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There are plenty of words that mean nothing on food packages: new and improved, better flavor, artisan. But just like clothes and music, food packaging has fads. Putting astronaut or space on a package was a hot ticket in 1962, but would be a dud today. Here’s a little tour through the biggest-hit packaging buzzwords from the past five decades, found on foods that gained in popularity during these eras.
1960s – EASY
Popular easy foods: Nestle’s Quik, Shake ‘n Bake, Cool Whip, Tang, SpaghettiOs
What it supposedly meant: Created by benevolent and dependable scientists in clean, white lab coats, easy foods were emptied from cans, bottles, and packages so that busy, busy people (including all those new working mothers) didn’t have to take time to really cook.
What it really meant: This thing has enough additives to spontaneously combust.
Package design: Easy foods were brightly colored—red, orange, yellow—with “modern” unfussy fonts and graphics and nontraditionally spelled, gimmicky names.
1970s – NATURAL
Popular natural foods: Granolas like Quaker 100 Percent Natural Cereal and General Mills’ Nature Valley granola bars, Mazola corn oil, Life cereal
What it supposedly meant: Made by hippies/indigenous people/corporations that really care.
What it really meant: Don’t expect what’s inside this package to taste good.
Package design: Natural foods were usually in brown, orange, and yellow packaging, often with wonky-looking images that appeared hand-drawn, and often with visual representations of the ingredients inside, e.g., pots of honey, oats, and brown sugar on the front of granola packages.
1980s – GOURMET
Popular gourmet foods: High-end ice cream such as Frusen Glädjé and Häagen-Dazs, Smartfood Popcorn, Clearly Canadian drinks
What it supposedly meant: The food inside this package is made with better-than-average ingredients.
What it really meant: Buy this and you’re better than those losers you went to high school with.
Package design: Gourmet foods were given polished packaging with unusual and unfussy colors like black, gray, and white. Packages had a lot of uncluttered “white space” and often did not picture the product inside.
1990s – LOW-FAT
Popular low-fat foods: SnackWell’s cookies, McDonald’s McLean Deluxe burger, Lay’s Baked Potato Crisps and Wow! potato chips with olestra, Healthy Choice brand foods
What it supposedly meant: The food inside this package is good for you, no matter how much sugar or how many calories it contains.
What it really meant: Only desperate people are self-hating enough to eat this swill.
Package design: Low-fat foods often looked much like their junk-food counterparts, packaged with zippy graphics and in bright shades of red, yellow, and orange, usually brandishing large “low fat” banners. Certain brands, such as SnackWell’s and Healthy Choice, chose distinctive green packaging.
Early 2000s – SUPERFOOD
Popular superfood foods: Odwalla Superfood smoothie, POM Wonderful, SoBe drinks, Sambazon Açaí
What it supposedly meant: You can cheat death! Or at least look 25 forever.
What it really meant: People in midlife crisis are easily fooled.
Package design: Odwalla maintained its hippie-ish graphics even after being acquired by Coke, in contrast to most superfoody products, which tended to have pricey, hefty packaging—glass bottles for beverages, heavy premium cardboard for teas and boxed products. And lots of jewel tones to go with the jewel-toned elixirs of “youth.”
Mid-2000s – ORGANIC
Popular organic foods: Annie’s Homegrown brand foods and organic lines of everything from Smucker’s jam to blue-box Kraft mac ‘n’ cheese
What it supposedly meant: Sometimes, it meant the products inside were grown in a pesticide-free environment.
What it really meant: We can charge more just by including a new word on the label!
Package design: Organic foods tended to look more “plain brown wrapper” than their nonorganic counterparts—browns and subdued yellows were popular, as were logos that looked handwritten.
NOW – SIMPLE
Popular simple foods: Simply Asia packaged sauces, meal kits, and noodles; Simply Orange Juice; Freschetta’s Simply…Inspired pizzas; Simply Fruit Roll-Ups
What it supposedly means: Everything in this package is just like what Mama made.
What it really means: Look at the label. Things aren’t really that simple.
Package design: “Simple” foods are packaged in boxes and jars with uncluttered design and, often, cursive logos and a lot of green.