What the kale? The story (&data) behind kale’s meteoric rise

Surely you’ve noticed it…  

It’s taken over our restaurant menus, it’s in our 7/11s and Trader Joes, it’s on the Whole Foods bags, people have bumper stickers, in fact, it’s probably even in your house right now…


Courtesy of Chef Kristen @ cookbakenibble.com

Credit to Chef Kristin @ cookbakenibble.com

What gives? Not that I have anything against you, but seriously, where did you come from?

This topic has come up several times among my friends and no one has a good answer.  Maybe we’re all just hallucinating and it’s always been around?

Negative.  2012 saw a 6x increase in articles written about kale.  This is something and it’s big (and leafy).

Kale Searches

So I thought, easy-peasy, I’m sure someone knows why kale has become so popular.  Maybe some famous chef made it trendy, or Whole Foods decided to stand behind it.  But a couple searches on “why is kale popular” (note: google autocompleted my query mid-sentence to “why is kale so popular”) brought up a ton of information on the health benefits of kale but not a single hypothesis for the cause.

So other people have noticed but no one knows why, not even Google.  Why do I see this veggie all over the place these days? Surely there’s gotta be a reason.

Challenge accepted.

Let’s get down to some numbers.

Whoever is Kale's publicist should be given a promotion

So looking at some search trends, I noticed that searches for healthy foods have risen pretty steadily across the board for a few years. (On a side note, searches for healthy foods double between December and January every year like clockwork.  Gotta love all those new years’ resolutions). Compared against Spinach, we see Kale’s meteoric rise from 1/6 that of spinach to nearly par, or almost 5x over the past several years.  In particular, in the four year period starting in 2010, Kale more than tripled in popularity, twice its increase during the four year period ending in 2009. If this were the same trend, I would have expected it to begin to level off as Kale reached parity with Spinach, as the headroom for maximum share of the leafy green market is limited and begins to decrease the more Kale rises.  But this was not the case.  Kale not only kept increasing but increased at an increasing rate.  And I believe this occurred during the end of 2009 or beginning of 2010.

OK, but WHY?

Good question, and mine too. Let’s look at the related hot search terms over time in descending order of popularity.


In descending order of popularity by year

Well that’s odd.. starting in 2009, kale chips came out of nowhere and quickly rose to the top of the list by 2011, even exceeding all other search terms for kale. This may be no surprise for those of you that love these things, but I had no idea (plus the ones I’ve had before tasted pretty disgusting).

Remember when these started showing up on supermarket shelves?

Interestingly, the chips only came on to the scene in 2009, then in January 2010, immediately TRIPLED in popularity, then in January 2011, TRIPLED in popularity again, and in 2012 TRIPLED yet a third time.

Note the annual uptick each January

Note the annual uptick each January

So there we have it… kale grew from neglected stew vegetable to big hitter in just a few years.  This growth was beyond the normal growth in healthy eating. There was something else.. kale chips, which shifted this growth into overdrive mode, causing hippies and rednecks alike to incorporate kale as a daily staple in restaurants, supermarkets, and dinner tables everywhere, from Vermont to Alaska (with the exception of South Dakota, which either has no idea what the big deal is or there weren’t enough people there between 2004-2013 for Google to have any data).

Final Assessment: The rise of kale was fueled in part by a trend toward healthier eating habits, then driven through the roof by the advent of the healthy and widely available snack food alternative- kale chips, which arrived on the scene in mid-2009.  A perfect storm, if you will.

Going Forward: I also predict that kale will continue to heat up but loose steam as the 2013 growth rate was far lower than the historical 300% between December ’12 and January ’13. There is only so much leafy vegetation that people will eat, trends only last so long (although I do love all these kale and apple salads I’ve been seeing), and kale has already attained near parity with spinach. Oh, and for 2014, my money’s on Quinoa.


Snacky + Healthy = Winner

Snacky + Healthy = Winner

PS I enjoy the intellectual challenge of this stuff.  If you have any other questions that you can’t find answers for, tweet at me and I may be intrigued.

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