Consumer demand for healthy ingredients, complex flavor profiles and environmentally sustainable offerings greatly shaped the food industry in 2017. With these trends deeply entrenched, expect many of them to dominate again this year.
Botanical flavors, science-based foods and indulgent products are just a few product attributes expected to be top of mind for consumers in 2018, according to major manufacturers and research firms. Other ares to watch include transparency, sustainability and ethnic offerings.
“We’re seeing food trends emerge and shift at an ever-increasing rate. ... Whether you’re an accomplished chef, bona fide foodie or have a passing interest in food, you should keep a look out for these trends and incorporate some into your cooking and eating habits,” Thomas Griffiths, vice president of Campbell’s Culinary & Baking Institute, said in a release.
Time will tell how these six projections will impact this year's product offerings, but several food company experts and industry analysts have already seen these trends start to make their way into the marketplace.
Plants and flowers are springing up in food and beverage items as more consumers become interested in their potential healing properties. They include the leaves of the moringa oleifera tree, ashwagandha (Indian ginseng), lavender and curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric.
McCormick & Co. embraced the trend early by purchasing Botanical Food Company of Australia in 2016. The company manufactures packaged herbs designed for busy consumers who want an easy way to incorporate the fresh ingredient in their meals.
Campbell's Culinary & Baking Institute, part of food giant Campbell Soup, included botanicals in the company's six trends to watch in 2018 list. Griffiths told Food Dive that Asian ingredients such as ginger, lavender and cardamom are standouts right now.
"[The trend is] exciting because it's natural and global, very chef-friendly and clean label, and it has potential for health and wellness, which Campbell is very interested in," he said. "If our consumers are eating matcha or cardamon, it's something we're going to source."
This trend began with the clean-label movement, driven by consumer demand for more product information, fewer artificial ingredients and more sustainable production and packaging. Recently, it has extended beyond labels to include product traceability as shoppers grow more interested in where their food comes from and how it was handled along the supply chain.
Only a few food makers print the name and location of the farm, along with the signature of the producer, on their packaging, but that's the practice of Farmhand Organics. The Colorado-based company also uses transparent jars to display its fermented and preserved food products, which are both locally sourced and certified organic.
Other brands taking transparency the extra mile include One Degree Organics, which uses an on-package QR code that shows farmer profiles, and Bellucci, which lists the harvest date, type of olives and lot number on its extra virgin olive oil bottles.
Technology is playing an ever-larger role in transparency as brands adopt applications that allow shoppers to scan a package and learn immediately about where it came from. Blockchain is the latest innovation in supply chain transparency, especially when it comes to seafood. With this digital ledger, shoppers can trace a fish's entire journey from ocean to plate.
Consumers increasingly prefer presentation, packaging and marketing approaches that tell a story about the product and how it was produced so they can feel a personal connection to their food. Shoppers also want to know that companies they buy from reflect their values by embracing missions such as environmental sustainability and ethical treatment of workers and animals. According to Label Insight, food manufacturers that adopt "complete transparency" are rewarded with consumer loyalty of about 94%.
"Brands are increasingly realizing that to differentiate themselves, they need to demonstrate the values they promote, and visibility into their products and company is one way to do this," Jamie Katz, a member of the Whole Foods Market quality standards team, told Food Dive in an email. "If you’re a company [that] has a social responsibility program, you’re going to tell that story."
3. Ethnic cuisine
Asian and Middle Eastern flavors have struck a chord with consumers who are seeking new and intriguing items beyond the well-known standbys such as sushi, tempura, hummus, tahini and yogurt. Asian flavors balance the five basic tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami — while Middle Eastern ones range from spice blends with texture — such as za'atar and dukkah — to labna, a soft and spreadable cheeses made from strained yogurt.
Spicy flavors do well in the U.S., and many shoppers are exploring beyond basic hot sauces as food makers highlight more authentic, ethnic flavors. Changing demographics are behind some of this trend, particularly as the purchasing power of the millennial demographic increases and companies target growing Hispanic and Asian populations.
According to Statista, retail sales of ethnic foods will jump from $10.9 million in 2013 to an estimated $12.5 million this year.
Molly Siegler, Whole Foods' associate culinary and hospitality coordinator, told Food Dive she thinks consumer interest in ethnic flavors will only expand the footprint for these products in the company's stores, as well as in other retail outlets.
"It's a wonderful way to travel without having to leave the comfort of your home. It's only going to grow," Siegler said. "From a prepared foods perspective, we take a real restaurant-style approach to hot bars and salad bars and other venues within the stores, and look forward to bringing more of these flavors into our stores."
4. Science-based foods
Food made from technology — such as cell-cultured meat and highly realistic plant-based meat analogues — is no longer the stuff of science fiction. A few futuristic products are already in stores and restaurants, and more will soon be on the way as companies work to develop and scale up state-of-the-art foods to meet the public's growing appetite for these innovations.
Beyond Meat, known for its successful plant-based burger products, recently launched Beyond Sausage that is made with pea protein isolate, coconut oil and sunflower oil. The vegetarian product is designed to mimic the flavor, texture and shape of pork sausage without the hormones, nitrates, soy and gluten.
Sales of plant-based foods grew 8.1% during the past year, according to the Plant Based Foods Association and The Good Food Institute. Nielsen estimated that plant-based meats accounted for 2.1% of sales in refrigerated and frozen meat products sold at retail.
Cell-cultured meat also is gaining traction, and startups have begun to experiment with fish as well as beef and poultry. Finless Foods is developing a cell-cultured Bluefin tuna that the company hopes can achieve price parity with the real thing by next year. While the initial lab prototype weighed in at about $19,000 per pound, Finless Foods recently said that production costs have been cut in half since September.
Science-based foods certainly can carry an "ick" factor, but the purported environmental and nutritional benefits of "clean meat" may prove enticing.
"Consumers today eat meat despite how it’s produced, not because of how it’s produced," Bruce Friedrich, co-founder and executive director of The Good Food Institute, said in a blog. "Once clean meat is commercially available and is offered alongside conventional meat — and consumers are thereby informed of all its advantages — we at GFI have no doubt that consumers will opt for the former."
This trend has moved beyond merely producing food in an environmentally conscious ways and selling it in recyclable packaging. Consumers are taking a more active role in the battle against food waste, a mindset that is leading many shoppers to try and use all parts of a plant or animal, rather than cherry-picking some and throwing the rest away.
Also called "root-to-stem" and "nose-to-tail" eating, this expanded type of sustainability is likely to appear equally in meat and produce departments. According to Siegler, who spends her time in the Whole Foods' test kitchen in Austin, Texas, the company has always bought entire animals and made sure that everything was utilized in some way. Applying the same approach to produce is just an extension of that mindset, she said.
"When you think of the most beautiful carrot, it's not the ones already bagged with their tops off. It's the ones with the tops and [that] are multi-colored and gorgeous," she told Food Dive. "People are attracted to that sort of produce but may feel some sense of guilt. You have these gorgeous green tops but don't know how to use them except putting them in compost or throwing them away."
A solution is to use the typically tossed-out parts — broccoli stems, watermelon rinds or cantaloupe seeds — in restaurants, prepared foods and at-home recipes to reduce waste and create an interesting eating experience.
One example from the Whole Foods root-to-stem playbook features shaved fennel bulbs, along with the fronds and stems, which are topped with a lemon vinaigrette. The company highlights these products with in-store signage, and provides root-to-stem recipes at its retail outlets and online.
"Part of what that's doing is getting some interest going for some new products, but also allowing our teams to partner better," Siegler said. "So the produce teams and prepared foods teams work together to make these salads happen. It's a better way to utilize products within the store."
6. Indulgence foods
Comfort foods containing butter, lard and other fats and oils are back in style. Today's consumers seem more interested in reducing the amount of sugar and sodium they consume than about the amount of fat in their diet. As many large CPG manufacturers limit sugar and sodium levels to meet consumer demand, saturated fats are being added back in to some foods to compensate.
For some shoppers, stress about the economy, the weather or the future encourage people to reach for indulgent treats such as premium chocolate, pizza or macaroni and cheese — nostalgic foods that remind them of a simpler time, but can't be considered low-calorie or particularly healthy.
Healthier versions of popular comfort foods are making their way on to the marketplace. In 2015, Kraft Heinz reformulated its iconic macaroni and cheese to remove artificial dyes and preservatives. Some processed foods have been reformulated to contain less sodium, while many chips now have less salt and fat. Some comfort food is even sporting added vegetables.
A recent Packaged Facts report on fats and oils pointed out that less blame is being placed on those products for America's health problems. It noted there is growing recognition "that certain fat and oils can actually make positive health contributions."
According to David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts, U.S. consumers have changed their perceptions of how unhealthy these products really are. The reason is partly because of the popularity of the so-called Mediterranean diet that features less red meat and salt and favors using olive oil instead of butter.
"While artificial trans fats top the list of bad fats to avoid, certain types of fats such as omega-3s and monosaturated fats have been shown to have positive health benefits," he told Food Dive. "In addition, many consumers — especially millennials and Gen Z shoppers — are more concerned about choosing non-GMO, organic, clean-label products than avoiding high-fat ingredients.
Another element playing into the indulgence trend is that consumers generally value food products they view as "natural" over items that are more highly processed. It's no wonder that butter consumption is skyrocketing, reaching its highest level in more than 40 years in 2017, while demand for margarine and other spreads continues to slump.
Indulgence foods will always fit somewhere within the American diet, since nearly everyone has a tendency to eat food once in a while that isn't especially nutritious.
"We all have contradictory impulses on occasion, and over-the-top indulgences are always going to be here," he noted. "It shouldn't be a staple or your breakfast, but all-out indulgence always has a place."