How food has changed

Sonnie Bailey

9 December 2022

An article inspired by an article!

Sometimes, the way to look forward is to look back. The website stacker recently published an article written by Andrew Lisa describing “50 ways food has changed in the last 50 years“.

Andrew notes: “the modern consumer would scarcely recognize the cuisine and nutrition landscape as it existed in 1969.”

The article is fascinating, and points to how much has changed in recent history. It makes me wonder about what the near future holds!

The biggest change?

The biggest change that Andrew points to is that “for the first time in all of recorded human history, people have too much food. Americans are literally eating themselves to death. Nearly 4 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.”

To put it into numbers “the average daily caloric intake jumped by 20% from about 2,200 in 1970 to about 2,600 today”. Part of this is because serving sizes have increased: for instance, “[t]he 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 3 inches and 140 calories to 6 inches and 350 calories”.

(And yes, this article is US-centric. But I’m more interested in the broad strokes than the specifics.) 

Various changes:

  • Supplements are new – “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.”

  • Sugar-free soft drinks are new: Coca-Cola released its first diet soda, Tab, in 1963. (An interesting factoid is that “low-calorie, low-sugar drinks [were marketed] not to dieters worried about their figures, but to diabetics.” That was in the 1950s and early 1960s.)
  • Related, but not mentioned in the article – Aspartame wasn’t approved by the US FDA until 1981 (after I was born)!
  • It’s only recently that foods have listed ingredients and nutritional information. The idea wasn’t suggested until 1969, and it wasn’t until The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990 “finally mandated that virtually all food sold in the United States provide clear labelling of ingredients, serving sizes, and daily intake recommendations”. (This is more evidence that disclosure isn’t always the best solution.)
  • “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.”
  • Genetic engineering (GE) wasn’t developed until 1973! “[T]he first GE food crop to win USDA approval” was Flavr Savr tomatoes, and this didn’t occur until 1992.
  • People eat out a LOT more than they used to. In 2015, “Americans spent more [money] dining out than they did on buying groceries to cook at home” for the first time. 

What hasn’t changed?

When thinking about the past and using that as a prompt for thinking about the future, it’s worth keeping the following comment from Jeff Bezos in mind:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two – because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

Protein hasn’t changed. “[O]ne 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.” 

The change that struck me the most

The thing I found most impactful is that over the last 50 years, “America’s small-and medium-sized farms [have been converted] into massive industrial factories designed to raise, contain, and slaughter animals as efficiently and inexpensively as possible”. According to the article, “roughly 94% of all animals raised for human consumption spend their lives on massive factory farms”.

This is also true for fish: “the invention of artificial granulated fish food [in the 1950s] made fish farming practical on an enormous scale”, to the extent that “[b]y 2013, farmed fish overtook… wild-caught stocks and by 2030, two-thirds of all fish consumed are projected to come from fish farms”.

Basically: we’ve industrialised cruelty. As much as the world has improved for humans, there is probably more aggregate suffering now than there ever has been. Animal-sourced products might be cheaper for us – but the externalities are massive, and the the cost is being borne by the animals being raised in these conditions.

(It’s no surprise that “[o]ver 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”…)

Presumably, this relates to US consumption. My guess is that the figure is much lower in New Zealand, at least for beef and lamb, and maybe pork. Probably not for chickens, though.

My hope – and expectation – is that this will reverse course over the next 50 years.

(A good podcast episode on the topic: The hidden costs of cheap meat – a conversation between Ezra Klein and Leah Garces.)

Other changes

Although the article is ostensibly about the last 50 years, it also references that took place before 1969. For instance:

  • “The grocery store was born in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, when the world’s first Piggly Wiggly opened.”
  • “Milk was not part of the mainstream diet until after World War I, when it was propagandized as a kind of early superfood”
  • 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 microwave oven, which first emerged a little more than 50 years ago in 1967.

What does the future hold??

The thing I’m most immediately excited about is cellular agriculture, with cultured meat being a prominent example. As a conversational gambit, I’ve been asking people about lab-grown meat for over 15 years, and the “ick” factor when people respond has reduced considerably. I suspect there will be a time when there is an “ick” factor for non-cultured meat (especially when raised in the conditions I discussed above). In any case, it’ll probably be a moot point because cultured meat will be a lot cheaper than traditionally-farmed meat, and economics often trumps our initial intuitions.

The thing that strikes me about how much food has changed is how non-obvious these significant changes have been on a day-to-day basis. Which begs the question: in what other ways will the food we eat have changed when I’m in my twilight years?


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