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COVID-19 Triggers Trends, Opportunities

Marketplace breakthroughs are often the result of long-term scientific research programs that intersect with changing consumer needs, and if ever there was a year with changing consumer needs, 2020 was it.

While the immediate impact of COVID-19 tested the resilience of the food supply chain and heightened food insecurity, it also precipitated shifts in consumer behavior that will likely remain for quite some time. IFT’s Science and Policy Initiatives team identified several consumer trends and opportunities stemming from the pandemic that will be key in shaping the food system in the year to come.

Eating for Immune Health Steals the Spotlight: A 2020 survey from the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that 85% of Americans made changes in how they eat in light of the pandemic, indicating a heightened awareness from consumers around nutrition and its impact on overall health. The year ahead will bring an increasing awareness of the importance of a healthy microbiota, from the immunity benefits to the promise of personalized nutrition, which will spur research efforts on the microbiome and lead to products with strong scientific backing. Our recent podcast exploring the impact of diet on our gut and the role of microbiota in proper immune functioning and overall health is a worthwhile listen if this trend interests you.

Meat Analogues Go Mainstream: Initially developed as a lower cost, partial replacement for meat in the food away from home market 50 years ago, plant-based proteins have increasingly gained traction for health, cultural, and environmental reasons. 24% of people surveyed in the IFIC report mentioned above said they are eating more protein from plant sources than they did before the pandemic began. A follow-up survey from IFIC revealed 41% of people believe a plant-based burger is healthier than a burger made with ground beef. Significant work will be needed to develop sustainable sources of plant proteins that are nutritionally balanced and meet the taste and texture needs of consumers. Meanwhile, work will continue to accelerate on alternative protein sources such as cell-based meat in 2021. If you're interested in this trend, you may want to give a listen to our podcast on the rapid expansion in the alternative protein market.

CRISPR Answers the Call for More Nutritious Foods: FAO reports climate change is dramatically hindering our ability to grow nutritious foods. As the pandemic motivates consumers to take an increased interest in their overall nutrition, the global food system will need to lean on additional methods to create sustainable, healthy options for our growing population. This need will drive advancements to the gene editing technology, CRISPR, in 2021. CRISPR is simpler, faster, and more cost-effective than more traditional gene insertion, making it an attractive option to a broader range of companies and for use on a wider variety of crops. In addition to the current benefits on agricultural output, we will see more relevant health benefits derived from CRISPR crops which could drive consumers to seek out these varieties.

Urban Farming Potential Unlocked: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 80% of Americans live in urban areas. People in these densely-populated cities have traditionally relied heavily on grocery and convenience stores to access food. As the pandemic causes people to be more thoughtful about where they get food, we anticipate a notable rise in the prevalence of urban farming. The surge in preparing and eating food at home combined with the need to know the origin and safety of ingredients will also fuel this trend. Additionally, rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and flooding are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity, necessitating investments in innovative practices such as urban farming to supplement our food supply. 

Technology Answers the Call for Increased Food Safety: Just as 2020 brought forth a heightened interest from consumers in nutrition, it also shined a light on food safety. In the coming year, we’ll see widespread adoption of digital technologies such as blockchain in our food traceability practices as food companies work to implement the recommendations within the FDA New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint. We expect to see an increase in the use of sensors and artificial intelligence, which the food industry has been slow to adopt due to the investment required. Not only will these technology advancements prevent significant outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, they will also create a more secure, less wasteful food supply chain. Our recent podcast on food safety, food recalls, COVID-19, and food traceability discusses this critical topic.

For more food trend predictions for the new year and beyond, check out the top picks from Food Technology magazine’s editors. You can also listen in as IFT’s Chief Science and Technology Officer John Ruff and Senior Digital Editor Kelly Hensel discuss a few of the major trends they expect to make waves this year during the latest episode of the IFTNEXT Food Disruptors podcast

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