Processed Foods History: 1960s to Today

Processed Foods History:

1960s to Today

Let’s continue exploring our journey from real food to processed food and (hopefully) back to real food!



The ’60s focused on radical change and experimentation, even in the culinary arena: Julia Child taught us how to make the perfect French omelet; ethnic foods were hot; vegetarianism was catching on; fondue parties were all the rage; and we returned to the outdoor cooking of our ancestors – on the backyard barbecue grill. Aluminum cans were first used commercially for foods and beverages, and irradiation was used for the first time to sterilize dried fruits and vegetables and stop sprouting and control insect infestation.

Processed foods this decade:

  • Tab and Diet Pepsi soft drinks
  • Green Giant frozen veggies in butter sauce
  • Pringles
  • Gatorade


Economic challenges of the 1970s meant homemade foods were simple … think Hamburger Helper and the Betty Crocker cookbook. The FDA banned food coloring Red Dye No. 2 because studies showed that it might cause cancer. Red M&Ms disappeared for 11 years because of the ban. High-fructose corn syrup became increasingly prevalent in beverages and processed foods. “Lite” products, such as Miller Lite beer, were introduced to combat the pounds Americans were packing on.

New processed foods in the 1970s:

  • Stove Top Stuffing
  • McDonald’s Happy Meals
  • Hamburger Helper


Another sad decade for “real food.” Red M&Ms returned. The artificial sweetener aspartame was approved by the FDA. The USDA announced that ketchup could be counted as a vegetable in the school lunch program. The first genetically engineered crop plant was developed (tomato). Some new processed foods were introduced:

  • Lean Cuisine frozen dinners
  • Crystal Light powdered drink mix
  • Pop Secret Microwave Popcorn
  • Diet Coke


The 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) required that all packaged foods include standard nutrition labeling information. (Remember to read the label!)

The 1990s saw the first genetically modified foods on the market. Americans consumed vast amounts of caloric sweeteners, and we were introduced to chips containing Olestra.

On a brighter, “real food” note, the gourmet world was spinning with tapas, Thai food, truffles, sundried tomatoes and all things “fusion.”


In this decade, “low-fat,” “fat-free” and “diet” were the buzzwords. Manufacturers reduced fat content by removing high-fat ingredients, like butters and oils, and maintained flavor by adding preservatives, artificial flavors and sweeteners.

Vast numbers of people cut out carbs, including healthy ones, thanks to the introduction of the South Beach diet. Gluten-free products were in hot demand.

Source: Michigan State University Extension

Slowly, as food documentaries began to warn us of hidden dangers in our diets, we began to question how and where our food is made. We saw an explosion of cooking shows on food TV, encouraging us to make fresh foods at home. The organic movement went mainstream. Super-sizing was on its way out. The “locavore” movement began “again.” (I say “again,” because, of course, our pioneer ancestors lived the locavore lifestyle). Families joined local farm CSAs in droves. Whole grain products became widely available. We became familiar with superfruits (like acai and pomegranate). The FDA required food labels to include trans fat content.

Source: Tampa Bay Times

And due to the recession, many people went back to cooking at home, cooking with fresh “real food,” making bagged lunches – a full circle from the days of the 1940s and ’50s, when those fast, ready-to-eat, processed foods seemed like such a good idea.


Here we are, more than 100 years after processed foods began to be popular … in an amazing era of real food and portion control and homegrown produce and food blogs. We’ve come a long way, baby!!


2 responses

  1. Pingback: An Organic Farm Tour - Intentional Spaces

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