(MOTHERJONES) — They’re widely vilified—including by me—but food industry marketers really do have a tough job. People can only eat so much, and in industrialized countries where food is plentiful, they don’t tend to consume more of it as their incomes grow. Unlike sales of, say, personal computers in the 1990s or tablets in the 2010s, overall US food spending tends to be pretty flat—it rises roughly with the growth of population.
One way the industry responds to this stagnation is to roll out “new and improved” products—an endless grope for bigger pieces of a slow-growing pie. Junk food manufacturers are masters of this game: Smokin’ Bacon Ranch Miracle Whip Dipping Sauce, anyone? But the natural-food industry does it, too—with superfoods such as açaí berries, goji berries, quinoa, and chia seeds.
These pricey, often exotic ingredients cycle quickly in and out of the foodie spotlight. Açaí berries were barely known outside of Brazil a decade ago, but last year açaí-laced products grossed nearly $200 million in the United States. And while açaí sales have dropped recently as their novelty has worn thin, coconut oil—touted as a wonder fat—is picking up the slack with $62 million in 2012, double the previous year’s level.