45

0.85

0.23

1.14

3.07

7.03

0.00

0.17

0.03

0.07

0.01

0.03

0.01

0.05

0.17

0.43

199.5%

196.6

195.4

189.8

188.2

187.3

186.7

181.8

179.2

176.8

37.8%

37.4

35.2

34.1

32.9

32.8

31.2

30.9

29.0

28.8

Peanut butter

3.93

19.94

17.43

60.56

7.56

21.43

77.11

0.99

5.61

146.77

2.68

13.65

12.22

42.90

5.42

15.39

56.29

0.73

4.19

109.83

Potatoes

(for chips, shoestrings)

High-fructose corn syrup

(daily teaspoons)

Ice cream

Dry edible peas and lentils

Fresh mangoes

Canned cherries

Canned spinach

Canned plums

Canned apricots

Fresh limes

Fresh avocados

Pork

(retail weight, lbs.)

Fresh celery

Fresh apples

Canned tomatoes

Tea

Butter

Flour

(Wheat, white, durum)

But some standbys have weathered the years. Peanut butter remains popular, despite a rise in allergies. Butter and flour are household mainstays, and people still like ice cream for dessert. If time travelers from 1970 walked into a U.S. supermarket, they'd find the variety of products and packaging eye-opening, but their grocery list could still be filled. They might just wonder why there’s a coffee shop inside, how their chickens got so huge and why their favorite canned foods now appear to be preserved in clear plastic containers.

When Every Food Hit Its Peak

Ranked by percent difference from its consumption low

0-50%
50-100%
100-150%
150-200%
1970s
1970
  • Eggs 48%
  • Barley products 50%
  • Coffee 57%
  • Fresh potatoes 59%
  • Fresh oranges and temples 74%
  • Frozen lima beans 106%
  • Whole milk 131%
  • Condensed or evaporated milk 134%
  • Canned apricots 182%
  • Canned cherries 188%
’70
1971
  • Pork 34%
  • Canned pineapples 64%
  • Canned peaches 90%
  • Creamed cottage cheese 134%
  • Frozen blackberries 152%
  • Canned plums 187%
’71
1972
  • Refined cane and beet sugars 52%
  • Canned sweet corn 95%
  • Lamb 111%
’72
1973
  • Fresh celery 33%
  • Instant coffee 57%
  • Sherbet 58%
  • Canned apples and applesauce 62%
  • Rye flour 91%
  • Canned carrots 117%
  • Canned green peas 129%
  • Hazelnuts 146%
  • Fresh escarole and endive 146%
’73
1974
  • Canned grapes 127%
  • Canned potatoes 152%
’74
1975
  • Ice cream 35%
  • Veal 175%
’75
1976
  • Cured fish and shellfish 52%
  • Beef 55%
  • Cucumber pickles 74%
  • Fresh grapefruit 122%
  • Canned spinach 187%
’76
1977
’77
1978
  • Canned olives 110%
’78
1979
  • Canned pears 83%
’79
1980s
1980
  • Fresh peaches and nectarines 82%
’80
1981
’81
1982
  • Fresh cranberries 121%
’82
1983
  • Dried apples 67%
  • Orange juice 67%
’83
1984
  • Frozen cauliflower 103%
’84
1985
  • Fresh apricots 87%
’85
1986
  • Canned fish and shellfish 47%
  • Snack peanuts 55%
’86
1987
  • Frozen cherries 79%
  • Fresh plums and prunes 116%
’87
1988
  • Pecans 60%
  • Raisins 74%
’88
1989
  • Fresh apples 33%
  • Fresh lettuce head 72%
  • Fresh radishes 74%
  • Dried prunes 87%
  • 2 percent milk 96%
  • Fresh cauliflower 108%
’89
1990s
1990
  • Grapefruit juice 142%
’90
1991
  • Canned tomatoes 31%
  • Frozen green peas 41%
  • Oat products 54%
’91
1992
  • Dry beans 43%
’92
1993
  • Fresh cabbage 39%
’93
1994
  • Canned mushrooms 69%
  • Dried apricots 132%
’94
1995
’95
1996
  • Frozen sweet corn 64%
  • Frozen potatoes 72%
  • Frozen carrots 81%
  • Corn starch 88%
’96
1997
  • Wheat flour 29%
  • Fresh carrots 91%
  • Skim milk 104%
  • Frozen apples 126%
’97
1998
  • Fresh sweet corn 46%
  • Fresh pumpkin 71%
’98
1999
  • Fresh melon 50%
  • Fresh bananas 55%
  • Fresh pears 60%
  • Onions for dehydrating 100%
  • Fresh garlic 167%
  • High fructose corn syrup 197%
’99
2000s
2000
’00
2001
’01
2002
  • Fresh lima beans 200%
’02
2003
  • Fresh mustard greens 113%
’03
2004
  • Fresh onions 73%
  • Frozen spinach 128%
  • Macadamia 142%
’04
2005
  • Cocoa 67%
  • Frozen broccoli 100%
  • Fresh grapes 109%
  • Fresh spinach 157%
’05
2006
  • Fresh or frozen fish and shellfish 58%
  • Fresh lemons 76%
  • Fresh turnip greens 79%
  • Fresh artichokes 109%
’06
2007
  • Frozen snap beans 59%
  • Fresh snap beans 69%
  • Fresh eggplant 90%
  • Grape juice 105%
  • Lofat cottage cheese 131%
  • Frozen peaches 136%
  • Apple juice 142%
’07
2008
  • Rice  113%
’08
2009
  • Walnuts 52%
  • Fresh cherries 138%
’09
2010s
2010
  • Peanut butter 38%
  • Fresh romaine and leaf 134%
’10
2011
  • Tea 31%
  • Fresh tomatoes 60%
  • Corn flour and meal 110%
  • Fresh okra 117%
  • Hominy and grits 143%
’11
2012
  • Canned chile peppers 81%
  • Fresh squash 111%
  • Almonds 154%
  • Pistachios 155%
’12
2013
  • Fresh strawberries 134%
  • Fresh mangoes 190%
’13
2014
  • Potatoes for chips and shoestrings 37%
  • Potato chips 37%
  • Frozen strawberries 60%
  • Fresh collard greens 82%
  • Fresh asparagus 147%
  • Fresh pineapples 167%
  • Fresh avocados 177%
  • Fresh limes 179%
’14
2015
  • Butter 29%
  • Fresh kale 61%
  • Honey 62%
  • American Cheese 67%
  • Fresh sweet potatoes 70%
  • Chicken 84%
  • Fresh cucumbers 93%
  • Fresh brussels sprouts 110%
  • Tangerines and tangelos 119%
  • Dried dates 127%
  • Fresh bell peppers 135%
  • Edible syrups 139%
  • Fresh kiwifruit 146%
  • Frozen raspberries 162%
  • Fresh mushroom 165%
  • Fresh papayas 173%
  • Fresh broccoli 173%
  • Fresh blueberries 175%
  • Frozen blueberries 175%
  • Dry peas and lentils 195%
’15