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Health Food Industry


HEALTH FOOD INDUSTRY. The health food industry, a $4-billion-dollar-a-year business in the early 1990s, was founded on the fact that American consumers increasingly regarded health as a primary concern when buying food. The average food bill per individual at that time was more than four thousand dollars per year, of which almost half was spent on food away from home. As people became more concerned about healthful food in the 1980s and 1990s, consumption of organic foods increased. Because they are cultivated without synthetic additives, fertilizers, or pesticides—some of which are proven carcinogens that often leach into public water supplies—organic foods are better for consumers because many pesticides are systemic, meaning that the food absorbs so that they cannot be washed off. Organic coffee began gaining popularity as an alternative to conventional coffee sprayed with synthetic chemicals. From the late 1970s, increasing numbers of U.S. consumers turned to bottled water as an alternative to alcohol and chlorinated tap water as part of a health regimen.

Beside natural foods, food supplements such as vitamins and herbal products made up a large part of the health food industry. These supplements constituted a form of alternative medicine for people disenchanted with over-the-counter drugs and concerned about side effects of pharmaceuticals. Despite Food and Drug Administration regulations prohibiting the manufacturers of food supplements from making specific medical claims, sales of herbal supplements rose 70 percent to $22.7 million in supermarkets alone during 1993.

The health food industry bonanza was largely based on the connection made by the scientific community between disease and fatty foods, and on the fact that the average consumer in the United States ate more than sixty-five pounds of fat each year. Many manufacturers began to make processed foods with low-fat and low-calorie ingredients and claimed that these products were more healthful and more nutritious than the more standard options. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the food industry reduced fat content in meat, cheese, dips, dressings, and desserts. A number of firms promoted vegetarian burgers. Mail-order businesses for natural foods thrived. Some firms produced natural and organic meats by raising drug-free animals; others produced meat alternatives based on soy and wheat protein. Alternative restaurants came in four types: vegetarian, vegan, health food, and organic. Foods such as venison, buffalo, odorless garlic, and quinoa became popular in these restaurants. McDonald's Corporation experimented in the 1990s with a healthful burger, the McLean, developed by replacing fat with an algae product called carrageenan, a gum-like substance used to bind ingredients. A fat substitute, Simplesse, was developed in the form of frozen ice cream with half the calories of regular ice cream. Another 1990s trend in fast, healthful food was called sous-vide food, consisting of food items sealed in vacuum-packed bags, in which they could remain fresh for weeks and were prepared by boiling water. The use of irradiation to kill harmful bacteria in foods was being reexamined as a result of fatalities from tainted hamburgers.


Belasco, Warren J. Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took the Food Industry, 1966–1988. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Grad, Lauri Burrows. "New Foods for the '90s." Redbook (May 1992): 136–138.

Sims, Laura S. The Politics of Fat: Food and Nutrition Policy in America. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1998.

John J.Byrne/c. w.

See alsoFertilizers ; Food, Fast ; Food and Drug Administration ; Hydroponics ; Organic Farming ; Vegetarianism .

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