How companies cook up food trends

By Susan Szuch

Everything from kale and Greek yogurt to gluten-free cookies and microbrews are now finding homes on supermarket shelves.

What were once only available in high-class restaurants, farmer’s markets or specialty stores are now almost commonplace; stores are allowing consumers to make more informed choices or to even spoil themselves with a gourmet sweet, sometimes both at the same time.

Customers are paying more attention to what they’re putting in their bodies, forcing companies to take a critical look at not only what people want, but where their attention is shifting. These companies enlist the help of agencies that study where society is moving, and often, these agencies not only study where society is going, but how food trends progress.

From pretzel buns to sriracha-flavored beer, companies are willing to do anything to stay with or ahead of current food trends. For 2015, food and restaurant consulting firm Baum + Whitman predicts seaweed will surge in popularity outside of sushi and oysters will become an accessible snack.

The spice company McCormick is now in its 15th year of putting together the report known as the “Flavor Forecast,” in which chefs, trend trackers and food technologists come together to find the top trends and ingredients, and speculate how they will lead to exploration later.

Other times, that means administering surveys to gauge what is most important to consumers. Boston-based Cone Communications’ survey found that while 97 percent of Americans prioritize family satisfaction, they also consider health and nutrition, as well as sustainability, when purchasing groceries.

Knowing these results can be imperative because even the biggest companies have experienced product launch failures when they neglected changing consumer attitudes, according to London-based Canadean.

According to a report done by Canadean, consumer needs continue to be driven by what aging populations require, including products that cater to health concerns without highlighting age-related vulnerabilities.

Additionally, other articles such as “10 Key Trends in Food, Nutrition and Health 2015,” by New Nutrition Business, predicts an increase in the popularity of “naturally functional” foods that contain “good grains,” dairy and proteins.

While CCD Innovation in California only lists the factors pertaining to the development of a food trend itself, Faith Popcorn’s Brain Reserve takes into account social influences that could sway consumers. She has come up with 17 trends that influence what people want, including vigilante consumer (consumers changing the marketplace using protest and politics), small indulgences (consumers seeking comfort in “affordable luxuries” and looking for ways to reward themselves) and down aging (baby boomers looking to products from their childhood for comfort).

Although all these factors go into creating a trend, the progression and development is far simpler. According to CCD Innovation, there are five stages that a food trend goes through.

First, the trend is introduced at high-end, ethnic or independent restaurants by chefs to brave diners. Then, it appears in specialty media and stores, which cater to professionals and those who cook at home, like The Food Network or Sur la Table. After that, chain restaurants, in addition to stores for amateur home cooks like Williams and Sonoma, pick it up before the trend is featured in mainstream media like Better Homes and Gardens. Finally, it can be found in fast-food restaurants and either is more popular or is being introduced at grocery stores and supermarkets.

Even with this, companies must be cautious to avoid investing in what may turn out to be fads. Fads are driven by hype, as opposed to trends, which have purpose and are consistent with consumer’s lifestyles, said consumer strategist Bruce Cohen in a post for Supermarket News. He also stated that fads have short life spans, whereas trends rise steadily, and that a fad is generally limited to one brand.

Susan can be reached at [email protected]