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Cheese Among Specialty Food Association’s 2021 Trend Predictions

Traditional dairy and plant-based alternatives make the list 
Photograph: Shutterstock

Aged cheddar granola, sheep’s milk chocolate, cashew cheesy sauce, plant-based tzatziki and hot chocolate on a stick are just some of the innovative dairy and plant-based dairy alternative products spotted by the Specialty Food Associations trendspotters for 2021.

“In a year of upheaval and unknowns, replicating restaurant and travel experience in the home kitchen; values-based shopping; and functional ingredients to support and maintain health top the list of 2021 trend predictions from the Specialty Food Association (SFA) trendspotter panel,” says SFA.  

With the continuing coronavirus pandemic keeping record numbers of people close to home, growing social awareness affecting purchasing decisions, and a maturing Gen Z population, the growth of the $158.4 billion specialty food category is positioned to fill consumers’ needs, says the association.

"COVID-19 has a massive impact on trend predictions heading into 2021, as consumers cook and eat at home more, turning to everyday meals and special treats to comfort and support their mental and physical well-being,” said Denise Purcell, director of content for SFA. “We’re seeing several trends around experimenting with flavors and ingredients, as well as turning to functional or plant-based foods and twists on classic products to avoid menu fatigue.” 

The trendspotter panel, composed of professionals representing diverse segments in the culinary world, have identified the following trends for 2021. Several members of the panel identified food and beverage examples from SFA’s recent Specialty Food Live virtual marketplace for each trend. 

Eating/Cooking at Home. “At-home eating will be the name of the game in 2021,” said Melanie Zanoza Bartelme, global food analyst for Mintel and member of the trendspotter panel. “We will see consumers looking to brighten and enliven the monotony of preparing so many meals in a row.” 

Restaurant Food in the Home Kitchen. With economic concerns not easing and the potential for more lockdowns during the upcoming winter, consumers are looking to replicate restaurant experiences in the home kitchen. We’ll see more restaurant-quality condiments, cooking sauces and cocktail mixes, say the trendspotters. Examples from the recent Specialty Food Live event included smoked watermelon salt for use on fruits and vegetables; a sauce that combined the seven toppings of the classic Chicago hot dog into one condiment; sliced Calabrian chiles; and cocktail mixes such as a smoked maple old-fashioned syrup for at-home bartending.     

Zanoza Bartelme also expects to see foodservice expanding more fully into the at-home eating routine, with restaurants creating more meal kits and other aids to help consumers re-create an on-premise dining experience at home.

Twists on Classics. Reimagining traditional recipes and products will keep consumers from becoming bored with their meals and snacks in the coming year. At Specialty Food Live, exhibitors were showcasing products like vodka and tomato ketchup, a twist on vodka sauce; aged cheddar granola; everything bagel broccoli bites; sheep’s milk chocolate; mint-flavored pasta; and beetroot-flavored drinking chocolate powder. 

"Eatertainment." The events of 2020 left no one unscathed, says the association. “These are serious times and with some areas still experiencing closures in theaters, stadiums, concert halls, and other entertainment venues, we are looking to have fun at home,” said trendspotter Jonathan Deutsch of Drexel Food Core Lab at Drexel University. Novelty products are bringing some whimsy and entertainment to the home kitchen. At Specialty Food Live, trendspotters saw maple syrup with edible glitter; pretzel bread mix; a unicorn s’mores skillet kit; hot chocolate on a stick; edible spoons in sweet and savory flavors; and reusable lunch box packaging with llamas and unicorns. 

Values-Based Buying. Consumers are becoming more conscious shoppers when choosing which brands to support with their food dollars. They are seeking out companies owned by women, Black people, people of color, B Corps, sustainability-focused brands, and those with ethical labor practices, finds the Specialty Food Association.

“For me, 2020 highlighted topics amongst all brands: cultural appropriation, community impact, ethical practices. More than ever, brands are focused on these three categories and trying to align their messaging with this,” said chef Tu David Phu, a trendspotter panel member. “Movements like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter have empowered consumers to voice their opinions on what they expect from their favorite brands. This pivot/shift is mainly due to Generation Z coming into the consumer marketplace as adults. Food brands need to shift now as this new demographic is taking over the marketplace.”

Exhibitors at Specialty Food Live highlighted women- and/or minority-owned businesses offering regional Asian chile pastes, plant-based cheese sauces, tangerine sriracha, lavender vanilla coffee bars, as well as a sustainability-minded producer of watermelon rind pickles that upcycle parts of the fruit that would otherwise be discarded. 

Global Travels Without Leaving HomeI’m seeing more prominence and appreciation of regional ingredients from parts of the world often overlooked—specifically, an interest in West African ingredients and cuisine,” said Dawn Padmore, VP of culinary marketing and events for Karlitz and Co. At Specialty Food Live, products and flavors from Scandinavia, Cambodia, and Senegal were on display with ingredients like sea buckthorn; Cambodian chile pastes; fonio, an ancient grain from Senegal that continues to gain attention; Caribbean and Latin-American flavored pre-made beans; and spices that focus specifically on herbs or plants native to regions such as West Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. 

Functional Ingredients. The pandemic also has put health concerns front and center and consumers will seek functional ingredients and benefits in their foods and beverages. Products that boost immunity and manage stress will be particularly in demand, says the association. At Specialty Food Live, trendspotters pointed to functional ghee to promote women’s health, restful sleep, and cardiovascular health; fermented honey sauce; and prebiotic-laced snacks for digestive health with reported immunity-boosting functionality. “These have been huge for years, the difference is the hot functional ingredients change every couple of years. Right now mushroom powders (reishi, lions mane, etc.) are still rising, turmeric is already mainstream (golden lattes), CBD is huge and deserves its own category. Adaptogens are very interesting, MCT is emerging and we expect it to grow,” said Andrew Freeman, founder of af&co and co-founder of Carbonate.

Plant-Based Continuing Revolution. More a movement than a trend, plant-based earns a spot on this year’s list for its burgeoning growth during COVID-19 and for new formats that continue to transform the food and beverage market, says the Specialty Food Association. During surge shopping in the spring, plant-based enjoyed a boost in most categories, especially milk and other dairy and meat alternatives.

According to the SFA State of the Specialty Food Industry report, 2020-2021 edition, the segment has huge runway for growth, increasing 10% to 20% annually through 2024. New products and applications include the following seen at Specialty Food Live: meatless mixes for at-home cooking; dairy-free queso made with aquafaba; cashew cheesy sauce; plant-based tzatziki; oat milk chocolate; and cactus-based tortilla chips. Trendspotter Chris Styler, culinary producer/product development chef and head of Freelance Food LLC, also observes trends in “the rebranding of foods as ‘plant-based’ including beverages; more options for plant-based foods including plant-based protein to use for chili, soups, tomato sauce.” 

Less Sugar and Natural Sugar. Tied to attention to health, consumers are counterbalancing their desires to treat themselves with products that offer low sugar or natural sugar, SFA notes. “Sugar as the devil will become a more prominent message in 2021. We will continue to see a decline in the levels of sugar in foods and drinks and an increase in the availability and popularity of alternative sweeteners like monk fruit, keto-friendly sugars, and coconut sugar,” said Clara Park, corporate chef of Culinary Innovation for Chelten House Products. At Specialty Food Live, trendspotters noted hot sauces sweetened with peaches; jams that relied on natural sugars from carrots and jaggery, a cane sugar consumed in Asia; traditional Carolina BBQ sauce in a sugar-free variety; and a proliferation of sauces sweetened with dates. 

Halva ‘Bout It. Following consumers’ growing interest over the past few years in tahini sauce, then black sesame flavoring ice creams and lattes, halva is re-emerging in the spotlight, notes the association. This 3,000-year-old sesame seed-based Middle Eastern confection was touted in 2020 by Ruth Reichl as good-for-you candy, thanks to its abundance of iron. Products on display at Specialty Food Live included halva butter made from sesame paste to spread on toast, crackers, or in ice cream, and shelf-stable halva slices in flavors like toasted coconut and triple chocolate. Naturally vegan, halva also has plant-based appeal. 

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