Navigating Food and Diet Metatrends

by | October 7, 2022

The evidence is overwhelming: Metatrends reveal that consumers want more globally inspired sustainable food and beverage products. At the same time, consumers are turning away from fad diets and unproven nutrition programs. As a result, brands need better market intelligence to traverse this new landscape, starting with a more proactive approach to ingredient selection and sourcing.

The evidence is overwhelming: Metatrends reveal that consumers want more globally inspired sustainable food and beverage products. At the same time, consumers are turning away from fad diets and unproven nutrition programs. As a result, brands need better market intelligence to traverse this new landscape, starting with a more proactive approach to ingredient selection and sourcing.

I’ve spent my career exploring health, nutrition, and well-being. But that journey always circles back to “Where’s the healthfulness; where’s the nutrition?” I don’t think every food needs to be healthified. I still believe in cookies, cake, and brownies. But I think there’s a lot of work to be done in the food space to improve.

Rachel Cheatham, PhD, Foodscape Group Founder, Learn Icons for Together 2022

What are metatrends?

So, what are metatrends? In short, it’s our analysis of the trends of the trends. It’s a meta-analysis of trends. We pull roughly 100 industry trend reports, build a relational database, and quantify the trends of the trends. For example, how many times do we see mentions of keto? How many times do we see reference to adaptogens? And then, we see what rises to the top in terms of quantity of those citations, and then we put together the top 10 metatrends.

The top three metatrends for several years running now are:

  1. Plant-based products.
  2. Global flavors and tastes.
  3. Sustainability.

Interestingly, this year’s analysis shows how closely these things have come together. If you look at the frequency of citations of each of those top three metatrends, they’ve come so close. Roughly 80% of all the reports we looked at mentioned those three things, and I think it’s become clear as we track these trends year over year just how tightly intertwined those three are now. And we believe a lot of that has to do with COVID because it brought so many things into focus.

But the throughline we see emerging is this idea that we need to think about planetary and personal health in the same breath. They’re not two separate entities. So we’re increasingly seeing consumers embrace the idea that planetary and personal health need to be coalescing more in ways that advance the whole thing forward – combined with a more global palate.

COVID’s ripples continue

There are two things that we see in the aftermath of COVID. The first is what I just mentioned – just how tightly intertwined global plants and sustainability are. They’ve been trending for years, but now it’s like you can’t extricate one from the other anymore.

The second big thing we saw – that’s also in the top 10 metatrends – is what we call “health-minded” and the correlation between food and health outcomes. Several years ago, brain health emerged as a big topic. But since then, we’ve seen a significant shift in this current analysis, which includes immunity, followed gut health, and mental health. So we see a shift from brain health – in a physiological sense – to mental health.

When you see immunity come in ahead of any other health outcome, that’s pretty telling. It’s not like immunity was never mentioned in past years, but it rose to the top in that category this year. But it’s also intertwined with gut health. Most consumers don’t understand that upwards of 70% of your immune function resides in your gut cells. And COVID drove a lot of this as people tried to protect themselves from infection.

I was a little surprised by that, but only in the sense that it felt like with all the supply chain issues, we expected consumers to just eat whatever they could their hands on. But, no, consumers reacted in a much smarter way.

Supply chain issues easing?

I had a call recently with a global R&D director who said something to the effect that, over these past couple of years, we’ve all been operating in a super short-term mindset, making sure we could keep up current production, maintain profit margins, and get products on store shelves.

And she also insisted that she thought we’re about to enter that next phase where manufacturers are starting to feel like, “OK, we’ve weathered that storm, but what’s next? So we can’t continue to just be thinking, how do we make sure we get through the next two to three months, the next six months?”

That mindset of returning to thinking medium term is starting to come back.

COVID smothered R&D

Make no mistake: Brands hit pause on a lot of projects. Many of our clients are on the R&D side, and we heard from several of them that it was just a pragmatic thing. They struggled to get enough people, and in the throes of the deepest part of the pandemic, they couldn’t all be at the bench anyway. They just couldn’t be. Sure, they could all work from home, but depending on the tasks they were asked to do, it just wasn’t feasible. So often, brands paused for the pragmatic reason that they couldn’t be developing on the bench.

Many R&D sessions I was involved with had teams grappling with things like differentiators in the plant-based space or sweetener alternatives. The questions weren’t dramatically different than they were three years ago. They’re just looking through this lens that prioritizes sustainable sourcing and better supply timelines.

Sourcing remains a pain point

I’m not a supply chain expert or a food scientist. I’m a nutritionist. But from my vantage point, sourcing is still a significant pain point. And it’s one of those situations where you can see the frustrations emerge over trade-offs. So, for example, do we get the exact ingredient we want based on the product we’ve conceptualized? Or do we settle for this ingredient that maybe isn’t as nutritious, but it’s available?

I can sit here as a nutritionist all day and say, “it has to be nutrient dense; it should be organic; it needs to be regeneratively produced.” I can make a list of boxes you should tick off to ensure you’ve checked them all but it’s just not possible. And some of the brands we work with are relatively smaller and established, but they’re not the biggest food companies and can’t dictate terms to suppliers. So medium-sized brands feel the most pain sometimes.

What’s the holdup with sustainability?

It’s taken years to rise to the top as an actual priority with mainstream consumers, public health food policy experts, and politicians. If the World Health Organization (WHO) puts out sustainable development goals, it makes the issue real.

That’s part of it. But I think the other part – the frustrating part – is the conflicting data out there. I’m routinely shocked at how I find data that contradicts one from the other. It’s pretty easy to take a broad brush stroke and say, “Well, animal products, like beef and cow’s milk, aren’t sustainable, and look at all the energy used to produce them. Cross those off the list and then look, we’ll have this great sustainable supply chain.”

Obviously, I’m exaggerating here, but something comes up every time you think you know what’s sustainable. Look at almonds. Look at how much water almonds use. We probably shouldn’t be farming almonds. Maybe we should pursue peanuts and cashews instead.

So, there’s a lot of sparring between the different stakeholders and territorial defensiveness that doesn’t help move the ball forward. And each has its own dataset that proves the other party wrong. So, how does the consumer decide who to trust or believe? It’s frustrating. But then you see countries like Denmark, which seem capable of making it work.

Ultimately, the goal should be understanding what would allow our supply chain to be more sustainable overall.

Join me at 12:30 p.m. MDT on Oct. 19 for my session, “Navigating Food & Diet Metatrends to Effectively Reach Consumers,” where I share the top Foodscape Metatrends™ to understand better how to better connect with consumers in their never-ending search for health and well-being through food and beverages. You can register here today.

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