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Nutrition Through The Decades: 1990s

Nutrition through the Decades: 1990s

In the 1990s, companies set out to create “healthier” alternatives to their famous brand foods without wanting to compromise the taste. Who wouldn’t want to eat cookies and chips with no side effects? Simple marketing techniques with “dieting” jargon were the keys to success regardless of them adding harmful chemicals and fats in their products without the customer ever suspecting.

Phrases like “lean”, “diet”, “fat free” and “low fat” were the buzz words of the decade that kept customers coming back thinking they were losing weight but many experienced devastating results from the fake-fat chemicals. But thanks to the United States Congress passing the H.R.3562 - Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990[1], companies are required by federal law to provide its customers with nutrition labels stating the amount of fat, sugar, carbs, sodium, and other ingredients in their products including manmade fats like olestra.

Frito-Lays was just one of many companies trying to bank on these dieting fads with the introduction of the 1998 WOW Chips laced with a fake-fat called olestra. Olestra provided that same desirable taste but also created major digestive issues including stomach cramps, anal leakage, and diarrhea. The fake-fat trap was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1996 regardless of the major gastral side effects but soon required Frito-Lays to place an FDA warning label on any olestra-induced products. Once Frito-Lays changed the words from “Fat Free” to “Light” on their products, the FDA warning was lifted in 2003, and costumers unknowingly bought the olestra-containing products once again.[2]

If “fat free” didn’t work, “0% trans-fat” was the marketing game. Trans fats are created either naturally through animal parts or artificially (also called trans fatty acid) with vegetable oils provided a cheap solution to self-life longevity and a growing druglike addiction in the flavoring especially in fast food. According to the American Heart Association, before the 1990s, very little research was done on trans-fat and their harms. It was later discovered trans-fat caused a rise in cholesterol levels which increased the rates of heart disease and type 2 diabetes[3]. However, as we become more health conscience, fast and easy choices of fast food and frozen dinners can still cause us to consume unhealthy amounts of trans-fat.

Sunny Delight and Capri Sun were other issues. Originally called Sunny D in the 1960s, the fake “orange juice” showed a cooler way for active kids to drink juice instead of Diet Cokes and Crystal Pepsi. Once again, “healthy alternatives” marketing “100% Vitamin C” but dousing the product with artificial sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, and colorings dissolved any form of nutrition in this product[4]. Marketing regular orange juice would have been a much better option. Capri Sun might not contain high fructose corn syrup, but some of their various flavors range in sugar consumption from 10-20 grams plus added sugars[5].

If anything good came out of those two products besides the fun flavors, it was the commercials promoting an active lifestyle for kids. Companies marketed the product as a kids version of sports drinks while playing sports, surfing, and riding bikes instead of binge watching Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel.

In fact, one of the best things that came out of the 1990s were the sports centered shows and after school programs that encouraged kids and teens to begin healthy habits they would hopefully carry into adulthood. Jump Rope for Heart was a great jump-rope program by the American Heart Association that helped raised awareness about the increasing rate of heart disease in the United States, while shows like the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and the entire Nickelodeon Games and Sports for Kids channel made exercise exciting with martial arts, roller blading, extreme sports, and crazy obstacle courses that kids would attempt to recreate at home or participate in ones at school.

American schools still required Physical Education classes as part of the regular curriculum, but some P.E. games were deemed dangerous like Dodgeball, which favored the athletes, and many children were injured[6]. By the late 1990s, with the rise in obesity, P.E. classes shifted from sports and games and turned to stretching exercises and running around a track.

While kids were getting sugar highs on processed foods and recreating Nickelodeon GUTS sport challenges with their friends, many adults at the time were tuning in to workout videos with celebrities like Paula Abdul and La Toya Jackson or participating in Tae Bo and Jazzercise classes that were increasing in popularity[7].

The Atkins Diet was another low carb weight loss trend among adults that didn’t become popular until the late 1990s. This diet plan required its dieters to eliminate all carbohydrates, including certain nutritional fruits. Modern science has informed that all four macromolecules (Fats, Proteins, Carbs, and Nucleic Acids) are necessary for the proper body function. These restrictions causes the body to go into “survival mode” storing anything it is given and triggers cravings. “Once the diet is broken and the dieter goes back their usual eating routine, the body remains in “survival mode” and continues to store higher levels than necessary. Leading to an unavoidable “re-bounce” in weight that will be more difficult to manage.”[8]

While major food corporations looked for an easy to grab, cheap, and bodily harmful chemicals to boost a fake nutritious option for profit, the 1990 Dietary Guidelines[9] provided the best and healthiest fat burning program from the very beginning of the decade. Eat a variety of 40 different nutrient rich foods, maintain a healthy weight, choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, choose a diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, and grains, use sugar and sodium only in moderation, and finally, drink alcohol in moderation. A simple formula that isn’t much different from today’s diets and worth the struggles of a healthy life in the end.

[1] Rep. Waxman, H. A.-C.-2. (1990, 11 08). H.R.3562 - Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990. Retrieved from United States Congress Web site:

[2] TheAssociated Press. (2006, June 1). Frito-Lay to better label chips with olestra. Retrieved from NBC News:

[3] American Heart Association. (2017, March 23). Trans Fats. Retrieved from American Heart Associatation Web site:

[4] Stamford, B. (2016, December 1). Is Sunny Delight really 'The Best?'. Retrieved from Courier Journal:

[5]35 Capri Sun Nutrition Label. (2016, February 21). Retrieved from Dandelions and Things Blog:

[6] Lori Ciccomascolo, E. S. (2013). The Dimentions of Phystical Education. Burlington: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

[7] Notis, A. (2018, March 23). 10 Amazing Workout Videos from the '90s That Are Still Awesome. Retrieved from Best Life:

[8] Jansen, J. (2017, March 21). Fad Diets of the 90s. Retrieved from Santa Cruz Core Fitness + Rehab:

[9] Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2021, August 24). 1990 Dietary Guidelines. Retrieved from The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources : file:///C:/Users/pauem/OneDrive/Pictures/Saved%20Pictures/1990thin.pdf

Author: Emily Pau

Editor: Sophia Galvez

Health scientist: Hira Mughal


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