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Consumers have been focused on indulgence to deal with chaos because of the ease and comfort of indulgent foods, whether sweet or savory.

Viewpoint: Chaos and the consumer psyche…how to look at food trends now

Food trends guru Maeve Webster dives deep into the complexity and chaos of food trends and shifts between comfort and wellness and back. Plus: When will wild experimentation with food come back?

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.

After a very tumultuous 12 months, it seems hard to think about trends—food, beverage or otherwise. Trends seem a thing more relevant to happier or more dynamic times. Chaos, however, is incredibly dynamic and trends emerge regardless of whether we are experiencing growth booms or busts. The key is to understand where to look for the trends, how to look at them, and to understand how those trends are likely to evolve as we move through the chaos and into less turbulent times.

For the past two years, I have worked with Culinary Tides to analyze trends to create forecasts for the coming year. Creating this year’s Trends Shaping the Food Industry in 2021/2022 report was both unusual and fascinating, given what the nation and the industry has and will continue to move through during 2021 and into 2022.

To begin, it is important to understand that consumers will continue to exist in a state of caution and anxiety despite the advancement of the vaccine and lifting, gradually in some places to aggressively in others, of mitigation efforts. After more than a year of heightened uncertainty, consumers won’t pivot quickly into a less fearful and more confident state. This is important to understand as consumer psyche has an enormous influence over what they need and want, and how open they are to being challenged by new experiences. In this case, most consumers will remain more conservative in their behavior and will look for new, but still safe, experiences. To that end, we found many of the predictions skewed toward those that have the greatest potential approachability for consumers.

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We will see some shifts, though, heading into the middle of this year. Consumers have been focused on indulgence to deal with chaos because of the ease and comfort of indulgent foods, whether sweet or savory. Toward summer, the need to exert more control over their lives will result in a shift in behavior toward more health-focused foods. Controlling what you eat is a way to control, in part, your environment. This shift will focus on those foods, beverages and ingredients that are believed to offer functional benefits. Specifically, the emphasis will be on benefits tied to immunity function, sleep quality, cognitive health, and mood moderation or stress reduction.

There are many ingredients that are being promoted as offering these types of benefits, with or without the scientific backing many consumers will increasingly look for, including elderberry, caffeine, mushrooms and ginger. These products are shifting categories as well with caffeine making the leap into food and mushrooms influencing beverage innovation. Keep in mind that this new or emerging healthy behavior, because of ongoing anxiety about COVID-19, will be closely tied with indulgence or, more precisely, the need for guiltless enjoyment.

One curious result of our current situation, and the situation that presented itself in the last year, is the near total lack of travel. International travel virtually disappeared and what little travel that occurred last year and into 2021 has been domestically focused. Where does that leave the influence of international cuisines? Largely, we are looking at flavors and formats that were influencing our industry prior to the pandemic.

Few truly new ingredients, flavors or formats will emerge this year and likely into 2022. Rather, expect iterations of common foods familiar to consumers – like sandwiches, stews, handhelds, country fare – to drive new offerings. Consider sandos, quesabirria, pierogis and meat pies as iterations, based on international cuisine or influences, of formats consumers have a great deal of experience with. These “new” (to an American audience) options provide unique experiences that are infinitely more approachable to a cautious consumer. Domestic travel has, as well, refocused many consumers on the unique offerings across the country, and that focus has shifted to a far more hyper-regional lens including Appalachian and Low Country. Social justice issues have also turned a spotlight on Indigenous cuisine and cuisines that are unique to the African American experience such as Gullah and Floribbean.

There is, certainly, pent-up demand for something new. We cannot mistake that pent-up demand for the new or boredom with food consumers have been eating on repeat since the beginning of the pandemic as a sudden openness to extreme experimentation. That level of culinary exploration will not return until 2022. Despite that, there are still limitless opportunities for innovation for those open to understanding the new market conditions and the shifting consumer state.

Maeve_Webster_of_Menu_Matters.jpgMaeve Webster is president of Menu Matters and is a consultant and thought leader for the foodservice industry. She has spearheaded hundreds of major industry studies during her 20 years as a foodservice specialist and today runs a private consultancy working with foodservice professionals to analyze, understand and leverage food and consumer behavior trends to support strategic goals and tactical objectives. She can be reached at (802) 430-7085 and maeve@menumatters.com.

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