Higher consumer consciousness about health and the quality of purchased food created the new food market – the [over]informed customer. I wrote about the evolution of taste and consumer preferences, but here I elaborate on what we buy: the convenient, packaged food trends.
You have probably never been as confused about packaged food that you buy as you are now. Is local better than organic? Why grass-fed beef or dairy is now labeled as such? Does vegan lifestyle expand my lifespan? Is gluten such a rogue outlier that I must avoid it? Food choices are no longer only constrained by your religious beliefs, cultural values or just the millennia old necessity for survival. In the increasingly affluent world our options have widened.
The labels, new snacks and the entirely new products such as vegan, nut-based cheese and “milk” or jackfruit “meat” reflect our desires. The informed, millennial consumer has a greater control over what he or she eats with food that is labeled than when dining at restaurants. (Although some restaurants print the nutritional values on the menu, it is more common with take-out cafes and fast food chains).
After instant packaged food trends we got virtual insta food
Globalisation and the Internet (mainly the social media) opened the gates of influence and consumerism to the online community devouring the Insta content more visually than with a professional and independent judgement of quality, and of course taste. TripAdvisor gives voice to anyone, yet there are as many different types of diners as there are cuisines in the world, so a balanced, experienced and independent advice or opinion are much more valuable. Yet, what taste we like does not currently affect the food trends. The concepts, stories, the hip aura, design labels, … wrap the packaged food trends today.
Some of the following food trends sealed in our boxed or pouched grocery items when targeting food trends of dining out. Adding the unicorns that we preferably purchase, let’s look at what the food manufacturers market to us.
Foolish tricks in marketing food
At first a couple of practical warnings. Despite some claiming otherwise, these are not artisans. The produced quantity of most packaged foods on the shelves of our grocery stores does not allow for crafting each batch by a skilled hand. Just ignore any label that reads “artisanal”, it means nothing.
“Farm fresh” is another catch adding up to the price. Most produce that grows on land, is farmed by humans in the artificial sea farms or in the indoor urban hydroponic gardens such as at the K11 Mall in Shanghai, Perennial in San Francisco or Good Bank in Berlin, that Monika Thomasberger recently reported on for La Muse Blue, that all is farm-fresh.
The XX-free, XX-rich, the packages became overcrowded with loud claims. Besides, these do not matter that much unless you are genuinely allergic to something. The numbers and the percentages of daily recommended values by nutritionists do. In an effort to curb obesity, some countries such as the UK have developed a colour system, where red means too much of the bad stuff and green is good for you. Kosher label makes sense. If something is organic it means it is GMO-free, so there is no need to add double labels. If you are on a paleo or a a vegan diet you did your research and know that 100% beetroot juice is vegan and that almonds are paleo. The consumer is understood as a stupid creature that needs blink assurances. If the ingredients were printed large enough and the significant daily values per standardised serving were highlighted properly, we consumers would have our choices much easier!
Until now, the louder the magic claims on the label, the more expensive the product tended to be, yet now the tide is changing.
Those contests in who boosts with more, gave rise to the new PURIST LABELLING trend, a reaction to the excessive and confusing deceiving of consumers on the “awesome”, “divine”, “natural”, and other rubbish claims. The simply packaged foods are usually of “pure” origin, add $$.
The convenient, packaged food trends
ALLERGENS like dairy, gluten, nuts, and others have to be by law highlighted on the packaging in most developed countries, yet this also lead to confusion for many consumers. The XX-free: dairy-, gluten-, lactose-, nut-, sugar-, GMO-, …-free is printed on the labels, and entire food companies or product ranges have emerged based on this trend. A healthy consumer should be more concerned about the food safety such as harmful bacteria than allergens in food. Strawberries or cucumbers are allergens too so the consequence may be zillion labels on our salad. Except for where required by law, I see this food trend making us all looking intolerant or sick nearing its end.
CARBS the gluten aversion also cast spotlight on the sugar content in processed food. Cane sugar alternatives like agave, stevia, and maple syrup, are still around but now the most trendy sweetener is coconut blossom sugar. the “natural” and ideally “low GI” (glycemic index that indicates how fast the sugar enters the blood system – the faster it hits you, the bigger crash you experience, and more craving for additional sugar develops). In the diet world, when fat used to be the dare devil, now carbs are the scare crows. Read more in Dietary Myths.
CERTIFIED FOOD The above concerns about allergies joined by assurances about the provenance of the ingredients, farming’s environmental impact, animal welfare, new technologies employed in food manipulation and production (GMOs), that all created what I call “assurance against food anxieties”. A gap in consumer protection regulations, which should ensure that the ingredients inside are indeed what they claim to be, has been exploited by the food industry. It is not enough to claim that potato chips are “real”, but now a certification of what is and what is not inside entered the packaged food trends. The effect on pricing marked it up. As with the AOC seal of France, DOC of Italy, and similar protective labels, the “NON GMO Project Verified”, “Certified Vegan”, “Certified GF”, “Certified Paleo”, “K” Kosher, “Certified Grain-free”, “Organic”, “Fairtrade”, “Rainforest alliance”, and more are printed everywhere. Scanning an Italian rice product recently I found “Certified Italian Rice” seal. Are we going to read soon on a chocolate bar that there is “certified cocoa” inside it?
CHOCOLATE Now, that we know that the food of Gods, once seen as a dietary no-go, is super healthy, the chocolate manufactures flooded the world with their ceaseless creativity of cocoa-based concoctions. Artisan chocolate is particularly hip. Terroir driven high-percentage (>70%cocoa) chocolate bars continue to intrigue the discerning palates of the newly recruited chocolate connoisseurs. Vietnam in particular is desired. Its rarity allows only the best chocolatiers (eg. Pierre Marcolini) to work with it or insiders like the Vietnamese Marou Chocolates run by two Frenchmen with a direct access to their own plantations. White chocolate with matcha (read more on tea trends) or the raw (cru) cocoa with added superfoods, are also in the west. In Asia though, pastry is preferred over the pure chocolate bar obsession.
EMOTIONS the feel good “ingredients” like happiness, love, energy are now part of the labels. Love chock sells you “happiness inside”, and most new “artisan” chocolate makers will add a bit of “love” into their chocolates as they loudly claim on their labels. The marketers know that “we eat meaning” (source: Ferandi Food Trends course). Our values, beliefs and wishes determine what we eat, so marketing now plays on these vulnerable emotions arising from these three pillars of purchase behaviour. The Economist reported on a yogi in India making billions with his Ayurvedic potions, personal care and packaged food under Patanjali brand name. At the minute of decision-making the symbolic value of food is as powerful as our taste buds. Still, one’s intelligence whispers that you cannot buy love. yet, there are plenty of believers who will buy the love with their chocolates. Pop culture and politics enter our food chain too. During the Obama Presidential campaign I saw Barrack-faced chocolates in Seattle, on London’s chocolate fair Michael Jackson and other music stars decorated chocolate bars, and when Beyonce and Oprah announced their vegan dieting, millions followed them. The current female mayor of Turin promotes vegetarianism in the region where most of Italy’s significant food industry nests, so we will see even more “plant-based” products “Made in Italy”.
FERMENTATION Some packaged food trends stem from the food waste, health and seasonal cooking trends of the leading chefs. Where the four seasons bare the land for months during the winter, pickling and preserving vegetables, fruits, and whatever you can ferment became a necessity. Beyond the traditional Asian, Eastern European and Germanic fermenting cultures, glass jars of kraut, kimchi, gherkins, but increasingly kombucha. The later is fermented fizzy tea, transformed by a mother culture like in a vinegar. Its popularity grows across the continents, mainly because of the accent on refreshing and energising qualities of the millennial beverages and foods. Some flavours are superb, while others like blue algae or Bangkok detox spices are more hard core. Nut cheese has been also transformed from the outskirts to intriguing gourmet artisan creations. Riverdel vegan cheese shop in Brooklyn sells great nutty cedar, but the best two dairy-free “cheese” I have tried was a camembert made in Switzerland by New Roots, and a cream cheese style spread by Kite Hill in California (try also the Truffle, Dill & Chive). Fermentation makes foods more easily digestible and their usually accompanying pro-biotics are good for our gut flora. Even coconuts are now being fermented into plant-based yogurts.
FUNCTIONAL FOODS are embellished in the DETOX trend. Next to the detox juicing cures in restaurants and cafes the natural energy boosters, superfoods keep shouting into our healthy consciousness. Orthorexia, the obsession with correct eating was coined recently by psychiatrical pathology, and these too consumed by scanning all labels and at any cost not eating something they recently read about that might be not healthy enough is in it. Elle France criticised the demonisation of the agribusiness and the food producers, writing that “otherwise the life expectancy of the fellow citizens would not continue to increase”. Indeed, “there do not exist perfect foods which solve all problems” and the exaggerating purists of the Gwyneth Paltrow “clean eating” fellowship should relax. Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine said millennia ago “a dose makes poison”, so any magic herb can harm or in extreme cases kill in a certain quantity. These “medicinal foods” have risen our sustenance atop the Olympus of lifestyle choices. The cure-alls have a drip of a snake-venom in them – these claims are not proved by any substantial research as modern medicine has to be. They are loosely regulated in many countries, so beware of the food shamans!
GRASS-FED meat, from beef, dairy, chicken … are nutritionally superior since a more positive lipid profile is found in the grass-fed animals. Like with humans, what our food eats affects its health and the quality of its eggs, flesh and milk.
The health food trend gave birth to a little revolution in the retail section too: the rise of the NATURAL MARKET:
The word natural sounds gracious, yet it has been overused by the food companies recently, and the consumer is becoming immune to its often useless meaning in processed foods. Despite this, the Natural Markets have been growing faster than any new supermarket chains. As I observed on Manhattan, switching jackets is all what is slowly happening with these healthy for you stores. Many delis selling just about anything added “natural” to their storefronts. Yet, there are some that set a starry example for the rest sincerely health food focused markets. Erewhon has since 1968 supplemented naturally the diets of the Tv stars of the CBS studios in West Hollywood, and after almost a half century in operation the organic locally sourcing grocer expanded to the hipster Venice. The organic customers pay happily for “changing their lives and well being” (as Erewhon commits to). The ultra overpriced $7, plus tax and a glass bottle deposit (re-use your containers tradition is coming back) water, salt and not much else base Alkalizer, the more rewarding Turmeric Crush Smoothie ($13, plus, plus), and many other mostly locally made organic edible and sippable miracles get me and thousands of Angelenos grazing at Erewhon once in a while.
PLANTS and protein-focused substitutes of animal food such as meat, dairy, and eggs continue to intrigue consumers in their quest for a better health. Replacing meat, even partially, reduces the heart-clogging lipids in our bodies. It is also more sustainable, except for the soy products, particularly from Brazil where much of the rain forest has been cut down to carve new fields for the soy plantations. Many consumers are aware of this, which lead to a new food trend to list source of the concerned ingredient by the manufacturers that seek good relationships with their customers. “French soy” often appears on the labels of the French companies, “German soy” in German products. So does sugar, because of its fair-trade clashes, sugar cane when sourced from “equitable” locations and farms is being labeled as such. Veganism now goes beyond the Asian monasteries and Japanese traditional diets. In the popular Netflix series The Chef’s Table, next to the famous global chefs a vegan cooking monk was featured. Vegan is the new normal. The most delectable and positive outcome of the vegan and lactose-free tendencies is the emergence of plant-based “mylks” . By soaking and blending various grains or nuts with water the new mylk emerged. More eco-friendly, with its competitive edge supporting biodiversity (since some less common ancient grains are used), and by reducing our consumption of dairy balancing our nutritional needs. The vegan ice cream boom, where dairy was replaced by almond, cashew, coconut flesh, ripe bananas, sesame paste, and other creative plant-based ingredients, is fun. The Brooklyn-based Alchemy Creamery, Van Leeuwen emerged, but also the conventional food companies introduced vegan gelato.
POWDERS The exorbitantly priced dehydrated “super” fruits, nuts, seeds, sprouts, vegetables and grains that have been “activated”, “fermented”, “raw”, “soaked” or otherwise sanctified to justify their high price tag, are flooding the store shelves. A bag of dried banana powder comes at $20, so do powdered radish sprouts, but some exotic fruits and mushrooms like reishi and more rare finds can lure above $100 from your pocket! The cure-all medicinal food trend and orthorexia are nourished properly by the millennial marketers and food trends. This is the opposite pole of the heavily processed unnatural instant foods of the decades past.
RAW snacks have settled on our supermarket shelves. First a California whim that turned into a new lifestyle, eating everything uncooked or dehydrated to maximum 46 degrees Celsius, has first landed at the specialist health food stores but now Carefour and MarcheU in France, Merkur and Spar in Austria, PARKnSHOP in Hong Kong and China, Wholefoods in the US and UK, all carry “RAW” chips, fruits and other “highly nutritional” between the meals munchies. Soaked, sprouted and dehydrated snacks are the new potato chip.
SUSTAINABLE and FAIR TRADE (or DIRECT TRADE) label increasingly appears not just on chocolate but also on grains from Africa, Asia or South America. In Europe, the country of origin is also specified on the high quality organic products. “Foil4soil” is new easily biodegradable plastic foil that is increasingly used to wrap organic chocolate. Line-caught or sustainable certified fish joined the organic farmed fish on the iced shelves. Eco diet is slowly entering our consciousness. The tendency that what is good for the Planet is good for us should be persuasive for many supporters of the “green” food. Additionally, media’s interest in climate change brings awareness of many consumers around the globe about their carbon footprint, and that lifestyle choices significantly affect our environment.
TRIBAL With a specific group associating food rose with sharing on the social media. Following a certain tribe, group on Instagram, Facebook, Weibo or Twitter, subconsciously plants buying preferences into our heads. Check the groups you follow, then look at your cupboard, and write me what connection you found! I smiled when I scanned my pantry. Understanding the symbolic value of food opens the doors to pleasing a certain group of consumers. The target consumer today can be: eco-conscious, animal lover, phobia-prone, health-focused, dieter, fan, politically voiced, savvy traveler, …Ethical food, and getting back to our origins in the globalised, less culturally and nationally defined world, gave rise to the primitive food trend that defines the paleo tribe, the ancient grains are favoured by adventurers, the raw group, and others. The nomadic cuisine connects the influential chefs who travel and meet each other annually during the World’s Best Restaurant award ceremony, and translated from the restaurants to food trucks and the packaged food trends. Tiger or Philippine pili nuts for breakfast anyone?
UMEBOSHI is another Japan-born food trend after seaweed, miso, and matcha flavoured everything. As the sea urchin penetrates the menus away from the Japanese sushi counters, umeboshi, the pickled pink plum seasoning, enters more packaged foods, dressings and sauces.
VEGETABLES and more natural meat replacers than the soy or seitan burgers are taking over the market shelves. In the US the Herbivorous Butcher cuts vegan slices for its plants-only eating customers, and the new Wholefoods lining the Bryant Park in Manhattan has also a vegetable butcher corner. Recently, I tried jackfruit carnitas in Miami, a fun replacement of meat, just the sugar and spicy seasoning though reminded of the flavour, not the texture. Recently, I tried jackfruit carnitas in Miami, a fun replacement of meat, just the sugar and spicy seasoning though reminded of the flavour, not the texture. The crunchy fetish in snacking rolled the baked, fried, desiccated or dried vegetable crisps on the grocery shelves as “healthy snacks”. Well, if they contain its of added salt and oil, then they are not that far from the classic potato chips. Scan the labels always with suspicion.
The tides of influence are shifting East. As much as Japan has fascinated Westerners and imported some packaged food trends such as matcha, ramen, seaweed, sushi, umeboshi, and others, China as it economically advances will surely impact our food chain. No dogs, unless they are “hot” or monkey brains will probably land on the flight of Air China in the west, but I predict that more dim sum, noodles, and medicinal Chinese soups and dried herbs will swell in.