Microwaves, Big Macs and Diet Pills: 40 Years of Food 'Advancements'

Feb 23, 2011
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) hit its 40th anniversary this year. Looking back at four decades of food battles, the nonprofit consumer advocacy group notes, "the food world looked very different from what it is today."

"Foods like tofu, whole wheat bread, and brown rice were hard to come by," says David Schardt, senior nutritionist at CSPI. "People made their own yogurt, smoothies, and granola."

From the dawn of the microwave to the emergence of massive food bunkers stocked with imported edibles, the food industry has spent 40 years on a fast-track of innovation, and not always changing for the better. With the help of Zahra Hassanali, project coordinator at CSPI, Schardt traced the trajectory of America's taste for new, different, so-called improvements. Here are a few of the...err...highlights.

Every home should have one! (Photo: Mental Floss)

A Microwave for Every Home

"In 1971, fewer than one out of every 100 U.S. households owned a microwave oven," says Schardt. "Today, only five out of 100 don’t." Don't despair at the loss of old-fashioned home cookin' and rise of nuked cuisine: Schardt insists that the stove top is still the most popular kitchen arena for dinner prep.

Grocery Markets Get Supersized

"In 1971, a typical supermarket carried just under 8,000 items. In 2009, it was more than 48,000," Schardt says. Just think of today's Super Wal-Marts, where you can fill a prescription, grab a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, and cash a check at the in-store bank. The grocery-shopping experience was far less inclusive in the Woodstock days.

Diet Pills Catch On

"In 2010, the industry sold more than $25 billion worth of supplements in vitamin shops, supermarkets, drug

Made in (fill in the blank). (Photo: Mats Lofgren/Creative Commons)

stores, and on-line," says Schardt. Unfortunately, companies make outlandish health claims with little evidence to back them up.

Imported Foods Are No Longer a Foreign Concept

"About a quarter of our fruit, half of our nuts, and more than two-thirds of our fish and shellfish come from overseas," Schardt says. That amounts to the average American eating roughly 260 pounds of imported food per year—with an added carbon footprint to match.

To see the full list of food advancements, including the birth of the Big Mac and the death of trans fats, visit CSPI.

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