Magic Spoon branding, courtesy Gander

In 2017, Bon Appetit launched a spinoff website, Healthyish, centered around an ethos that, in its words, “sums up the way many of us eat now.” Healthyish, the inaugural editor’s letter said, is “about satisfaction, not deprivation. It’s curious, never pedantic. And it should always, always, always be delicious.” With the title of its site, Bon Appetit had struck upon a term that neatly captures the modern approach to health, less than two decades after the diet-crazed ’90s—one more concerned with balance and nourishment than calorie counting and weight loss. And like any food trend worth its salt, the “healthyish” eating habits of today are reflected in the latest food brands and the way they choose to position themselves: Companies like Halo Top (low-fat ice cream), Magic Spoon (low-carb cereal), and Smart Sweets (low-sugar candy) are branding themselves as firmly anti-diet and pro-fun. 

This is a notable shift away from the cluttered, diet-focused look of brands like SlimFast and SnackWell’s, popular in the ’80s and ’90s, and an even further jump from the organic imagery and muted colors of brands like Back to Nature and Amy’s that came up around the same time. Instead, this new generation of alternative foods takes elements of what’s commonly thought of as junk food packaging—bright colors, playful art, limited text—and makes them abstract, sophisticated, and Instagrammable. With their sans serif fonts, graphics designed for legibility on social, and authentic-yet-fun art direction, these new health food products also take cues from startups and digital-first, direct-to-consumer lifestyle brands. In other words, they’re meant to appeal to millennials, who grew up around diet brands and came of age during the organic-everything era, and who have now landed at “healthyish.” Brands like Halo Top and Magic Spoon are ushering in a new food branding trend that’s not quite health food, not quite junk food, yet it incorporates the visual elements of both. 

Branding for by CHLOE. Courtesy Paperwhite.

To understand how we got to our current state of premium junk food branding, we should first look back on the health food culture of the 1980s, which emphasized convenience and weight loss. Nothing symbolized that attitude more than the aptly named SlimFast, a liquid meal replacement available in cans and in powdered form, which dominated the market. Like some healthyish foods today, early SlimFast packaging called out fiber as a benefit, alongside its key message: “The Natural Way to Lose Weight.” By the 1990s, SlimFast recognized the limitations of convincing consumers to eat “a shake for breakfast, a shake for lunch, then a sensible dinner,” ad infinitum, and expanded into solid foods, pitching itself as “a way of life.” Today, SlimFast even has a Keto line.

In 1992, the USDA developed the first food pyramid, which shelved fats, oils, and sugars into the “use sparingly” section at the top. That same year, SnackWell’s first appeared in grocery stores, and its Kelly green, declaratively “fat-free” boxes of cookies routinely sold out. Four years later, after a number of competing diet cookie options appeared to cater to consumer’s once-dormant desire for healthy treats, SnackWell’s sales plateaued. In 2015, the cookies were reformulated to suit modern tastes (no artificial flavors, no high fructose corn syrup) when SnackWell’s was bought by Back to Nature Foods. 

These new brands are “selling a lifestyle.”

If branding is a reflection of consumer preferences and the broader culture from which those preferences emerge, the look and feel of companies will inevitably shift with the times, as SnackWell’s and SlimFast have tried to do. Gone are the ’90s and early 2000s, when healthy eating was centered around denial. Even the food pyramid has been replaced by a food plate after public perception changed around high-fat foods and carbohydrates, following an overenthusiastic adoption of low-fat processed junk foods. Today’s attitude toward eating healthy is more concerned with balance and, importantly, enjoyment. Whereas Slimfast and SnackWell’s branding is crowded with various colors and fonts frantically communicating the weight loss and health benefits (Zero added sugar! 20g High Protein!), new health-conscious treats like Halo Top and Magic Spoon want first and foremost to communicate a sense of deliciousness and pleasure. 

This is because these brands are “selling a lifestyle,” says Hamish Campbell, creative director at Pearlfisher New York. “The best brands connect to the way you live.” He sees healthyish brands as fitting into a broader trend in marketing, which relies on word of mouth propelled by social media, rather than on traditional advertisement. As such, visual branding has to be impactful in an instant, able to capture the attention of their core demographic—those who grew up during the ’80s and ’90s—in the midst of the endless scroll. One way to do that is through nostalgia, which allows young, nothing-quite-like-it food brands to make something from nothing, to introduce a new category of food to customers without alienating them. It also offers adults a guilt-free way to bring a bowl of cereal or ice cream back into their lives.

“It’s not unhealthy, but it’s also not diet food.”

To that end, Mike McVicar, partner and creative director at Gander, the firm that worked on branding for Magic Spoon, says he and his team set out to make “the coolest cereal box we possibly could.” He cited Quisp, a once-discontinued 1960s Quaker cereal brand featuring a cartoon alien (created by the same artist who made Rocky and Bullwinkle), and the artwork of M.C. Escher as indirect influences on the Magic Spoon look. The brand’s target audience was described to McVicar and his team as “adults who grew up, but their cereal didn’t.”

Magic Spoon branding, courtesy Gander

This approach extends to physical spaces, too, like By Chloe, the rapidly expanding chain of fast casual vegan food. “We intentionally didn’t want to align visually with anything that fit into health food,” says Laureen Moyal, who, along with Devi Rhodes, her partner at Paperwhite, created the visual identity of the brand. “That’s because it’s not unhealthy, but it’s also not diet food.” Instead, Moyal says, the By Chloe look was also built around nostalgia: The restaurant uses playful, fast food-inspired design—tray liners that double as coloring pages, punny neon signs (“Guac Save the Queen”), marker-like font and illustrations throughout—to bring plant-based food to the masses. 

Moyal says that the references to burger and fry joints were a deliberate corrective to the pervasive earthiness of vegan food branding at the time of the launch of By Chloe in 2015. When Moyal started researching the vegan restaurant market, she found a specific visual style that connoted plant-based food, all “kraft paper and crunchy.” Five years ago, this crunchiness was also the norm for health-oriented consumer brands like Amy’s and Nature’s Path, both of which emerged in the late 1980s, when terms like “organic” and “non-GMO” started to appear on packaged food. But by 2015, this literal, vigorously natural interpretation of health (images of fields, warm color schemes) came to be associated with virtue at the cost of flavor, or at the very least, virtue at the cost of fun. It also assumed that plant-based foods were the provenance of hippies and farmers, not city-dwelling, Pilates-going novelty seekers. And that’s increasingly not the case. 

When it comes to the packaging of brands like Halo Top, Magic Spoon, and Smart Sweets, bright colors, bold graphics, and nostalgic kidlike-but-cool aesthetics are still joined by the fiber or protein content of the food (macros, in the nutritional parlance) as a way to assure consumers of the product’s dietetic rectitude. These foods aren’t necessarily healthy, but they’re not lacking in nutrition, either. They were made to be something in between, a too-good-to-be-true indulgence that leaves you feeling satisfied, and a perfect encapsulation of how we eat today, when wellness isn’t viewed as something to be suffered through or compartmentalized. Instead, it’s branded as easy and appealing, an opportunity to have more rather than less.