Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

The Really BIG Stories
of 2003

by Kate Heyhoe


What were the top food news topics in 2003, and will they be the hot stories of the year ahead?

My crystal ball says that striking grocery workers; Wal-Mart pricing strategy, based on underpaid workers overseas; and outbreaks of food poisoning from tainted foreign produce will be in the news in 2004. What else is hot and what's not? Super-sized portions are out. Salads are in. Greasy hamburgers are out. Greek food chains are in. Plain oil is out. Flavored oils and blended oils (avocado and olive) are in. Red wine is hot, white wine is not, except for Pinot Grigio. Beef costs will be up, so beef will be out. Chicken prices will be down, so chicken will be in. Semi-homemade cooking, using convenience products, is in, but so is slow food. (Depends on who's doing the cooking.) Celebrity chef cookbooks are out. Encyclopedic reference books are in.

Burger Now, for the really big story of 2003: Obesity. Hunter Public Relations released its annual survey of food editors, a poll to determine which were the most visible topics in the food arena in 2003. Here are the results, from Hunter P.R.:


NEW YORK CITY, Dec. 11, 2003—What food-related story is top banana in 2003? Without question, the "big" food news of the year is America's ever increasing waistline, as voted by the nation's newspaper and magazine food editors.

Throughout 2003, study after study revealed that Americans (especially children and teens) are consuming more calories than ever before, partly due to the "super sizing" of portions. Consumer lawsuits against food companies (such as McDonald's and Oreo) illustrated the collective frustration at the high calorie / low nutritional nature of today's food offerings. In response, food companies (such as Kraft Foods—North America's largest food company) announced new initiatives to help fight obesity, including a cap on the portion size of single-serve packages and the elimination of in-school marketing. But reversing the effects will take time. Meanwhile, non-food companies are adjusting their merchandise to accommodate a larger America. For example, traditional clothing retailers now report more than 20 percent of all clothing sales for women are "plus sizes."

Fat The obesity story easily tipped the scales as the No. 1 food story of the year, with virtually every editor participating in the survey ranking it within the top three. The survey was initiated and conducted by Hunter Public Relations (HPR), the nation's largest independent PR agency servicing the food and beverage industry. Based in New York City, HPR launched the survey via mail in late November 2003, reaching out to more than 1,300 food editors across the country.

In an effort to win the battle of the bulge, Americans embraced the Atkins Diet like never before. Editors voted the resurgence of the Atkins Diet—which occurred as the previously controversial diet was vindicated in several studies—as the year's No. 2 food story. The Wall Street Journal even noted in a column on Dec. 11 that the 20-year high price in eggs is due to the increase in demand brought about by those adhering to the Atkins plan. Dr. Robert Atkins, who died on April 17, sold more than 15 million copies of his book "Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution" in 31 years. The Atkins Diet emphasizes proteins and fats while discouraging the consumption of rice, bread and fruit.

Trans fatty acid—the Food & Drug Administration's public enemy No. 1—was voted as the third most important story of the year. In July, the FDA announced that trans fats must be listed on the nutrition facts panel of conventional food products and some dietary supplements by 2006. The FDA hopes the move will help educate consumers to the confirmed relationship between trans fat and an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

A political hot potato—literally—captured the No. 4 spot on the survey. When France wouldn't join the United States in going to war with Iraq, war hawks deemed the word "French" as inappropriate for American menus. Suddenly "Freedom Fries" and "Freedom Toast" appeared on the menu at the White House commissary, French restaurants began receiving hateful voicemail messages, and French wine was boycotted.

Another diet weighed in on the survey at No. 5. Cardiologist Arthur Agatston quickly hit the top of the bestsellers lists with his new The South Beach Diet: The Delicious, Doctor-Designed, Foolproof Plan for Fast and Healthy Weight Loss. Initially developed as an eating plan that would improve the cholesterol and insulin levels of patients with heart disease, South Beach quickly became a phenomenon with the promise of losing between eight and 14 pounds in the first two weeks.

The No. 6 spot goes to a study released at an annual meeting of the American Heart Association in November that reported a "Mediterranean Diet" rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables and low in fat may prevent heart disease. Originally named the Mediterranean Diet after a group of people with very low rates of heart disease in the Mediterranean, the diet has seen eras of popularity in the United States. As outlined, the diet follows the Food Guide Pyramid quite closely, possibly giving validity to the established standard despite growing criticism from supporters of other diet regimes.

No. 7 is a bill introduced to Congress in November that would require restaurants to prominently list nutrition information—including calories—on menus. While many national chains currently post nutritional information about their products on Web sites, bill supporters are arguing that this is not enough.

A redefinition of the word "homemade" bubbled up to No. 8. Several decades ago, homemade meant grinding your own flour to make a cake. Several years ago, something was homemade if you assembled four or five ready-to-use ingredients. Now, many "culinarily-challenged" folks are proudly calling their cake that's made from a mix "a homemade original"—as long as they doctor it up with two or three added ingredients. Chef and author Sandra Lee has capitalized on this new "Semi Homemade" movement with a book on the bestsellers list, and articles appearing virtually everywhere, touting the taste and ease of simply spicing up pre-packaged foods.

An ironic twist in the travel world landed at No. 9. Remember when they couldn't pay you to eat airline food? In 2003, passengers began paying airlines for the right to eat airline food. When airlines began cutting meals as part of a cost-cutting measure after 9/11, passengers grumbled. So airlines returned food to flights for a fee, with America West launching the first test in January. The practice has taken off at many other airlines since then.

Finally, a true couch potato could rejoice in 2003 with the launch of reality TV based on food, which rounds out the survey at No. 10. Turning the table on romance-focused reality programming, NBC launched "The Restaurant" reality show by opening and operating a restaurant in Manhattan. Featuring Chef Rocco DiSpirito, the show was a modest ratings success, and NBC is considering a return in 2004. A few months later, Jamie Oliver was also the subject of a restaurant reality program, which aired on Food Network.

Many other food stories were considered in the survey, but ultimately didn't make the grade, including strikes at grocery stores in several states, the government's encouragement to stock up on bottled water as part of their terror alerts, and a "food fight" at Milwaukee's baseball stadium involving a costumed Italian Sausage being skewered by a Pittsburgh Pirate while racing around the infield with a costumed bratwurst and hot dog.

Editors were also asked to predict the big food stories or trends in 2004. Several commented that food safety / food handling would rise in importance, as well as the source of America's food (including concerns related to genetically modified food and the spread of mad cow disease). Many also see a continued acceptance of a low-carb diet, with more low-carb options highlighted on menus. And most food editors also envision we'll continue to desire quick and easy meal solutions to fit our hectic lifestyles.

* * * *

So, those were the top food topics of 2003. Will they be the same for 2004? Tune in next year and we'll see. In the meantime, if the call for more quick and easy meal solutions is a top topic in your home, here are a few cozy recipes from 2003 to get you in and out of the kitchen with style.



Spaghetti with Peas and Pancetta
Spicy Vanilla Chicken
The FTBBLT: The Full-Tilt Boogie BLT
Sausages with Black Grapes
Caldo Verde
Brownie Shards


Kate's Global Kitchen for January 2004:
01/02/04     Hot Off the Presses: Kate's Newest Books
01/09/04     Pampered Pets—and People, Too!
01/16/04     MACHO NACHOS: Kate's Book of Love
01/23/04     The Really BIG Stories of 2003
01/30/04     Super Bowl: The Big Crunch


Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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