When searching for information via any of the more popular search engines, one can’t help but notice the daily lists of trends in the headlines: the most popular songs to date downloaded on smartphones, the most popular app or videogame, the best-selling flat-screen or 3-D television, exercise trends that impact lifestyle, and often times, information about the latest, hot new food item. Rarely, if ever, do these lists/updates mention the latest trends in nutrition. As food scientists and technologists, we are responsible for developing food products sold to consumers, and that is not an easy task as consumer trends change at the speed of the digital age. But few of us have the opportunity to know ahead of time when individual consumer preferences suddenly hit a tipping point that turns into a trend that impacts our research and product development.
This month’s issue of Food Technology includes an article by Liz Sloan on the top 10 trends in the food industry. In general, it seems consumers are moving toward a lifestyle that includes more natural foods, and fewer foods with additives and preservatives. A portion of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans focuses on foods including milk products, dark green/orange vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetable oil, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and soy products. Some of the top food trends are particularly interesting when compared to what the Dietary Guidelines advise.
First, food companies are tracking demographics to target flavors, foods, and food messages to different generations of consumers. According to the research firm Mintel, people in Generation Y (who were born between 1978 and 1989 and are the fastest-growing segment in our workforce) are the top users of functional foods and drinks. And since we live in a global marketplace, trends cross borders. Nowhere is this more evident than with ethnic cuisine choices. Generation Y consumers are exhibiting a fondness for ethnic cuisine in particular. Intense with flavor, ethnic cuisine represents an exciting departure from standard fare. The preparation of ethnic cuisine typically makes full use of a wide spectrum of herbs and spices, replacing or significantly limiting the amount of added sodium in foods. This falls in line with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommendation to reduce sodium intake.
Second, consumers are “Getting Real” across all generations and displaying a newfound allegiance to whole grains and natural or organic foods. Physicians and nutritionists have been touting the benefits of whole grains for awhile, but the greater emphasis on foods in their most natural state has become quite popular. This shift in preference adheres to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommendation for increased consumption of whole grains and plant-based foods. Consumers are also very interested in products that are produced locally.
The third trend of note, “New Nutrients,” reflects consumers’ desire to eat foods that can help them achieve or maintain good health as well as appropriate weight. Nearly half of food shoppers are very concerned about the nutrient content of their food, so front-of-pack nutrient labeling may be of real interest to these consumers. Health is also top of mind for those eating out, with healthy menu items influencing 31% of diners’ selections in 2010.
The fourth noteworthy trend is a return to “Three Squares,” the burgeoning consumer inclination toward having a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner but fewer in-between-meal snacks. Breakfast in particular is on the rise—consumers ate breakfast five days a week in 2010. This follows the 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommendation to control weight by limiting the amount of calories consumed: If one wishes to cut his or her daily caloric intake, it may seem logical to reduce food consumption by eliminating snacks.
Even though consumers may avoid snacking between meals, they apparently enjoy having dessert with dinner. Consumers have increased their indulgence in baked goods and desserts, with chocolate candy, creamers, cookies, and wine among the fastest-growing categories in 2010. Despite rising consumer demand for sweet treats, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines advise a reduced caloric intake from solid fats and added sugars, which make up most sweets. Consumption of these foods in moderation is certainly important.
The full article on consumer trends appears on p. 24. I hope that the article’s revelations inspire great food product ideas that not only meet but surpass consumer-trend demands, while being mindful of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
Robert B. Gravani,
IFT President, 2010–2011
Professor of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.