From astronaut food to Whole Foods

By Mark Skoultchi

July 23, 2008

In the fifties America was launching satellites into space and racing the Russians to the moon. High technology had come to the dinner table as well, and food branding took a cue from NASA. New food preservation technology inspired processed food products that were all about convenience and Swanson’s TV dinners were born. The sixties brought us the questionable appeal of Tang and other space-age foods (astronaut ice cream anyone?). Soon after we landed on the moon and it was common for food products to be marketed to kids as “fun”. But with an exponential increase in health problems due to poor diets, American food product branding has gone looking for its roots in the kitchen and at the farm.

In 2008 we’re still eating food with product branding from the future, but a shift in consciousness has brought about a remarkable difference in food naming and marketing. Farmers’ markets’ and fresh vegetables have come in to vogue in the San Francisco Bay Area. Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods markets have multiplied. The idea that food is more appealing when its roots are in the earth rather than a laboratory has become much more popular. Food branding and marketing has consequently veered towards product names that evoke homemade goodness rather than high-tech chemical combinations.

Even frozen dinners have been re-invented. Swanson’s frozen TV dinners are now crowded by “all natural” and organic options like Amy’s Kitchen’s Garden Vegetable Lasagna. The idea is the same: instant, convenient meals. But the company names and product branding has dramatically changed. Rather than an emphasis on convenience frozen dinners are marketed as nutritious meals that just so happen to be easily prepared at the push of a button.

With lists of ingredients that often defy pronunciation, is it so weird that people these days want food product names to sound like something that’s good for you? Breakfast cereals are a prime example of this apparent shift in brand naming. Would you feel good about feeding your kids the now discontinued “Wackies”, “Freakies”, and “Chocolate Donutz”? Post Cereals’ Sugar Crisp has been re-launched as the subtler Golden Crisp. Kelloggs’ “Sugar Smacks” was reincarnated as “Smacks” now settling on the wholesome (but still sweet with 15 grams of sugar) “Honey Smacks”. “Sugar Frosted Flakes” evolved into “Frosted Flakes” to take the empasis off the sugar part much like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s famous conversion to KFC to avoid the stigma of fried food.

Getting back to the earth with the things we eat is an idea that’s gaining momentum across the board. Naming trends in food branding have taken note and are evolving to match. Personally, I’m not sad to leave astronaut ice cream and Tang behind.

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