By Ujwal Arkalgud @interpretivist
What will food look like in the future?
We can look to the language consumers use online to point to what they expect from our food system going forward. We are in a trial-and-error phase of culture when it comes to food.
Consider the introduction of new products and processes – like plant-based protein and cultured meat. The approach for consumers is similar to what took place with the debut of cell phone technology. Initially, as new devices and features were introduced, consumers had many questions. Through trial and error, consumers and the industry discovered what worked best.
Attitudes will continue to flip-flop. But what we need to do is learn from the trial and error and focus on long-term meanings.
Meaning is the natural language we use in the context of food. We don’t ask what people are talking about, but what they mean when they talk about something. For example, “natural” or “sustainable” may mean different things to different people. What we’re seeing is that meanings around food are changing, a predictor of emerging trends.
Food plays such an important role in our lives that these evolving meanings are significant. Based on changing meanings, my team and I at MotivBase have identified six emerging trends taking shape that will define the future of food.
Made in the lab. The traditional notion that food comes from the earth through a living animal or plant is changing. Consumers are accepting of foods that might be considered “manufactured” or produced in a lab. Plant-based milk alternatives are one category where this concept has taken hold. Food made in a lab is acceptable to consumers because they believe technology will enable society to “do better” than natural processes in terms of protecting the environment and producing better quality food. Individuals who prefer “natural” foods are beginning to support new food technologies.
Fewer natural resources. The environmental movement began in the 1960s and has only gained momentum. Sustainability principles are more important to consumers than ever before, influencing perceptions of food and how it is produced. Shoppers are increasingly interested in food that requires less land, less water and less transportation, which also contributes to the interest in using technology to produce food, especially if the technology decreases the demand for natural resources.
Justice. The public is focusing on equitable access and distribution of food, a feeling that has been building for some time. This is not just because of the events of 2020. It has been in the works for many years. Through the pandemic, the amount of knowledge in the mainstream about inequities in food access and distribution has increased.
Full of nutrition. Nutrient density is a priority for consumers. Just walk through the health section at your local grocery store and you’ll see many products fortified with vitamins and minerals – energy drinks, cereal, protein bars, milk and milk alternatives. But it’s not just processed foods that consumers look to for enhanced nutrition. It’s natural foods, too. They’re interested in farming practices, such as those that improve soil health, that improve the nutritional quality of food.
Less wasteful. Consumer focus on reducing food waste is increasing and the food system is responding – bringing initiatives to market through various brands and channels. A new area of interest is making the most of byproducts or co-products from food processing that might have previously gone to waste. Examples include a company that creates a nutritious flour out of a byproduct from making tofu and soy milk. Another makes dehydrated banana chips from imperfect or over-ripe bananas. A Midwest pickle company uses the cucumber-infused water created as part of the pickling process for a Bloody Mary mix.
Global taste palates. While children from past decades grew up on American fare including hot dogs, macaroni and cheese and Mom’s meatloaf, kids today are exposed to a wide array of cuisines. I didn’t try sushi until I was in my twenties and now my three-year-old is requesting it. Food companies are just beginning to expand in this area, with most of the innovation focused on spices. I expect more experimentation to begin soon, creating a new challenge for consumers who’ll have an even wider array of choices available.
Ujwal Arkalgud is co-founder of MotivBase and a member of The Center for Food Integrity’s Consumer Trust Insights Council. A longer version of this column was originally published by CFI. It is re-shared with permission.