[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Food Dive posts from guest contributor Sam Vance.]
Usually, I blog about food on my blog, Edible Intelligence. I talk about food from the perspective of someone with both the education and the experience about food science, food safety, and the food industry.
I try to approach topics rationally and cut through the hype and misinformation you are likely to find on the Internet. For my first post on Food Dive, I thought I would put together a small list of food product trends to look for in 2014. To make the list, I looked at what products have recently come out and looked at what topics are in vogue in the foodie world.
For flavors, the trend will be BOLD! If you look at the past few years, you see food companies taking a few more chances. Pringles came out with Cinnamon & Sugar chips while Frito-Lay launched Cheesy Garlic Bread, Sriracha, and Chicken & Waffle flavored chips. We've already seen spicier flavors hit as food companies are finally more comfortable branding something spicier than Jalapeño. Habanero is a pretty common flavor now in snack foods.
I look for the trend to go decidedly Asian. Look for Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, and perhaps even Vietnamese inspired flavors for everything from soups, to condiments, and even snack foods. There is a business case for this as well, since these unique savory flavors don't require quite as much salt. Also, Asians are a fast growing minority here in the States. For a sneak preview of the types of flavors you may expect to see in a test market near you, I suggest following Dr. Ricky on Twitter since he has a good grasp of deep Asian cuisine.
That leads me into the next trend for 2014, which is ingredient simplification. Ingredient simplification includes a simple reduction of one or more ingredients or a reduction in the total number of ingredients in a product. The big one here is salt, even though there is some research that suggests that lowering salt intake may not correlate with direct health improvements. Indeed, we do need salt to live, the question is how much? To further complicate things, potassium based salts can be substituted in some instances, which would help raise American's low intake of potassium. Ultimately, product reformulations are a product of consumer demand, not hard science (more on that, later).
American consumers have been conditioned in recent years to distrust anything with a lengthy ingredients list or anything with hard to pronounce ingredients. Before people in R&D labs across the country start tossing darts at pictures of Michael Pollan, I would argue that there is a business case for a reduction of ingredients.
First of all, salt is heavy and creates a big strain on equipment that mixes, augers, or blows it throughout the plant. It's the heaviest mineral besides zinc, which means a significant portion of it's cost is in transportation. That cost is carried out in overhead from all the extra ingredients as they are shipped to distribution centers and out to the stores.
We may also need to revisit the need for certain ingredients that extend the shelf life longer than is necessary. If we can cut an anti-oxidant or a moisture retainer and reduce the shelf life slightly, we may win some form of respect from the consumers, who never understood what those things did in the first place.
Regardless of whether you're on the side of science or you think GMO's are 'lies straight from the pit of hell', the technological process for creating plant(and even animal) varieties will be a hot topic. We already saw where General Mills, in its infinite wisdom, decided to go GMO free with Cheerios. The true irony of this decision is that the people who are most against Cheerios having ANY GMO ingredients are the same people who don't eat Cheerios. Way to know your audience, General Mills.
This is a tricky issue for food companies, because they have to weigh immediate consumer demand against how this will look in the future. As more people become scientifically literate, they tend to be less of an activist against the proven safe process of turning on or off or inserting a gene into a plant or animal. By playing into the emotions of misinformed consumers and the activists feeding their outrage, they risk legitimizing concerns where there currently are none, and ultimately, ruining a technological process before it has a chance to make a truly awesome impact on the world.
As a business decision, a company must weigh whether going GMO-free will get them more sales now, versus missing out on more cost effective ingredients in the future. Sure, they could switch back to GMO ingredients in the future, but that's assuming GMO's will be able to survive if companies jump ship due to consumer demand.
So there you have it, three food product trends I predict we'll see in the coming year. If you like what I wrote so far, let Food Dive know on Twitter. Also, please visit my blog, Edible Intelligence. You can also follow me @samvance on Twitter.