EVANSVILLE, Ind., Feb. 4 (UPI) -- Loved by some for its health benefits and disliked by others for its cardboard-like consistency, kale might be heading for a makeover.
After surging in popularity several years ago, sales of the dark green, leafy vegetable are beginning to plateau. One vegetable breeder hopes to change that by creating varieties of kale with new flavors, textures and colors.
"It's mainstreaming kale, to some extent," said Phillip Griffiths, an associate professor of horticulture at Cornell Agri-Tech in New York.
"Kale has become one of those health foods, and only certain people eat it," he said. "But there are a lot of people who eat leafy greens because they want something fresh and healthy."
To reach those customers, Griffiths is creating a whole line of new kale.
Some of his plants have a milder flavor that might appeal to those who dislike the taste of traditional kale.
Others are less fibrous for those who like their greens easier to chew.
And a kale offering in lighter green color could entice customers who shop with their eyes and are looking for a brighter salad.
Ultimately, the changes are meant to help kale appeal to a wider range of consumers without fundamentally changing what people already love about the plant, such as the curliness of its leafs or its nutritional profile, Griffiths said.
"You take a product that's become popular for some very good reasons and improve it based on market preferences, but still keep it very close to what it is," Griffiths said. "You have the potential to open it up to a wider range of people."
To achieve these changes, Griffiths is using traditional methods. In some cases, he is selectively breeding kales to bring out certain characteristics. In others, he is crossing kale with other leafy green vegetables.
Griffiths is particularly proud of a new variety he calls "savoy kale," which is a selectively bred Tuscan kale "with some collard in its ancestry," he said. "It has a milder taste and a more fleshy, less fibrous leaf."
The introduction of new kale varieties could be coming at just the right time, said Steve Lutz, the senior vice president of insights and innovation at Category Partners, an Idaho-based strategic insights company that collects data on fresh produce sold in grocery stores.
Kale rose from obscurity to become a popular leafy green vegetable about five years ago, Lutz said. Farmers in states like California, Georgia and New Jersey rushed to grow enough to satisfy American consumers' growing demand.
"If you go back six or eight years ago, you only saw a big head of kale on the shelf," Lutz said. "Then, what really got kale going was that companies started launching packaged products -- things like salad mixes that appealed to convenience shoppers. That really expanded the options for retailers."
A short time later, kale became swept up in the juicing craze.
Now, half a decade later, the novelty of bagged kale has subsided and juicing has plateaued, Lutz said. And it's showing in the sales.
Between 2015 and 2019, the volume of kale sold at American grocery stores dropped by more than 5 percent, according to data compiled by Category Partners. Sales in dollars dropped by nearly 12 percent during that same period.
"What you're looking at here is basically a category that's stopped growing," Lutz said. "And you could almost argue that it is declining. If you're going to continue the growth of the kale market, you're going to need new innovation. What [Griffiths] is doing at Cornell might well be it."
Griffith said he began to breed his new kales 12 years ago. With several new varieties now in hand, he is seeking progressive, upscale restaurants that are willing to try them out. If customers at these restaurants like the new kale, he hopes to expand to other restaurants, and eventually see the new vegetables in the mainstream market.
"The net goal is you want to encourage people to have a healthier, more nutritious diet," Griffiths said. "So, if you take a nutritious food and you're able to develop new varieties with characteristics that people are more used to, you might encourage them to eat a healthier diet."