The Great Kale Invasion: How the Hipster Veg Creeped Its Way Into Absolutely Everything

  1. Home
  2. Biz
By Emma Court | 8:39 am, March 17, 2017

Is kale no longer cool? The proof is in the baby food.

Yes, kale has come for your baby food, along with your vitamins and supplements, deli dip and frozen breakfast entrees.

These are among the more surprising food categories with kale seeing significant sales growth in the last year, according to an analysis by Nielsen’s Product Insider tool, which uses ingredient data from Label Insight, done for MarketWatch.

Not only is kale is coming for everything you eat, but Americans seem to be going for it, increasingly buying kale-infused “wholesome” snacks, pasta sauce, fresh sausage, and even fish food, according to the sales figures.

Those areas have seen sales dollars increase by as much as 391% (frozen breakfast entrees) and 143% (fish food) between Feb. 2016 and Feb. 2017.

Dollar sales of vitamins and supplements with kale grew by 125%, and pasta sauce with kale by 60%.

By contrast, kale on its own only saw dollar sales increase by about 5% over the last year, according to the Nielsen data.

The curly green vegetable has even invaded yogurt, frozen sweet goods, condiments and meat imitation products, the data shows. Those categories have seen less dramatic growth, and even sales slumps, since early 2016.

Another new frontier where kale has been popping up: pet food, as MarketWatch reported last summer.

Dog food was a top kale-containing category by total dollar sales, according to Nielsen, with the category’s sales dollars growing 66% since last year.

But before you bow to Big Kale, recall that the vegetable in and of itself does not a healthy food make.

“Companies can add a dash of kale to make any food, including junk food, look like a superfood,” said Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the nonprofit advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Kale is sometimes a marketing ploy that gives foods a health halo.”

The front of a package may have a prominent green, leafy display, only to have kale rank far at the bottom of its ingredients list, Moyer said.

Instances of kale-as-ornament, appearing in supplement, pill or powder form, may even defeat the purpose of eating kale in the first place.

“It’s not the whole vegetable. It doesn’t have fiber or water, it’s not as filling,” Moyer said. “But I think the idea is enticing to people. Of course you’d want to find an easy way to get more kale in.”

But it isn’t always easy to tell what kind is in a product, noted Kristin Kirkpatrick, lead dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and author of the new book “Skinny Liver: A Proven Program to Prevent and Reverse the New Silent Epidemic—Fatty Liver Disease.” Generally, unless a product advertises it, the addition of kale likely won’t be a full serving of the vegetable, she said.

Consumers should try “taking a step back and asking yourself if this is a healthier choice than the real food — and 99.9% of the time, I don’t think it will be,” she said. “Getting some kale in a piece of sausage is never going to be healthier than a kale salad. Never.”

Kale in baby food might be an exception, though, she said, since it could help babies form their palate around vegetables, rather than solely around sweet fruits such as pear and apple.

The best and healthiest way to get your kale fix is the vegetable itself, eaten in salads, slaws, stir-fry and more, both Moyer and Kirkpatrick said.

But for the vegetable-averse, do products containing kale powder have any value?

“I’m hard-pressed to say that,” Moyer said. “Often times in these processed foods, chips and things, kale powder comes after the oil or even the salt — it’s just such a small amount.”

The kale trend has gone so far that it’s even infiltrated nail polish, notes Moyer: Sephora sells a “NailKale Superfood Base Coat” that claims to be “infused with kale extract to strengthen nails.”

Advertisement