Eating Meat Over the Last Century

March 19, 2011

Hidden inside a less interesting column is this fascinating graphic from The New York Times (read it now before the paywall goes up). Reproduced below (click on it for a larger version):

It is interesting to look at the trends in meat consumption by animal and explain why we eat the way we do.

Beef: Since beef is identified most often as being profoundly "American," its sharp rise in popularity in 1950 might surprise you. Before that year, Americans consumed beef and pork about equally. Then, fast food happened. From the 1950s to 1970s, as fast food restaurants opened across the country, the popularity of beef skyrocketed. Also, Americans just happen to like the taste of the meat. In the mid-1970s, an average American's consumption of beef reached an all-time high of 89 pounds each year. Since then, consumption is down dramatically. Concerns about cholesterol and saturated fat, along with fears about the treatment of animals, the environmental impact of raising cattle and mad cow disease have all coupled to drive down consumption. Though we consider the "Where's the Beef?" ad campaign pretty effective, beef consumption actually declined shortly after it was put into effect.

Chicken: The rise of chicken is truly remarkable. Since the 1950s, consumption of chicken products has risen continuously, with no noticeable decline in demand. Why have we fallen in love with chicken? Well, the short answer is we haven't, not completely anyways. Slate looked at how we eat chicken, and found that we overwhelmingly prefer white, breast meat over the rest of the animal. America actually exports much of their dark meat to Russia and other countries who prefer it (but exports are down). Nevertheless, the people love white meat. Thanks to the introduction of big fast food restaurants (KFC, for example), the bird received a huge boost in the 1950s. Couple that with the fact that chicken represented a healthier alternative to beef for meat lovers in the 1970s, and the industry's popularity continued to grow. Industry innovation and the popularization of new cooking techniques also helped with growth.

Pork: America's "Other White Meat" has remained fairly steady over the years. Unlike the other meats, the industry has seen quick sudden peaks and declines in consumption. According to a recent study, more than 60 percent of all pork consumed comes in the form of processed meat (sausages, bacon, hot dogs, lunch meats). Americans overwhelmingly prefer to eat meat at home, rather than eating when they go out. Though pork products are sold at most fast food restaurants, no one has developed a pork concept that has taken off like McDonald's and KFC have done for chicken. With the change to "Be Inspired" as the industry's slogan, pork producers hope they can boost Americans love for the meat.

Egg: So, not technically a meat, but eggs are included on this list because they're a byproduct of animals. Egg consumption actually declined from the 1940s through the mid-1990s before beginning to level off and grow again. For the longest time, the prevailing wisdom said that increased egg consumption would lead to higher cholesterol levels and a greater risk of heart disease. That scientific research drove the decline. Recent studies, however, seem to find no correlation between eating eggs and health problems, and America's favorite breakfast food may be poised for a comeback.

Other Meats: Fresh fish and seafood consumption has risen over the past 20-30 years. The rising popularity of Asian cuisines and the potential health benefits from eating fish regularly have probably driven the increase. Turkey consumption has also grown, driven partially by an aggressive advertising push to get people to eat it on days other than Thanksgiving. Additionally, turkey meat is leaner than most others. Veal and lamb remain non-players on the American food scene. It seems likely that most people limit their consumption of these proteins to when they go out to a restaurant.

Photo by SpecialKRB and New York Times



Hugh's picture

Compare this to a graphic of the incidence of heart disease, obesity, and type II diabetes, and you begin to wonder if the hypotheses that saturated fat, cholesterol and animal consumption in general have any legs to stand on.

I mean, chicken healthier? It's omega 6 to omega 3 ratio is terrible compared to the red meats, for starters.

I also wonder why there are so many faux-vegetarians that eat chicken. One chicken provides several pounds of meat whereas one cow provides several hundred pounds of meat. If you care about reducing animal suffering, beef is the way to go all day long. Plus cattle are generally treated better than chickens.

But I digress.

Raw Foods Diet – Lose Weight and Feel Great Now! Easy 's picture

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