Bygone Food Trends: What if We Ate Like it Was 1994? Foodie Underground


Column What if we ate like it was 1994?

In a world where we are inundated with food trends (I’m looking at you, cronuts) and a handful of hip diets (the P word) it makes you get nostalgic for a simpler time. In fact don’t we often use the “eat food your grandmother would recognize” line? But what happens when we go back in time? Turns out you have to go back a long time before things get simple again.

I decided to go back 20 years to see what Foodie Underground would have written about – and what we would have been eating – in 1994.

According to a December 1994 article in the New York Times, “Fat is up, but so is low fat. Organic foods are growing; pretzels are, too. When it comes to vegetables, iceberg lettuce is still a favorite.”

Ah yes, the wonderful low fat era, that made us demonize fat and buy a bunch of products with high sugar content in the process. This was the “food product” era, when food science could solve everything. Which is probably why Snackwell’s, the line of reduced-fat cookies and crackers, outsold Oreos in 1994, which up until then had been America’s favorite cookie.

We can look back now and laugh at our silly young selves and say “but a processed cookie is still a processed cookie, just look at the ingredient list!” but we didn’t know any better. Oh and also, the vanilla cream sandwich was the best seller. Nothing says “healthy cookie” like vanilla cream.

According to that same New York Times article, “Of the most popular foods in the nation’s diet, whole milk, cola and margarine provide the most calories, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Also in the top 10 are sugar, low-fat milk, rolls and buns, white flour, white bread, American cheese and ground beef.”

So you were looking at a plate with a beef hamburger, served with a can of coke, and probably with a margarine slathered roll on the side for good measure. Yum.

And oh how that diet did a number on us. According to the CDC, “In 1994, almost all states had prevalence of obesity less than 18%.” And in 2010, “almost all states exceeded 22% and 32 of these states exceeded 26%.” All to say that in terms of public health, things have only gotten worse, probably because we consumed a few too many rolls, and also for so long we internalized that “low-fat” message, in fact, many of us still do. That and the fact that we still haven’t kicked our addiction to added sugars; our consumption of which is at about the same level as in 1994.

But thank god the margarine craze is over. While people were already writing about the “questionable wisdom” of the low-fat diet, it still took people a long to come back to the though that real butter was probably better than a processed product is beyond me. Although some of us are now trying to keep that butter balance with healthy oils.

Baked brie was in, according to this 1994 dinner party menu from Saveur, and goat cheese was already topping salads, proving that people will always have a soft spot for French inspired food. You can thank Julia Child for that.

Apparently the first ever online purchase was a pizza from Pizza Hut. It was all downhill from there.

But with the low-fat foods in full swing and the organic food craze that was just starting, it would seem that we were in the process of trying to become more health conscious. Or at least conscious of nutritionism, which we all know has its flaws. As Michael Pollan so famously wrote almost a decade ago, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.”

In 1994 however, we weren’t quite there yet. As a matter of fact, I am still not sure we’re all really there. Twenty years later and we’re still consuming food products like nobody’s business; we’re headed towards a public health crisis caused by antibiotic resistance and we’re obsessed with marketing claims – “oh! it has antioxidants in it!”

1994 was the year the the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was  enacted by Congress, “following public debate concerning the importance of dietary supplements in promoting health.” That didn’t mean the FDA was fully regulating them, it just outlined how they should be labeled. In fact although dietary supplement manufacturing facilities must be registered under DSHEA with the FDA they do not have to get FDA approval before making or selling their products. Basically the manufacturers are excluded from all regulations that are used for over the counter and prescription drugs.

Since then they’ve boomed. Nowadays about 40 percent of Americans take a multivitamin, and we spend more than $28 billion per year on vitamin supplements. We’re now starting to come around to the fact that multivitamins aren’t really all they’re cracked up to be. And while our Standard American Diet leaves us in desperately lacking in nutrients, now we know that pills aren’t necessarily the way to get them. “Usually it is best to try to get these vitamins and minerals and nutrients from food as opposed to supplements,” Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

If a look back at food trends from twenty years ago teaches us anything, it’s the same lesson I keep repeating on Foodie Underground each week: eat real food. Definitely not low-fat pretzels. You don’t want to seem like you’re living in the ’90s now do you?

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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at

Image: Reuben Bedingfield

Anna Brones

Anna Brones is a food + travel writer with a love for coffee and bikes. She is the author of The Culinary Cyclist and Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. Catch her weekly column, Foodie Underground.