Trend-watchers say this is hardly the first time they’ve watched a much-hyped health food crash and burn: Culinary history is littered with “superfoods” that never quite caught on long-term. But coconut oil, which enjoyed a burst of popularity between 2011 and 2015, may prove a singular lesson to consumers and food companies vying for sales in the multibillion-dollar health food industry.
“You see these things go in and out of favor so quickly,” said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight at market-research firm Mintel. “To me it really drives home the idea that quite often these [superfoods] are built on fads and consumer whims.”
There is no one definition for a superfood, Dornblaser and other analysts point out: Marketers have slapped the term on a fantastic range of presumptively healthy foods, from agave nectar and goji berries to kale and quinoa.
But while some “superfoods” do have impressive, well-proven health benefits, and are widely endorsed by nutritionists, others are fads sparked by one or two isolated studies or championed by celebrity dieters.
Take coconut oil. Until recently, it existed on the fringes of the American diet, utilized largely by vegan bakers as a butter substitute following the mid-'90s revolt against saturated fat. But the oil became more popular as researchers began second-guessing those blanket prohibitions — and as a generation of dieters uncovered earlier, promising studies on the health benefits of medium-chain fatty acids.
Between January 2011 and January 2013, U.S. searches for coconut oil more than doubled, Google trend data shows. Meanwhile, major food companies scrambled to get in on the trend, producing coconut-oil versions of Pam Cooking Spray and Crisco.
In 2015, the apparent peak of coconut oil mania, Americans bought $229 million of the stuff. But that peak was short-lived.
Nutritionists and researchers began to question the science behind some of coconut oil’s more extravagant claims — such as the idea that it accelerates weight loss by boosting metabolism. Meanwhile, manufacturers — sensing new demand for alternative oils — ramped up production of avocado oil, algae oil, animal fats and specialty butters.
By the time the American Heart Association officially denounced coconut oil in June 2017 — the product has too much saturated fat, AHA said — sales were already beginning to fall, according to SPINS. Over the course of 2017, coconut oil retail sales dropped $52 million, or 24.3 percent.
“There’s been a leveling off of sorts,” said Kimberly Kawa, a retail analyst at SPINS. “There was a coconut craze several years ago. Now we’re seeing [sales] come back down again.”
The reversal has surprised some analysts, who believed coconut oil had all the makings of a pantry staple: It’s versatile, after all, and it fits the nutritional zeitgeist of an era when many consumers are rethinking the healthfulness of dietary fats.
But that’s not enough to transform a superfood “craze” into a stable, long-term trend, said Charles Banks, the co-founder of TheFoodPeople, a global food trends consultancy based in Britain. Forecasting which health foods will make that leap has become a big business, particularly as more consumers prioritize nutrition.
Among the foods that have made the jump from fad to staple: kale, blueberries, dark chocolate, avocados, green tea and ancient grains.
Among the ones that have not: wheat germ, acai, pomegranate and goji berries.
According to Banks, the staying power of a superfood depends not only on current buzz, but also on long-term, macro changes in eating patterns, the number of competing products on the market — and, most importantly, the quality of the science used to support the superfood’s purported benefits. While marketers still throw the term “superfood” around, consumers have grown skeptical, Banks said.
“Products like coconut oil, which consumers don’t quite understand or trust when it comes to health credentials, are inevitably going to suffer in a ‘facts-first’ world,” he added, “at least until their health benefits are unequivocally proven.”
Some analysts aren’t ruling out the possibility that coconut oil will experience just such a turnaround. Marie Molde, an analyst at the restaurant market research firm Datassential, said she expects sales will pick up again as researchers learn more about saturated fats. Her firm uses a model to predict food adoption trends, and it’s unusual for a food to get this far in the trend cycle and then fall back, she said.
Until then, however, Molde and other analysts are on the lookout for the next big, enduring superfood. She is personally betting on spirulina, a high-protein algae powder.
With any luck, spirulina will one day surpass even the heights of the coconut oil craze.
“There’s a huge health halo around it,” Molde said. “We see this as the next big thing.”