Every January, the produce drawers in America’s refrigerators fill up with shame. The moment comes at the end of a three-vegetable trend that runs through the holidays. First, in mid-November, the country happily becomes obsessed with brussels sprouts (or “brussel sprouts,” as Americans tend to spell it), likely in anticipation of Thanksgiving and its many delicious, often bacon-laden side dishes. Next, after sprouts have had their day in the sun, spinach ascends and almost always peaks in December. Christmas, after all, also requires side dishes, but you have to mix it up or your cousins will talk.
By January, though, things have changed. The mood is darker. America is ready to repent for the imagined sins of “enjoying food” and “cooking things that taste good.” January belongs to kale.
This annual vegetable cycle shows up in the past decade of Google Trends data, which compiles how frequently Americans trawl the internet for information about certain terms. Since about 2011, when Gwyneth Paltrow taught the world how to make kale chips on the Ellen show, kale has entered into the cultural lexicon as a status symbol for a generation of young adults drawn to conspicuous health-consciousness. Whereas spinach has been popular for generations and brussels sprouts have become gradually more trendy, the dominant produce-department narrative of the past decade has been that Americans are just crazy for kale.
But kale’s cultural ubiquity might not be exactly what it seems. After kale briefly overtook spinach as America’s favorite cooked green in mid-2014, Google’s measure of interest in kale has steadily declined. The green’s digital fortunes are currently back at about where they were in 2011, almost as if Paltrow had never kale-chipped. Search data aren’t the end-all-be-all measurement of popularity, but the more leads you follow, the more you begin to question the narrative of kale’s dominance. In fact, America might never have been that into kale in the first place.
My first inkling that kale was in trouble came from the New York magazine restaurant critic Adam Platt’s recent account of his attempt to love takeout-lunch salad, the purveyors of which dot seemingly every street corner in Manhattan. (The four best-known chains—Sweetgreen, Chopt, Just Salad, and Dig Inn—have a combined 81 locations in the borough.) During Platt’s experiment, someone from Sweetgreen told him that kale sales had waned at its stores, even as its menu had expanded to include grain bowls and warm dishes.
It seemed that if kale was losing Millennials who still love to buy super-trendy $15 salads—Sweetgreen’s most ardent fans—then something larger might be afoot. A representative from Sweetgreen would not confirm or deny what the company had told Platt about kale’s popularity, and offered no further explanation. But the company’s earlier comment was enough to send me into the internet’s data mines with my red string and pushpins, ready to unravel the grand kale conspiracy.
Kale’s drop in Google Trends would be less ominous if the vegetable’s preparation were straightforward. Relatively few people search the internet for romaine lettuce, for example (unless they think it might kill them), even though romaine consumption has accelerated in the past two decades in the United States. But when it comes to cooking greens, the perennial holiday spikes suggest that people need to come back again and again to the giant recipe box of the internet, even after learning to prepare something once. Kale, in particular, has a natural taste and texture—bitter, tough, laborious to chew—that is off-putting to many. Including it in a dish takes work and know-how, even if you’re just making a salad. (Raw kale has to be … massaged? Finely chopped? Beaten into submission?)
Kale is currently at less than half the search popularity of its 2014 high. According to the most recent data from the Produce Market Guide, 8 million fewer pounds of kale were sold in America in 2017 than in 2016, a 6 percent drop in national sales volume. But people aren’t turning away from vegetables overall; they’re just looking in other bins in the produce section. Spinach’s sales volume went up nearly 4 percent in the same period. Brussels sprouts saw growth of 19 percent. A representative for the specialty grocery chain the Fresh Market confirmed that its recent sales reflect brussels sprouts’ burgeoning popularity, but noted that kale was still “holding its own” with shoppers. The company declined to provide specific sales figures.
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.
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.