Kale Tale: How a wild cabbage erupted into trendy ‘superfood’

An old process still catapults some basic eats from chow to chic, leaving nutritionists skeptical
Kale illustration
From Spam to kale, hip eats come and go Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Its gruff, green stalks look like prison-yard weeds. To some, it tastes like a sad marriage of bark and bamboo, or like “dreams deferred.” But what’s big? What’s hip? What seems to be on nearly every meal plate and menu?


Love it or loathe it, the veggie rose and remains one of this decade’s “it” bites. And the kale craze isn’t crashing anytime soon. A member of the Brassica oleracea family of wild cabbage (like broccoli), kale rode an age-old, consumer-fueled rocket to soar from “um, do we make this stuff into pants or put it in our mouths?” to become “the cruciferous king of the superfoods.” 

But much like Spam in the 1950s, sundried tomatoes in the ‘80s, or arugula in the ‘90s, nutritionists tend not to be too jazzed about any of the latest food furors, even when the cuisine in question – say, kale – is a healthy choice.

“With kale, I’m a big fan. It’s micronutrient rich and high in fiber and phytochemicals. But I have never liked this hype that suggested you've got to eat huge amounts of kale every day,” said Dr. Mario Kratz, a public health researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. His work focuses on the relationship between diet and disease.

“It seems very plausible that even the healthiest of foods, if over-hyped and over-consumed, could have negative consequences for you,” Kratz said.

One health problem associated with over-munching kale, cabbage, or brussels sprouts is that  cruciferous vegetables contain substances that interfere with the function of the thyroid gland. “Very high intakes” of these vegetables have been linked to a deficiency of thyroid hormones, according to Oregon State University researchers. If untreated, hypothyroidism can cause obesity, joint pain, and heart disease.

Whether it's acai, goji berries or kale, many nutrition experts, including Kratz, dislike the term “superfood,” seeing it as a useless oversimplification. Instead, people would be better served to choose “balanced” veggie habits – like a portion of cabbage one day, some spinach the next, maybe a mixed salad on day three, and a bowl of vegetable soup on day four, Kratz said. 

“The overall eating or dietary pattern over the course of one’s life is what is important for health promotion and disease prevention,” said Dr. Marian Neuhouser, a Fred Hutch nutritional epidemiologist.  

In fact, some food fads even spur “less-than-healthy incarnations of healthy ingredients,” Neuhouser said. She cites kale chips as a prime example – or other vegetable crackers often laced with sodium and devoid of nutrients.

“Most of this hype is not based on science – even though some of the foods are healthy foods. They are based on marketing practices; particularly those that want to promote one food or one ingredient as being the ‘magic elixir’ or the ‘magic pill,’” Neuhouser said.

Kale’s ascension from former garnish (at least, in the U.S.) to dinner darling followed a well-worn path that’s similarly hoisted chia seeds and heirloom radishes to hipster status. But the pop-culture machinery that elevates exotic ingredients to hot eats is essentially using the same gears that helped pineapple become a thing in the 1920s, experts say. The difference: Social platforms have put this old process into warp drive.  

Five food fad stages 

CCD Innovation, a Bay Area food and beverage strategy company, has created an oft-cited model for the five stages that can take some foods from unknown quirks to mealtime mainstays. According to this food-trend timeline, offbeat bites may first show up in the kitchens of freethinking chefs. Or, diners may find a fresh flavor via ethnic eateries. 

In the “zero stage,” nearly any edible substance can emerge on this arc. For example, cricket flour has become an inexpensive, insect-milled protein that doesn’t bug some consumers to add to their baked goods, said Kimberly Egan, principal and chief executive of CCD Innovation. 

In the next rungs of the climb, food truck gourmets may feature the ingredient, inspiring eventual appearances at cooking classes in upper-crust retailers like Williams-Sonoma. Soon, TV chef contests and national restaurants, such as California Pizza Kitchen, may sink their teeth into the fad. Before you can say “sriracha,” the cool food hits cooking sites, food blogs, and then, ultimately, lands in big-box grocery stores, Egan said. 

“Kale has played a lot in Stages 1 and 2 of our trend map over the years, even having a bit of a moment back in the 1970's,” Egan said. “But when it reached Stage 4, multiple activators [including social media] stepped in and propelled it to Stage 5, quickly.

“Fads come and go much faster than trends do, and social media allows them to peak much steeper than in the past,” Egan said. “On the downside, it also means that fads have a quicker death because of that.”

Tomato aspic? 

That means the suddenly fashionable foods of previous decades – such as tamale pie, a 1920s hit, stuck around in family recipe books far longer. But every American decade since then has been marked with voguish vittles, said Sylvia Lovegren, author of “Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads.”

Not a nutritional expert – just a writer inspired by her grandmother’s vintage cookbooks and the meals scraped together by her farm-oriented parents – Lovegren’s research uncovered the uber dishes of eras past. They included:

1930s: “Marshmallow surprise,” mashed sweet potatoes over marshmallows, all rolled in crumbs then deep-fried. Also, tomato soup cake – basically, a spice cake but instead of mashed bananas, the cooks used cans of condensed tomato soup.

1940s: Lima bean casserole and sweet breads during the war years. Post-WWII, it was Vienna sausages that U.S. troops had first sampled in Europe.

1950s: Spam, the famous canned meat. And tomato aspic, a dinner-party smash that resembled a jellied, spiced tomato juice.

“I find tomato aspic horrendous,” Lovegren said. “But it was just one of those things: Somebody made it who was considered chic; somebody copied it who was famous, and then somebody else talked about it and then it would have appeared in a big magazine and then everybody started making it. Back then, it just took a lot longer to percolate up.”

1960s: Tang, the drink the astronauts made famous. There were also Julia Child’s TV creations, including beef bourguignon. And, of course, fondue.

1970s: Crepes stuffed with chicken, mushroom and cream sauce. And the iconic staple – quiche.

1980s: Kiwi, cilantro, croissants, sundried tomatoes, and white chocolate.

1990s: Calamari, arugula, chilies, lentils, and cold-pressed olive oil.

2000s: Cupcakes, and on a related note – red velvet cake. Plus, sliders.

Now, Lovegren is seeing kale on so many tables – too many tables, for her liking.

“Can’t stand it. I can’t tell you how many dinner parties I’ve gone to where there’s some kale salad with cranberry raisins in it and I’d just run out of the room screaming, like ‘Oh, can I get this down without puking, please?’ ”

“Kale’s been around for centuries. People were looking for cruciferous veggies, which are supposed to be good for you. And people were looking for things that were weird. We were bored with all these regular things.

"So here was this cruciferous vegetable that was a little weird. It was kind of peasant, which appealed to people. But it’s inexpensive, relatively easy to grow. And it became hip and everyone Instagrammed their stupid kale recipes, and it made my life miserable.”

Do you remember a food fad from a past decade? We welcome your comments on Fred Hutch's Facebook page. 

Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith." 

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