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A Nod to 2017 Food Trends, Part 1

Mindy Armstrong / February 10th 2017

You might say we’re a little late to the conversation. You know, putting a top trends article out there when the food trend predictions for the coming year have been written, published and carved into stone. But, for me, it feels timely. I like to take that first look back early, even as we focus on looking forward.

We waited patiently with you for the arrival of the top trends, as we all tend to do in our various industries. We digested the words, discussed the possibilities and made our own conclusions as we moved through the stacks of trends like we would an annual horoscope. Then, we move on, file the reports away and find ourselves back in the trenches of our marketing calendars and plans.

But, I’m a collector—it’s a problem of mine—and trend reports are no safer than magazine subscriptions and books. I collect them away and compare and contrast, looking to find connections and crazy talk and to formulate an outlook of my own for the year to come. And, each year, there’s more than the year before with experts and known contributors being joined by newcomers, retailers and food bloggers—each adding their thoughts to the growing pile of predictions. This year alone, there were over 65 predictions of hot food trends that consumers will be clamoring to try and that doesn’t even touch the trends predicted for the restaurant industry! So, we’re going to break this into parts. Consider this to be part one of the story.

Appetite for discovery grows stronger.

Blame it on millennials. Blame it on the internet. Blame it on our smart phones, social media and the need to be the first to discover what’s next within our circle of friends. Either way, discovery is at the heart of why we seek out what’s next and new. Looking at the list of trends, you’ll see a smattering of opportunities for discovery. From alternatives for all things, to new uses with chickpeas to mocktails and low-alcohol cocktails, the quest is on.

Global cuisines that are ripe for discovery include Portuguese, Japanese, Filipino and Middle Eastern food. Google calls this trend Traveling Through Taste. We just call it a good idea. Other specific discoveries that are happening in markets and pinterest pages near you include octopus, which stormed through restaurant menus in 2015 with a vengeance and now moves to home kitchens, all things coconut, creative condiments, pasta varieties, purple foods and vegetables, surprising savory flavors and dishes like doner kebab and shakshuka. Lastly, if you haven't already, grab yourself some Poke and mark that off this year’s bucket list for must-try trendy foods.

Elevated convenience forever relevant.

It’s been googled. Lots of times. Convenience foods are still in, and snacks in particular are at the top of the searches. And not any old snacks—vegetable chips (homemade and packaged), bite-sized snacks and healthy snacks are where the interest is focused. But once the snacks have been eaten, lunch and dinner will roll around and consumers will reach for another convenient meal option—a fancy packaged meal. While the meal kit was buzzing in past years, the word on the street is that 90% of users have abandoned their subscription and have returned to their lazy ways. Luckily, the frozen aisle is ready. Food purveyors have stepped up the game and are ready with gourmet options, vegan and vegetarian fare, ethnic-inspired specialties and restaurant-worthy frozen meals. Microwaves around the country will be feeling some love.

Exploration of the familiar is oh so right.

Even though new and exciting foods and ingredients are on top trend lists, we’re still creatures of habit, especially in our home kitchens where experimentation feels a bit riskier. Therefore, there’s always a balance present on the trends list. This year follows the same pattern as consumers explore in areas that are familiar to them, including pork, pasta, tacos, beer and oil varieties as well as handheld items like empanadas and naan pizza. Based on Google searches, we can expect pork shoulder to be the pork cut of choice, turning a familiar protein into a social experience. In the same report, Google shares that interest in pasta has picked up again and new noodle types and sauce varieties are being explored. And even tacos have been trending in the Instagram feed, reminding us that this favorite humble entrée is timeless and relevant. And if we looked to Pinterest to understand where consumers are showing interest, we’d find sour beer, empanadas, naan pizza and grapeseed oil all on the rise.

Indulgence lives on and on.

Healthy is in and is big business—to the tune of one trillion dollars, folks—but just as balance is found between new and familiar, indulgence keeps all the healthy chatter in check. This year, expect to see some fun takes on indulgent treats. From Gravity Cakes to Freakshakes to S’mores everywhere, today’s food consumer isn’t taking things too terribly seriously.

Mindful matters of the heart win us over.

If there were a winner for the year in terms of attention and energy, mindfulness would take home the trophy. A trophy that didn't harm anyone or anything in the process of production, of course. Clean labels, plant waters, jackfruit as a meat substitute and spirulina as a food dye are just the beginning of the list, from a report put out by Parade.

Flexitarian made the list, yet again, as did mindful meal prep, good fats and plant-based protein sources. All timely for today’s consumer—after all, according to Parade, there are an estimated 7.3 million Americans identifying as vegetarians, another 1 million claiming to be vegan and 22.8 million following a “vegetarian-inclined diet.”

"Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education." - Mark Twain

Soda continues to be down, hitting a 30-year low, while sugar consumption, in general, is being limited by more and more consumers. Other products that ladder up to mindfulness include wellness tonics, as predicted by Whole Foods, continued focus on vegetables, specifically cauliflower, seaweed, sorghum, sprouting and turmeric. We could even add hearty grain bowls to the conversation as we seek healthier meal options and tiny fish like anchovies, sardines and smelt, all high in protein and environmentally friendly.

Google calls out Food with a Function as a top trending topic while BBC reminds us that pickling and fermenting are still very much “in” along with sauerkraut, based on pinterest searches and pins. The verdict is still out on insects, although the pick seems to make the list over and over, and may win us over at some point in the near future, especially as we continue to seek alternative sources for protein.

Smart kitchens make us smarter cooks, for sure.

There’s been a return to the kitchen and it seems to be holding on. While we may be cancelling our kit subscriptions and returning to our old habits, the desire to cook for ourselves is still present, even if only in our hearts. And with our return, the marketplace for gadgets, cookware and technology have exploded. Take sous-vide cooking, recently discussed endlessly among chefs, has made its way into home kitchens, too. While it’s a bit pricey, expect your social media feeds to fill with the results of this new obsession. And it doesn’t end there. BBC Good Food shared the latest kitchen equipment in a recent article, including smart frying pans, camera plates, wine preservation systems, coffee roasters directed by your iPad and a tea device that monitors your sleep to know how much caffeine you need in the morning. Amazon, appliance manufacturers, big name electronic brands and retailers are joining the smart revolution, and more likely, are already there to play.    

Sustainability on the mind, yo.

Superfoods that make an impact to communities, the evolution of grassfed meat, products from byproducts and meat-free meats are all on the trend lists this year.

Moringa, for instance, a new super green grown in Haiti, Latin America and Africa is getting attention due to the powerhouse of nutrients in its leaves. While we’re unable to get the fresh stuff in the U.S., it can be found in powders, energy shots, bars and teas. Purchases of moringa also support a bigger story of the female farmers that are growing and harvesting this plant to support their families.

Then there’s regenerative grazing, a term recently coined by MarketWatch in their 2017 trend list, that officially moves us beyond what the animals are eating and into the realm of the overall impact to the land where they graze. In fact, in the same article, it’s pointed out that grassfed has become mainstream, moving from specialty stores to the general market.

Whole Foods expects to see more products from byproducts hit the shelves while interest in meat-free meats continues to grow. From cultured meat to vegetarian-friendly meat, this trend has staying power and a lot of investment dollars to help along the way.  

Waste not, food lovers.

It’s true, we waste a lot of food. And we’re hearing more and more about it. From documentaries to movements to organizations formed to educate consumers to conferences devoted to the topic, the conversation is happening all around us. Celebrity chefs and politicians are involved, too. However, there are conflicting arguments stating that consumers actually don’t care as much as the industry believes they do. For those home cooks that are taking action, whole vegetable cookery is the favored term of the moment. Chicago Tribune shared in a recent article that root to leaf eating forces cooks to make use of delicate herb flowers, tough vegetable stalks and often discarded leafy greens like beet, carrot and turnip tops. Luckily, recipes can easily be found.

The bottom line is that with the average family throwing out $1,500 worth of food each year, it may be time to take note of the trend that is very present for grocers, restaurants and manufacturers. Do it for your grandmother, will ya?

Let’s be real, friends. This year will be an interesting year to watch—in the food industry, yes, in the marketplace, no doubt, but especially, culturally.

Change is in the air. Not only that, our ability to track behavior is more present than it’s ever been, enabling us to track trends at any time. While information and news is all around us, bombarding us, filling our inboxes, wearing us out, there is a reason for it all. Trends do matter—to identify opportunities, for one, or to consider in product development processes. To understand where consumers are in their minds, in their lives, and how buying habits will be impacted. Trends offer insight into potential risks or a chance to detect competitive advantages that we should act on within the year.   

Stay tuned for part two of this review when we’ll look at the top trends that are expected to affect the restaurant industry. Coming your way soon. 

Written by: Mindy Armstrong, HC Partner & Growth Strategist