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40 years of a changing American diet, in one massive chart

You don't eat the way your parents did. You can probably see that by just glancing at a cookbook from the 1960s or '70s. (So much Jell-O. So much canned food.) But you can quantify those differences more precisely using data from the USDA. Below, in one giant chart, we have compiled how Americans' eating patterns have changed over a generation.

The data shows the change in per capita availability since 1972 of a wide variety of foods that the USDA tracks. (The farthest back that many foods go is 1970, though some go farther; we made it around 40 years, though for select groups indicated on the chart, the data doesn't quite cover that whole period.) This available data doesn't show exact consumption levels — rather, it shows the total supply divided by the number of Americans. However, it does give a good sense of how Americans' eating patterns are changing over time.

What it shows is that we've really cut back on a lot of canned, frozen, and dried produce in favor of fresh produce. And while that may sound great for our health, the one food whose availability has grown the most is also terrible for us: high-fructose corn syrup.

Food chart

(Anand Katakam/Vox)

What has changed over 40 years? For one, you might notice there are a lot of olive-green bars toward the bottom. We're all eating a lot more fresh fruits and vegetables than we used to. That's in part a story about changing tastes, but it's also about economics — globalization and trade deals like NAFTA have given Americans more access to a wealth of fruits such as limes and avocados. And it appears those foods have replaced preserved or processed produce — many of the foods whose availability has shrunk are those maroon bars that represent canned, frozen, or dried produce.

While we're eating a lot more fresh fruits and veggies than before, we're not getting healthier all around. High-fructose corn syrup consumption has skyrocketed. Back in 1972 — right around the time that it was first introduced — we had 1.2 pounds per capita of the syrup available to us. Today, it's 46.2 pounds ... and that's in fact down substantially from a high of 63 pounds in 1999.

Of course, don't let the numbers fool you on a few of these — some of the massive growth came because of very small numbers. For example, it's not that we're eating piles and piles of lima beans today; rather, it's that we were eating only 0.0005 pounds in 1989 versus 0.007 pounds in 2012 — a huge percentage gain in growth from an initially very small number.

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