How has our produce selection evolved? Year round availability plus the desire for a healthy diet has given new life to basic fruits and vegetables
Our choices and varieties of fruits and vegetables have expanded.
Early in the 20th century, what people ate in the U.S. primarily depended on their heritage and traditions, where they lived, what they could grow, and how much money they had. Fruits such as oranges and bananas were a special treat compared to the role of “lunchbox staple” that they play in our diets today.
The average American diet is no longer restricted by local or seasonal produce. Because of our expanded choices, the fresh produce Americans eat today is not the same as it was 100 years ago. There has been a considerable change in the commodities we enjoy year-round. Prior to the turn of the century, many produce items were primarily available only in season – i.e., blueberries, kiwi, papaya, persimmons, pineapples, raspberries, and miscellaneous tropical fruits. Other commodities such as mizuna and kohlrabi, although common outside the U.S., were virtually unheard of until recent years!
We still enjoy the same fruits and vegetables as we did in 1970!
While we have integrated new produce into our diet regimen, it is safe to say, old habits die hard. In 1970, three vegetables – lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes – were the most consumed fresh vegetables in the US.
Per capita fresh vegetable consumption, 1970 and 2013
The latest USDA statistics for 2013 show that these same three commodities are still the leading fresh vegetables consumed in the U.S. However, we have expanded the diversity of these three popular veggies. Between 1970 and 2013, there were changes in the number of potatoes and the different types of lettuce available, as well as an increased variety of other vegetables incorporated into the average American diet.
For example, after a peak in the late 80s/early 90s, by 2013 head lettuce consumption declined by 51% while romaine and leaf lettuce consumption increased by 69%. U.S. consumers also ate more broccoli, cucumbers, onions, and peppers during this same time frame. Still, even with our preference for new lettuce types and increased consumption of other vegetables, our preference for lettuce, tomatoes, and potatoes stayed relatively consistent.
We have retained a strong preference for certain fruits.
In 2013, American’s fruits of choice were bananas, melons, apples, and oranges. Our fruit preferences were the same in 1970. In the 43-year time span, consumption of avocados, bananas, cantaloupes, grapes, pineapples, and strawberries increased while consumption of apples, cranberries, peaches, and plums declined. In recent years, robust demand for avocados, blueberries, cherries, lemons, limes, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples has been driving growth in fresh fruit commodities. USDA analysts attribute this growth in fruit used to the preparation of traditional dishes by a more ethnically diverse population as well as heightened interest in a healthy diet.
There are various interactive graphs illustrating the changing American diet from 1970 to 2012/2013. See the FlowingData.com’s website and articles in Scientific American and Time magazine’s articles.
Not only have there been changes in the diversity of what Americans eat, but there has also been an even greater change in when we eat fresh produce. Prior to the turn of the century, the majority of the U.S. population was eating strawberries for one, two, or if you were lucky, maybe three months of the year. Now eating fresh strawberries year-round is commonplace, as is noted by a 320% increase in per capita consumption from 1970 to 2010. And it is just not strawberries – the same is true for blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, pineapples, cantaloupe, and a litany of other fruits and vegetables.
So why the increasing diversity in our produce?
To help meet the growing demand for fruits and vegetables, plant breeding has resulted in new varieties of popular produce items with increased yields, extended growing seasons, improved product quality fruit, and enhanced shelf-life. Tomatoes and strawberries are two prime examples of fruits where year-round availability is a direct result of breeding new varieties.
Suppliers have also improved shelf-life and product quality during transportation by modifying harvesting methods. A good example of these improvements can be seen with the banana which bruises easily when it is ripe. Bananas used to be harvested after ripening until growers discovered they could harvest unripe, green bananas and ship them all over the world without damaging the still firm unripe fruit.
The Bottom Line:
In the U.S. and most of the developed world, we are fortunate to have a large selection of fresh produce available thanks to new and improved varieties, harvesting methods, preservation technologies, and transportation. As food ingredients fads continue to expand produce options, our diets become more diverse—however, that does not mean that we discard the original staples. Old and new produce now “work together”, giving our diets more variety!