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“Small-Scale” Leads Emerging Food Trends

As we embark on a new year, “small-scale” food production leads the pack of six trends gaining momentum with consumers, according to the latest Illuminate™ Digital Cultural Insights report from The Center for Food Integrity (CFI). The report provides insights on emerging trends, their place in culture and how the food industry can shift to align with how the most engaged consumer is thinking about the future of food.

The findings are based on digital cultural ethnography research from CFI’s partner MotivBase, which observed and analyzed more than 500,000 online long-form conversations to predict trends by decoding the meaning of language consumers use when talking about their approaches to food.

The “Lead” Consumer

What the Illuminate™ report reveals is a “lead” consumer that’s a trend-setter and increasingly looking to prove they’re playing their part in making the world a better place, through small changes – like making a donation or volunteering, or simply talking about an issue that’s important to them.

These consumers endure a bit of hardship to make a point, like driving to a small, rural dairy to buy organic milk, for example. But overall they want to ease any guilt about their food choices and find ways to feel good about what they’re eating. They also worry that corporations have too much power and that individuals don’t have as much say as they’d like.

The idea of new trends in food is appealing to many people. The study shows more than 69.3 million consumers are interested in new approaches to food. The report shows more engagement among 18- to 34-year-old, educated and middle-class consumers without children. It’s not surprising – as younger consumers are often on the cutting edge and can afford to take risks and try new things.

Top Three Trends

Most of the six trends that rose to the top of the pack are in the mainstream of culture – and all are expected to grow. That means there’s still time for the food industry to engage in the conversation and help shape expectations and the narrative around the topics.

The following list highlights the top three trends in order of the maturity of the trend, with the first topic being the most advanced in mainstream culture.

  1. Small-Scale Producers

Consumers are attracted to local, small producers for fresh and seasonal produce, unique products and homemade, wholesome food. This trend isn’t new by any means but has taken on increased significance, driven perhaps by supply chain issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers are doubling down on local, small and unique – buying seasonal and local produce, with an eye toward food that doesn’t have to travel very far.

What’s important to note is consumers are making a connection between local and small and the following qualities: healthier, better quality, more nutritious and sustainable, and better for the local economy. In particular, consumers like the idea of local or family-run restaurants, partly because they associate family-run with homemade, which “feels good” because of the associated nostalgia.

Opportunity: Small and local food providers certainly can leverage this trend with continued premium “homemade” and “hand-crafted” offerings to assure consumers they’re making choices that align with their values. Larger companies could consider artisanal offerings that highlight the personal connection and commitment to quality.

  1. Nutrition-Forward Eating

Consumers want to avoid high-carb, high-sugar foods and adopt healthy, balanced diets of assorted whole foods to get proper nutrition. But while consumers want optimal health outcomes, they’re not sure what that looks like or how to get there. It’s hard to determine what’s “good for us” when the science and headlines are constantly changing. Consumers are turning to more vegetables and fruits, and looking for convenient ready-made food that feels healthy and that has plenty of plant-based ingredients.

Consumers are very interested in healthy sources of protein, too, as well as fiber, and try to avoid overdoing it on sugar and overly processed, carbohydrate-laden foods. They’re also looking for foods that have a complete nutrition profile when it comes to vitamins and minerals. We continue to see interest in organic, whole foods, which consumers believe are nutritionally dense and a “better for you” option. These label readers, while they prefer “natural” and less processed, are open to fortified foods, too.

Opportunity: Tout the nutritional benefits of the foods you offer. While whole foods are preferred, it’s clear that consumers are open to fortified foods to support their nutritional goals, so there is opportunity to enhance offerings through fortification.

  1. Food Justice

Consumers desire equitable food access and distribution that meets the basic food needs of everyone with a variety of healthy food options. Particularly with supply chain issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are increasingly aware of inequities. They want everyone to have access to affordable, quality food and worry about food deserts – areas that often don’t have access to fresh produce and healthy food.

There’s concern that too many people, without access to “the good stuff,” rely on fast food that doesn’t offer much nutritional value. They believe limited inadequate access to healthy food is causing a wide range of chronic conditions like obesity and the ills that come with it.

Interestingly, more consumers are thinking beyond simply meeting basic food needs and increasingly interested in providing specialized diets, like vegetarianism, to marginalized communities. In addition, consumers worry about wasteful consumption among wealthier people that, in turn, worsens food insecurity and increases prices for the poor.

Opportunity: Tout the healthfulness of your food and any efforts your company is making to address inequities in access to food and across the food system.

All six categories are predicted to grow over the next two years – anywhere from 15 to 42 percent. Each represents an opportunity, depending on where you are in the food supply chain, to engage in the conversation and help shape the trajectory of the trend as consumer attitudes evolve and take root in the U.S.

Each month, CFI members receive the full Illuminate™ Digital Cultural Insights research report on important food industry topics, along with insights from CFI’s Consumer Trust Insights Council. To learn more about tailoring Illuminate™ research for your organization and the benefits of CFI membership, contact Terry Fleck.