Food Evolution
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20 Foods Americans Eat Now That They Never Heard of 20 Years Ago

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Food Evolution
Courtesy of happy_lark/istockphoto

Food Evolution

It seems the pace of everything in American culture is accelerated these days, and cuisine is no exception. The 21st century’s increased emphasis on health and local foods has brought with it a slew of now-commonplace ingredients that most diners would have been baffled to see on their supermarket shelves even two decades ago. This list rounds up some newer culinary staples. 

Related: 15 Ways Restaurants Have Changed Over the Past Decade

Tofu
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bowl of kale
bowl of kale by Stacy Spensley (CC BY)

Kale

Before kale became a staple in Caesar salads and juice bowls in the early 2010s, the largest consumer of the hearty green was Pizza Hut, which was using it as a garnish in their salad bars. From 2007 to 2012, U.S. kale production increased nearly 60%. That leap in kale’s popularity has a lot to do with its superfood-worthy nutritional profile, which is rich in iron, calcium, and vitamins A, K, and C, as well as the fact that it can be dried into chips for shelf-stable snacking. 

Related: 25 Vegetables with the Same Benefits as Kale

Kombucha
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Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented tea drink whose Chinese origins date back to around 220 B.C., but it only entered American domestic markets in the mid-90s, when leading brand GT's Kombucha was founded. Thanks to a Whole Foods recall concerning some brands’ alcohol content in 2010, increased consumer awareness led to a 28% sales increase by June 2011. Despite some overblown claims about its health benefits, the tangy beverage has continued growing in popularity, with 51% of older millennials now drinking it, driving $534 million in sales in 2016.

Nutella
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Nutella

Founded in Italy in 1964, Nutella became a heavily-memed foodie phenomenon in the U.S. around 2009, with sales tripling in the following five years. The chocolate-hazelnut spread had been a staple in Europe for decades and first made it to American markets in 1983, but only began making a mainstream impact thanks to an advertising push by the brand in recent years, manifesting in Nutella-oriented merchandise, social media accounts, and even an unofficial holiday.

Quinoa
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Quinoa

A spike in demand for the nutrient-packed grain, grown almost exclusively in South America, was driven by more than a decade of U.N.-financed development of new processing plants raising the grain’s profitability. In 2018, the U.S. alone imported 74.3 million pounds of quinoa.

Rolled Ice Cream
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Organic Sweet Light Agave Syrup in a Bowl
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Agave

The number of agave products available more than tripled between 2003 and 2007, thanks in part to public perceptions about its healthfulness. Though not entirely founded — many processed agave syrups offer negligible benefits over high-fructose corn syrup — agave is up to three times as sweet as table sugar, so at least it takes less of it to brighten up your morning tea.

Mezcal
Mezcal by Aaron Rodriguez (CC BY-NC-ND)

Mezcal

Mezcal — a type of alcohol derived from the agave plant — has also entered the public consciousness in a big way in recent years, appearing on upscale cocktail lists and even spawning bars devoted to the complex, sometimes smoky spirit. (Tequila is, in fact, a type of mezcal that is derived solely from blue agave and only produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco and other designated regions.) Growing demand for mezcal has even led to concerns of depleting the wild agave fields of Mexico. Still, U.S. shipments roughly quadrupled in the five years leading up to 2018.

Avocado
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Avocado

Before avocado toast became an Instagram cliché, avocados were known as "alligator pears," and import restrictions banned shipments from Mexico into the late '90s. Though it wasn't as unheard of as others on this list, the average American ate only 1.5 pounds of avocado at that time, compared to nearly 7.5 pounds in 2018.

Coconut Oil and Fresh Coconuts
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Coconut Oil

Coconut oil saw a burst of popularity beginning in 2011 and peaking with $229 million in sales in 2015, which can be partially attributed to vegan and paleo dietary trends. Sales came back down to earth with increased skepticism of certain health claims and a denunciation by the American Heart Association in 2017.

Kimchi
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Kimchi

The traditional dish of fermented cabbage called kimchi has become increasingly well known as a staple at Korean barbecue restaurants and an ingredient in fusion cuisine like kimchi quesadillas. The 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul helped introduce kimchi to the Western world, but health trends and an increasingly global (and food-obsessed) culture helped popularize it.

Poke
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Poke

According to Foursquare, the number of U.S. restaurants specializing in poke and other Hawaiian dishes more than doubled between 2014 and 2016. The most consistent growth has been in states with large Hawaiian populations, indicating the spike in interest is driven in part by their increased migration to the mainland U.S.

Gluten-Free Foods
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Boba
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Boba

Boba is shorthand for bubble teas, which are usually milk-based with chewy tapioca pearls (the "boba"), fruit jellies and other edible garnishes added. Invented in the 1980s, the Taiwanese night market specialty has become a global phenomenon. Its popularity is also emblematic of the increasing presence in American cuisine of tea, which 87% of millennials now drink regularly.

Greek Yogurt with Honey and Cinnamon
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Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt can be twice as expensive as other yogurts, but that didn't stop sales from increasing 2,500% during the Great Recession. The thick, slightly sour yogurt’s ascendancy was accompanied by plenty of dubious health claims, but another reason behind its popularity may be a growing dislike of processed, sweetened yogurts.

Cold-Pressed Juices
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Cold-Pressed Juice

Though Jamba Juice and other smoothie places — that tended to focus on fruit-heavy, often sugary beverages — date back further, New York's first health-focused juice bars opened in 1999, and were followed by a wave of similar establishments in other cities. Combined with home juicers, the market grew to a net worth of $100 million by 2015.

Acai
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Acai

Acai bowls, ultra-thick fruit smoothies often topped with granola and prepared with the titular South American fruit, were once confined to the Amazon River delta. Global acai consumption exploded first in Brazil and then North America in 2000. This was due primarily to a pair of surfers who formed a company called Sambazon to package and export frozen acai pulp, then started marketing their purported "superfood" product at juice bars throughout Southern California.

Chia Seeds
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Chia Seeds

Before they became a common topping for smoothie bowls and granola cereals, chia seeds were best known for being the basis of Chia Pets. The mild-tasting seed is rich in nutritional benefits and omega fatty acids, but it wasn’t on Americans' radar as a food item until a 2009 book explained how ancient Mayan and Aztec runners used chia seeds to boost endurance. By 2014, awareness of chia seeds had a 10-point jump from 2010.

Snack Bin
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Almonds

Until the late '90s, almonds were just another mixed nut, barely edging out walnuts and pecans in Americans' buying habits. Thanks to a dedicated marketing campaign, between 2005 and 2014 demand rose by 220%, so the average American was then consuming more than 2 pounds per year, compared to a quarter-pound in the '70s.

Almond Milk
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Nut Milk

Increased interest in veganism led to a larger market for dairy alternatives like rice, hemp, and cashew milk. Almond milk has been by far the most popular, contributing to almond's annual production weight increasing from under 1 billion pounds in 2005 to 2.15 billion in 2016. Unfortunately, this new cash crop is having hefty environmental impacts.