For nearly 40 years, we’ve studied the foods and beverages people in America consume on a daily basis. We recently took a look at the top foods and drinks consumed when we first started recording eating and drinking trends in the 1980s. They’re alive and well all these years later, but in many cases, they have been transformed due to changing consumer attitudes and behaviors.
Read on to see how the top food and beverage items in the 1980s have evolved and explore what they look like today.
Regular coffee was once a staple beverage for U.S. consumers day and night, but today consumers pay more attention to specialty coffee beverages, like cappuccinos and lattes, and they primarily drink them in the morning and afternoon. That change in coffee’s relevance throughout the day means coffee consumption per capita has steadily declined over the past several decades, our Food Industry Advisor, David Portalatin pointed out. Consumers have been willing to pay more when they drink specialty coffee, however, and these beverages are gaining ground both in the home and away from home. Innovative coffee appliances and products that make the in-home brewing process more convenient have proliferated in the past decade despite their higher per-unit cost for a cup.
Dairy milk is still among the top beverages consumed, but it has been declining. More alternative dairy beverages entering the market, growing awareness of dairy-related allergies, and decreased consumption of cold cereal have contributed to declining milk consumption. For instance, milk alternatives, like almond and oat milk, are regularly consumed by 12% of consumers, as shown by our National Eating Trends® (NET®) data. Both dairy milk and milk alternatives are likely to be used in cold and hot cereal.
Compared to the Cola Wars of the 1980s, enthusiasm for sweet soft drinks has been fizzling out in recent decades. Many consumers in America have looked to reduce their sugar intake, and those seeking more natural ingredients have been reluctant to drink diet beverages. Despite these concerns, soda isn’t going away. “Consumers still like bubbles in their beverages,” said Portalatin. As a result, consumers have found ways to have their cake and eat it, too—seltzer and sparkling waters have grown among health-conscious consumers in recent years, Portalatin added.
Bread and Sandwiches
In a shift away from two slices of white bread with a deli meat and yellow cheese, sandwiches have grown more sophisticated since the debut of our NET service. Items like artisanal cheeses and meats and spicy condiments have taken a central role sandwich-making. And although sandwiches are still mostly served on traditional sliced bread, rolls, tortillas, and specialty breads have become more common.
As in the 1980s, sandwiches are still the number-one lunch item in the U.S., and recently, they have expanded into other dayparts. In the past decade, breakfast sandwiches were among the fastest-growing food items. Portalatin attributes this to increased consumer demand for quick and convenient meal options. Continued growth of breakfast sandwiches is anticipated—sales at commercial restaurants are expected to increase 7% over the next five years, making it one of the top projected growth items at breakfast, as shown by our Future of Morning report.
Portalatin says though vegetables were mostly confined to side dishes in the 1980s, plant-based foods including vegetables have gained in importance in more U.S. meals. Three recent innovations have made this possible. First, companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have transformed plants into convincing hamburger patty substitutes. Our Future of Plant-Based Snapshot shows 21% of consumers reported health and wellness would be a key reason for eating plant-based meat alternatives, making this the most cited reason. These substitutes offer a tasty and protein-laden way for consumers to put plants at the center of the plate. Another innovation putting plants in the foreground is the multicooker (such as Instant Pot), which makes vegetable-centric dishes like medleys easier to cook. Lastly, innovations related to frozen vegetables, like cauliflower rice, enable consumers to make healthier recipes by substituting a vegetable for a complex carbohydrate, like rice.
It’s not just black tea anymore. In recent decades, tea offerings have expanded in terms of flavor and health benefits. “Today, tea is more than a nice warm beverage. It’s been marketed as having functional benefits. For instance, ginger tea is thought to help with digestion, and chamomile tea is said to help people fall asleep,” said Food and Beverage Industry Analyst Darren Seifer. Among the latest tea trends is the rise of kombucha, a fermented tea drink touted by some as a digestive-aid and energy booster.
Fruit & Fruit Juices
As the largest “better for you” snacking category, fruit consumption has grown since the 1980s and our Future of Snacking report calls for it to increase by 5% through 2023. Fruit juice, on the other hand, has struggled over the last several years as consumers look to cut sweet beverages from their diets. As a result, fruit juices are being reinvented to have more nutritional value or to be used as an ingredient to enhance the flavor profile of other beverages without the added sugar.
While cold cereal remains the number-one item eaten at breakfast as it was in the 1980s, consumption has declined over the past several decades. “In the ‘80’s we were concerned about cutting fat out of our diets, so sugar and carbohydrates weren’t seen as much of a problem. Fast forward to today, when people are looking to cut sugar and carbs while adding more protein. As a result, we’ve seen an increasing number of consumers swap out cold cereal for protein-heavy items like Greek yogurt and eggs at breakfast,” said Seifer.
Innovation can even be applied to an item as simple as a potato. The simple french fry, for example, has been transformed, and products like waffle fries and sweet potato fries have risen to prominence. “The potato is an example of how, like many of the items on this list, the most successful innovations are rooted in what people are eating already, but with an exciting twist. That could involve new branding or enhancements to the product itself,” said Seifer.
Snacking may have been viewed as a passive act of sitting on the couch and eating potato chips in the past. Today, it’s more about purposeful consumption, said Portalatin. As consumers look for more convenience in the foods they eat, they might combine snack foods, like trail mix and a piece of fruit, and call it lunch. Filling and high-protein snacks, like trail mix, have done well recently, and this momentum is expected to continue; our analysts forecast trail mix will grow by 9% over the next five years, as shown by our Future of Snacking report. And given the importance of protein to today’s consumer, there are opportunities to rethink traditional snacks, like chips made out of protein-rich chickpeas.
Our Future of Food Series guides your data-driven decision strategy with forecasts and forward-looking industry insights. Reports are available to shed light on the morning, dinner, and snacking occasions and to explore how plant-based alternative trends are reshaping the industry. Reports about lunch and coffee will be coming soon. Outside of food, we offer reports that forecast trends across apparel, retail, tech, footwear, and toys. To learn more, contact your NPD account representative or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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