If this were an episode of Law & Order, kale’s defense attorney would point out that the evidence against his client is circumstantial at best. This is true: The vegetable’s exact future remains unknown, and using search and sales data to triangulate people’s true feelings is certainly an imprecise science. Many people do, of course, genuinely like kale. But the most revealing thing about America’s relationship with kale isn’t whether people are buying the vegetable, but when.
During the holidays, people make dishes they love and want to share, so it makes sense that fewer Americans would be searching for brussels-sprouts cooking times as soon as a big food-prep holiday is over. January, however, is not really part of the holidays. Rather than piles of delicious food, the month traditionally brings promises of long-term self-abnegation; it’s when America’s sense of duty toward “healthy” things shines. But like almost all New Year’s resolutions, America’s commitment to eat more kale rarely makes it to February. If eating kale were something that people mostly enjoyed, you’d think they’d keep right on stuffing it down their gullets in blissful perpetuity.
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It might be that Americans try to love kale every January for the same reason the green so quickly became a household name in the first place. In the era of “clean eating” and internet wellness fads, kale comes approved by internet wellness gurus. It has been branded a “superfood,” and it’s talked about in juice shops with such hushed reverence that you’d think it held the key to eternal life. It’s low calorie and nutrient dense, with particularly robust supplies of vitamins A, C, and K, plus some fiber and protein. But avoiding kale won’t hurt you. Pretty much all dark, leafy greens have strong nutrient profiles, so there’s little reason to privilege one over all the others.
Marketers seem to have quickly caught on that many Americans might want to consume kale without being forced to taste, chew, and swallow a significant amount of it. A 2017 analysis from Nielsen identified eight areas in which sales of products containing the vegetable had grown significantly in the previous year, and many of them—snacks, pasta sauces, and deli dips, for example—are prepared foods in which kale’s characteristics can be masked. Sales of vitamins and supplements with kale in them also more than doubled, even though desiccated kale powder is basically devoid of the nutrients that make the full plant good for you. The most explosive growth for kale products happened in baby foods, the sales of which nearly quadrupled. The Americans eating kale most consistently, in other words, might be those who literally have things spoon-fed to them, with no say in the matter.
Puzzling together the available data creates a picture of a populace with an uneasy relationship with a vegetable whose health reputation is so powerful that people seem to think of it like taking a vitamin. Or maybe the more accurate analogy for eating kale would be flossing—something Americans know is supposed to be good for them, but that’s still annoying and unpleasant. Food trends usually last 10 to 20 years before waning, but if the things people search for and buy are any indication, many Americans seem eager to make it to kale’s cultural finish line. If Beyoncé dancing pantsless in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the word kale can’t persuade the country to get over its aversion to the vegetable, it might be time everyone admitted their true feelings and just went back to spinach.