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Young people entertaining at home

No one disputes that 2023 was a hard one—a steady diet of global conflict, political polarization, natural disasters, and economic pressures. The result? “We’re all feeling a lot of anxiety as we head into 2024,” says Mary Ellen Kuhn, executive editor of Food Technology magazine. “Much has been written about the fact that Gen Z, those in their teens to mid-20s, are particularly anxious.” 

To pinpoint how the tense mood will affect consumer behavior in the new year, specifically in the food and beverage marketplace, Kuhn asked key trend trackers, market researchers, and consumer experts to share their predictions. Her results, reported in the December 2023/January 2024 issue of Food Technology, reveal five major trends fueled by what one analyst aptly termed the “anxiety economy.” 

“I think our behaviors have been shaped by things like inflation and economic instability; plus, it’s only been a couple of years since Covid,” adds Kuhn. “Many behaviors linger from that period in our lives”—habits like eating at home, watching our budgets, and seeking foods that give us comfort, to name just a few. Below, Kuhn discusses these and other findings as we move, with some trepidation, into 2024.    

Your top trend is called “a craving for comfort.” That seems highly intuitive given the times we’re living in. Can you elaborate?

Consumers want something that provides a measure of comfort, so we’re seeing the emergence of food and beverage products that make people feel better—an herbal tea, a bowl of ramen. Nostalgia is a part of this desire for comfort, and people are reaching for familiar favorites, but with a twist. We want our comfort foods to reflect 2024. Bring in a new spice or a fusion cuisine. I call it “contemporary comfort.”

Two other trends seem to go hand in hand—one related to belt-tightening, the other to at-home eating. 

Yes. The second trend, “tough times, tough decisions,” is focused on financial pressures. Consumers will be more conservative in what they spend and what they buy, and this will spur the continued rise in private label. It’s not only about cost, though. Consumers want reasonably priced products that still deliver on value; taste is always number one. A third, and related, trend is the persistence of “home-centric habits.” Consumers embraced cooking in a new way during the pandemic, and that hasn’t gone away. Many are still working remotely, which puts them closer to their kitchens, and inflationary prices continue to temper dining out. Eighty-six percent of consumers’ meals are purchased at a store and eaten at home, according to the advisory firm Circana. This is a 3 percent increase over 2019, and it’s held steady the past two years—I think this is significant. Additionally, people are looking for products that make home entertaining easier. Younger generations like Gen Z and millennials, in particular, are looking for distinctive ways to entertain at home—a special event like a make-your-own cocktail party, for example. Despite their economic concerns, these consumers are willing to splurge a little.

Commitment to health and wellness reportedly dipped last year. Talk about its expected revival in 2024. 
With financial pressure predicted to ease up, the focus has shifted back to healthy eating with consumers turning to functional foods for health benefits. We’re going to see shoppers looking for foods and beverages that boost immunity, promote mental health and mood, improve cognitive health, and enhance appearance. Consumers will embrace “food as medicine” not only for existing illnesses but for prevention.

Beyond the main trends you identified, your story pointed to some additional predictions, like the “TikTok effect.” Can you explain it?

That’s a good one. The impact of social media on how products are marketed will absolutely be something everyone in the food industry needs to be thinking about. It’s only going to grow. Food companies understand this, and they have embraced it. Artificial intelligence will play a huge role in tracking social media trends. This will allow companies to act on them quickly, with everything from a marketing campaign to, ultimately, product development.

Despite the angst-ridden state of the world, do you see any positive signs? 

The positive signs, to me, are that food is such an essential part of our lives, that food can be a source of comfort. I find this heartening, and it underscores the importance of what our IFT members do. The economic indicators are also encouraging. Grocery price inflation is expected to slow way down this year; the USDA is estimating a 1.6 percent price increase compared with 5.2 percent in 2023. The food industry is about innovation. So maybe we can optimistically look toward more openness to innovation as the economic picture gets a little brighter. 

Want to continue the conversation about consumer outlooks, as well as the top flavor and technology trends for 2024? Join Kuhn and her Food Technology colleagues on Tuesday, January 23, at 11 a.m. CT for an engaging and interactive webinar inspired by reporting from the magazine’s Outlook 2024 trends series. Learn more and register

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