We're looking back at oddball food trends and nutritional nonsense. By: Jenny Everett
Bacon milk shakes! Inhalable snacks! In the year of Cooking Light's 25th birthday, we look back at some weird, wacky, and occasionally alarming trends that have bubbled up in the stew pot
of the collective food consciousness. Fetch a cold glass of hemp milk, and settle down for a look back in bafflement. We'll
start in 1987.
1987 | The frank gets longer
Portion growth in 2012 is old news: In 1987, the 6.5-ounce bottle of cola is already a relic, having been replaced by 10-ounce cans and 12-ounce bottles. Bagels have ballooned from 3- to 5- or 6-inch rounds. Why not weenies? American hot dogs had been about 4.8 inches long since the late 1800s, nestled in buns that were longer than the sausage. Now Oscar Mayer introduces the bun-length hot dog. The new, adjusted tube steaks are 6 inches, with 2g more sat fat (a 40% increase) and 40 more calories (a 30% increase).
Most headline-making food scandals since the '80s have centered on bacteria or impurities, but here we find an old-style adulteration scandal, harkening back to the 19th century: Beech-Nut Nutrition, the big baby food maker, is accused by the FDA of marketing and selling a blend of beet sugar, cane sugar syrup, and corn syrup as "apple juice" for babies. The resulting $2 million fine is the largest to date and comes on top of a $7.5 million class-action lawsuit.
The legendary Wilford Brimley "Right Thing to Do" ad campaign for Quaker Oats debuts, and the power of oats to lower blood cholesterol levels is much in the air. Meanwhile, Cooking Light is launched—and one of our first cover-story recipes is this spinach-mushroom pizza with a formidable oatmeal crust. In retrospect (we cooked one the other day), this might not have been our finest hour; nor was it the tastiest use of oatmeal in the kitchen. We still love oatmeal, of course—but a light and crisp pizza dough it doth not make. Ten years after Brimley's oatmeal endorsement, the FDA allows Quaker to make health claims about oatmeal on its labels.
Distinctively bearded Surgeon General C. Everett Koop announces that America's high-fat diet is a health crisis of a magnitude comparable to smoking. This is a claim with the highest possible historical resonance, given the impact on tobacco policy and public attitudes following the landmark 1964 Surgeon General's report on smoking. And indeed the '80s become the decade of fat's worst PR. The 30%-of-calories-from-fat goal is received as conventional wisdom, and major health groups push low-fat diets. But only a few years later, another theory begins to take hold: Some fats are, in fact, health-promoting (much attention is paid to the Mediterranean diet). By 1993, we're beginning to learn that types of fat—healthy monos and polys, unhealthy sats and trans—matter more than amounts.
A few years after the egg suffers its own public relations low point—appearing on an unhappy-face cover of Time magazine in 1984 as part of a story about cholesterol—an independent medical researcher named Artemis Simopoulos publishes a letter in The New England Journal of Medicine comparing the fatty acid content of eggs from Greek chickens who ate a diet high in purslane, a plant naturally rich in heart-healthy omega-3s, to that of ordinary commercial eggs. Soon, the first omega-3—enhanced eggs go on sale. By 2012, the egg—omega-3—enhanced or not—has been fully rehabilitated as part of a healthy diet.
The Natural Resources Defense Council publishes a report saying that Alar, a chemical used to extend apples' shelf life, could cause cancer. 60 Minutes does a show with a skull-and-crossbones icon. Although only 5% of apples in the market contain Alar, sales plummet nationwide. Washington state farmers alone lose at least $125 million. Alar is withdrawn. Was it that dangerous? Years later, that remains unclear.
In the early '90s, as the war against fat in the American diet heats up, the bird-in-a-bucket chain changes its name to KFC, ostensibly to downplay the "fried" factor. In 2004, Slate.com notes that the company has begun using the phrase "Kitchen Fresh Chicken." In 2009, a menu item, KGC—Kentucky Grilled Chicken—gains its own Facebook page, though in early 2012 there are only two posts (and a comment saying KGC is "the shiznit"). Still, KFC's biggest marketing sensation turns out to be something entirely different: the 2010 introduction of the infamous Double Down—two pieces of fried chicken, bacon, cheese, 37g fat, and 1,880mg sodium.
A couple of years before rail-thin Kate Moss will radically change the "ideal" figure of young women, The High Self-Esteem Toys Corporation debuts its Happy To Be Me doll. It has "a wider waist, larger feet, shorter neck, and shorter legs" than Barbie, reports The New York Times. The worthy idea: promote healthier body image in young girls, who fall prey to eating disorders. If enlarged to real-life size, Happy would have a figure of 36-27-38, compared to Barbie's big-busted, Twiggy-waisted 36-18-33. The red-headed doll gets a fair amount of attention from media, less from young girls. Barbie, 31 years old in 1991, survives. Unused Happy dolls sell for $25 to $65 on eBay and Amazon in 2012.
Lisa and Homer are watching TV in episode number 3.23 when an ad comes on: "We take 18 ounces of sizzling ground beef and soak it in rich, creamery butter, then we top it off with bacon, ham, and a fried egg. We call it The Good Morning Burger." Homer salivates, but a worried Lisa convinces him to diet using audiotapes that promise you'll "lose weight while you sleep." The company sends him vocabulary-building cassettes instead. When Marge asks why they're not working, he responds, "Here in the boudoir, the gourmand metamorphosizes into the voluptuary!"
For the first time, the government health agency is able to collect stats on body mass index numbers for the whole country. In 1995, one state has an obesity rate of more than 20% of the population. By 1999, that's true of 23 states. By 2004, all but six. By 2010, every state has at least that percentage, and in 16 states, more than 30% of the population is obese.
In 1996, the FDA approves Olestra, a no-calorie fat substitute discovered almost 30 years earlier. In 1998, Frito-Lay introduces potato chips containing Olestra. Problem: The FDA requires a warning about risk of abdominal cramping and loose stools caused by overconsumption of the indigestible substance—and the unfortunate phrase "anal leakage" goes into heavy rotation on late-night comedy shows. Olestra snack sales go belly-up. In 2009, Scientific American reports a new use for the unloved fat sub: an eco-friendly alternative to oil-based paints and lubricants.
Brothers George and Richard Shea found the International Federation of Competitive Eating to bring a consistent set of rules to stuffing one's face with staggering amounts of food. A wider audience develops for such figures as Don Lerman (6 pounds of baked beans in 1 minute, 46 seconds—everyone clear the area!) and Joey Chestnut (66 hot dogs in 12 minutes to unseat 6-time reigning champion Takeru Kobayashi).
As any viewer of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives knows, huge burgers are local fetish foods. But Hardee's has the steel to make a chain-wide play in 2004 when it introduces the Monster Thick-burger: 2/3 pound of beef, 4 slices of bacon, 3 slices of cheese, and mayo for good measure. The 2012 version weighs in at 92g fat, 35g sat fat, 1,290 calories, 2,840mg sodium—less than the original, still more than three Big Macs over at McDonald's.
A University of Arizona study finds that 84% of TV food ads aimed at kids are for products that fall into the worst nutritional category. By 2009: 72%.
The original USDA Food Pyramid, introduced in 1992, was fairly clear: Eat more of the food on the bottom than the top. So, the government gets busy and makes it much less clear with a baffling 2005 version. One side has an inexplicable staircase with people climbing up it, and a pile of food at the bottom. The tagline is "Steps to a Healthier You." Pyramid power is scrapped in 2011 and replaced with the much-clearer "My Plate" design.
Deen, one of the last quarter-century's true champions of high-fat foods, causes a minor web ruckus in 2006, when she drinks butter—or, as we judge it upon reviewing the tape, pretends to—from a bowl on one of her TV shows. She tops this in 2011 when she licks butter off the abs of Food Network muscle man/chef Robert Irvine, and then rides him like a horse. Early in 2012, she makes headlines after announcing that she has been suffering from type 2 diabetes for some time—and simultaneously announcing a diabetes drug--endorsement deal.
In an episode of The Office, Michael Scott and crew are at a swanky Scranton bar drinking 20-year-old single malt, a gift from Lee Iacocca. When Michael takes a swig, he chokes and asks for Splenda. In a later episode, Scott exclaims, "Scotch and Splenda: Tastes like Splenda, gets you drunk like scotch!"
ESPN signed up to broadcast the revolting Coney Island hot dog eating contest way back in 2004, but Adam Richman's Man vs. Food on The Travel Channel brings competitive eating to a whole new level. The show, stripped of virtually any culinary interest, focuses on Richman's sweaty battles to eat things such as, in the first season, the "7½-pound Kookamunga burger." Food Network star Alton Brown calls Richman's show disgusting. A fascinated/horrified U.K. Guardian newspaper blogger writes: "Richman is chirpy and cocky, shovelling handfuls of meat down his neck with the gluttonous abandon of a self-aware Homer Simpson."
Eat a banana in the morning. That's it. Oh, and have a glass of lukewarm water. Really, that's about it. Eat what you want at lunch and dinner. Don't exercise unless you feel like it. Go to bed by midnight. Questions? A social-network frenzy erupts over "Asa Banana Diet" in Japan, with all the mandatory books, magazine covers, and starlet weight-loss claims, climaxing in a stampede for the long, yellow fruit that clears out Japanese markets. Then comes an American push of an English-language version called The Morning Banana Diet. There's a mild bit of media interest, but it flops.
... is to inhale it—literally. Harvard University professor David Edwards bets a French chef he can develop inhalable foods. Working with students, he produces chocolate-flavored LeWhif in 2008. A device somewhere between a lipstick tube and an asthma inhaler delivers particles "small enough to become airborne though too large to enter the lungs" to the tongue, and, voilà, "you have an experience of flavor without a single calorie." On TV, Colbert inhales, chokes. Edwards then eyes the huge energy-drink industry and launches a caffeine-powder and B-vitamin Aeroshot in 2011.
Pixar's 2008 hit film Wall-e draws a dotted line between obesity and ecological catastrophe. Then, in 2009, British scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine claim that a country with a lean population will consume almost 20% less food than a fat country like the U.S., yielding a smaller carbon footprint—in part because agriculture is a significant contributor to global warming, and in part, the authors said, because adiposity causes people to drive around in cars more often than walk. Most over-the-top headline that follows release of the paper: "Are Fat People Destroying the Earth?" But a writer on Slate.com, tracing the history of the obesity-ecology myth to the '70s, calls the argument fatuous: "The fattest people in the nation are not, as a group, the same folks you'd find driving Hummers or jetting back and forth between New York and L.A."
Big food companies team with academics to devise Smart Choices, a nutrition label designed to get simpler, clearer info on the front of packages. (The longer Nutrition Facts panel on the back was mandated by law in 1990.) Even Michael Jacobson—whose Center for Science in the Public Interest is the nation's leading nutrition-activism gadfly—is initially on board but quits amid controversy over the kinds of foods that are being labeled smart. The FDA finds the labels confusing, too, and a Tufts University nutrition dean ends up making an egg-on-face explanation to The New York Times about why sugary cereals got the Smart Choices nod.
Mostly for a lark, a New York photographer releases pictures of a Happy Meal that did not rot after six months at room temperature. Could chemical preservatives cause the failure to decay? Global publicity extends all the way to the Hindustan Times. Weirdly, one guy reports he has been keeping non-rotting burgers in his basement since 1989. Only problem with the chemical theory: It's wrong. Kenji Lopez-Alt, of SeriousEats.com, sets up his own experiment, in which neither homemade nor fast-food burgers actually rot. "There's not enough moisture, and bacteria needs moisture to grow," he says. "Truth is, a burger made at McDonald's, because of all their systems, is probably cleaner than one made at a mom-and-pop shop."
The Atkins approach, which replaces starchy carbs with lots of fatty meat, had been selling books since the early '70s, and stoked the low-carb frenzy of the '90s. Then two studies published in 2010, which followed women since 1980, conclude that all that sat fat is not good: "A low-carbohydrate diet based on animal sources was associated with higher all-cause mortality in both men and women, whereas a vegetable-based low-carbohydrate diet was associated with lower... mortality rates." Message: Go low-carb if you want, but focus on veggies.
Dogged by public concern that high-fructose corn syrup poses a risk for obesity and diabetes, the Corn Refiners Association petitions the FDA to change the widely used sweetener's name to "corn sugar." According to a 2009 study, 58% of American consumers worry that HFCS poses a special health hazard. In fact, the composition of most HFCS is quite similar to white sugar (55% fructose versus 50% fructose), meaning there's not much difference between the two. Sugar producers fire back by lobbying the FDA to block the change, charging it would mislead consumers and taint regular sugar's reputation.
Maggie Goes on a Diet, a rhyming tale of a 14- year-old girl who goes on a diet and becomes a school soccer star, is published. Even before publication, critics start circling. Yes, they agree, obesity is a problem, but positive body image and a healthy relationship with food are not likely the outcome of getting on the diet bandwagon early. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, 42% of 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-grade girls want to be thinner. Hawaii-based author/self-publisher Paul Kramer doesn't help matters when he appears on Fox News insisting, "I'm not advocating, never did, that any child should go on a diet."
Soylent Green will not be people: Dutch researchers announce they have grown thin, bloodless strips of pork in a lab, laying the groundwork for eventual commercial meat production. A proof-of-concept lab "hamburger" would cost about $330,000, lead researcher Mark Post says (not far north of the cost of fancy burgers in some upscale Manhattan restaurants these days), but it predicts the launch of a new, ecofriendly industry. Heston Blumenthal, molecular gastronomy–minded chef behind Britain's much-lauded The Fat Duck, signs on to be the first to cook the mystery meat in the fall of 2012.
Walter Isaacson's bio of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs turns out to be one of the most fascinating accounts ever of the dietary obsessions of an American genius. Jobs was not only a vegan, but also a sometime faster, a cleanser, a fruitarian, a smoothie king, and an occasional mono-dieter, sometimes going for weeks at a time eating only one food, such as apples or carrots. What Jobs ate, so ate guests in his spartan home. Blustery Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch is quoted as joking, "Eating dinner at Steve's is a great experience, as long as you get out before the local restaurants close." But in the end, Jobs' diet seems less about taste or even health than a quest for an aesthetic/ascetic perfection—not unlike the design of his beautiful, world-changing machines.
Jack in the Box's bacon milk shake debuts to Internet hoots, tweets, Likes, and scorn. "It's for real," ads proclaim, although in fact it's made with "bacon-flavored syrup" that may be vegetarian and, web wags speculate, possibly even kosher. Either way, a large shake is 1,081 calories with 54g of very real fat.