I am, personally, quite fond of kale. Quickly sauteed with a bit of garlic and lemon, it makes a delicious side, or even a simple late dinner on its own. Where spinach wilts into a soggy vegetal mass if you leave it in a pan for a nanosecond too long, a bunch of lacinato can take a bit of heat while retaining some body and chew. It’s also a stellar soup ingredient (the Italians have known this for eons). And its leaves are uniquely capable of acting as a vehicle for a good salad dressing without turning into a sopping, supersaturated mess—which is a big part of why kale Caesars became a staple of farm-to-table menus in the mid-teens. To me, it’s an ideal crucifer.
Thus, I couldn’t help but take it a little personally this week when the Atlantic declared that kale’s run of culinary dominance was kaput. In her piece, titled “The Saddest Leafy Green,” writer Amanda Mull explains that online interest in the vegetable has been declining recently, as have its sales. But Mull is not merely content to point out that kale’s numbers are down a bit. No, no. She also suggests that kale consumers might have secretly hated eating it all along. “America might never have been that into kale in the first place,” she writes, before hypothesizing that kale’s status as a superfood might have convinced millions of diners to ignore their taste buds and swallow the stuff when they really would have preferred something less fibrous. She concludes:
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.
Perhaps I’m biased here, but after I spent some time with the numbers, Mull’s thesis seems a bit overcooked to me. Kale’s popularity at grocery stores may have crested for the time being, but it is not by any means in collapse, and there is little to no evidence that most Americans were really just stoically munching it out of a grim sense of nutritional obligation.
Mull admits that her case against kale is largely “circumstantial.” But I’d argue that it also relies on an exaggerated read of the data we have available. She begins by exploring some Google Trends figures, which show that searches for kale have been falling off in recent years. Fair enough so far. But Mull also insists that the timing of those searches is deeply telling. She observes that America “happily becomes obsessed with brussels sprouts”—the trendy green of the moment—ahead of Thanksgiving. “During the holidays, people make dishes they love and want to share,” she writes. In contrast, search volume for kale tends to jump during the cold and regretful month of January, when people are feeling penitent about their holiday eating habits and try to diet. Afterward, the number of queries for kale slopes off again. “America’s commitment to eat more kale rarely makes it to February,” she writes. “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.”
But Mull is really just making mountains out of some graphical molehills. Sure, it’s true that search volume for kale is somewhat cyclical and generally spikes right after New Year’s, which speaks to its reputation as health food fit for treadmill season. But kale’s annual ups and downs have become less dramatic over time and are far more modest compared with truly seasonal vegetables like Brussels sprouts, which enjoy a massive surge in online interest around November that then reliably plummets. Kale, as you can see on the chart below—yes, I made charts—is more consistent; the people who eat it are clearly searching for recipes throughout the year, which is not what you’d expect if it were simply part of an annual ritual of self-abnegation.
Mull also notes that retail sales of fresh kale fell in 2017. This is true. According to the market research firm IRI, which provided me with additional years of data after Mull only shared one, they fell in 2016 and 2018 as well. But this year, the pace of the drop seems to have slowed down, suggesting the worst of it may be over. Kale is finding its new normal.
And yet, even after all that decline, kale is still outselling Brussels sprouts, sales of which seem to be plateauing, at least over the 52 weeks that ended in early September.
Apologies if after three charts it feels like we’re getting a bit deep in the cabbage leaves, but 1) I really like kale, and 2) keep in mind that these numbers do not even represent the entire vegetable market. They cover produce bought at grocery stores but exclude the wholesale kale that ends up served at salad chains or restaurants, as well as product used in snack foods like kale chips or dips. They don’t tell us whether Americans are ordering fewer kale salads while dining out. They do, however, tell us that grocery stores are still selling 117 million pounds of kale per year. That’s a lot of kale.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that anybody tracks the exact quantity of kale purchased by consumers overall. However, the Department of Agriculture does provide detailed estimates of how much kale is either grown by farmers or imported each year (they do this for dozens of crops in a delightful document called the Vegetables and Pulses Yearbook). In 2017, it turns out that there were 335 million pounds of it on the market, up from 145 million pounds in 2012. In that context, the recent drop in retail sales is just not that huge.
But again, the mere fact that kale sales have fallen a bit doesn’t tell us much about why. Mull believes it’s because people never really liked the stuff to begin with. But maybe it’s because kale just got a little too expensive. According to IRI FreshLook, it has gone from $2.05 per pound on average in 2014 to more than $2.46 this year. That might not seem like a huge jump, but it could make a difference to a price-sensitive shopper comparing bags of greens at Publix. Or maybe, given the wide array of choices available these days, shoppers have just spread some love to other greens.
It’s of course possible that some people realized they’d been lying to themselves about kale, that after forcing down forkful after ambivalent forkful, they finally decided to find their vitamin A elsewhere. But the data just doesn’t prove that those feelings are widespread. Food trends come and food trends go. Kale is a bit less popular than at the height of its craze, but it is still retaining the vast majority of its market. Mull might dislike the stuff. But that’s no reason to spin a bitter narrative about a perfectly good green.