This year has been a year of change in almost every aspect of Americans’ lives, which includes, necessarily, the way we eat and drink, and especially in specialty foods.
In 2021, which will bring its own set of changes and challenges, new trends will emerge as a result of the pandemic, technology, the environment and more.
What follows is an overview of those trends, which includes global inspiration, vegan eats, cacao creativity and healthy foods.
Lab-grown meats, also known as cultured meat, will join the plant-based alternatives trend, says WGSN, a trend forecasting company based in New York City. “This is much further along than you might think,” says Kara Nielsen, WGSN director of food and drink.
There are a number of food tech companies around the world and in the U.S. working to produce beef, poultry, fish and dairy protein in labs using cellular cultures, she says. The way she describes it is, “There are some beef cells and they give them the same nutrients a baby cow would get and the cells grow on a sort of structure— it’s almost like knitting meat.”
But Nielsen also sees challenges to “test tube” meat. These products will have to go through a rigorous regulatory process, then the companies have to convince consumers to accept them, and also scale them at an affordable price point. On the plus side, she says, these products are reported to be better for the environment than real meat.
There’s already one company dishing up lab-grown animal products: Brave Robot in Emeryville, Calif., offers eight flavors of ice cream made with “plant sugars and some old-fashioned fermentation to churn out whey protein without the cow.” Brave Robot is already in some conventional retailers and will be distributed nationally in the spring.
Maeve Webster, president of foodservice consultancy Menu Matters, Arlington, Vt., thinks that in 2021, consumers will return to their pre-pandemic interest in Middle Eastern food, and will move well beyond the most common elements (hummus, falafel, etc.) and into the lesser known spice blends, dips/spreads/sauces and beverages.
Chinese food is also likely to be popular, but in a less authentic way. “We may see manufacturers play with popular flavors and formats but refocusing them into something utterly non-authentic and more familiar. Think Chinese flavors or ingredients in a meatloaf,” she says.
Finally, Webster thinks there’s an opportunity for Australian foods and ingredients to grow, which would be easy for Americans to adopt as they’d be fairly familiar. Examples include savory pies, desserts like lamington cakes and food influenced by Australia’s Asian neighbors.
Vegan food that even non-vegans want to eat, such as vegan tacos and vegan junk food, will emerge, according to WGSN. “We’re going to see plant-based products appealing to more people and our favorite foods made vegan,” says Nielsen of WGSN, pointing to Avoca-dough bread rolls in mainstream U.K. retailer Marks & Spencer. Avoca-dough is made with avocado instead of eggs and coconut oil instead of butter.
While plant-based products are gaining traction with younger consumers, Nielsen says everyone’s taking notice. “The number of new plant-based products that come out on a weekly basis is astounding,” she says.
Whole Foods Market, in its annual trend predictions, expects that we’ll see chickpeas everywhere, added to everything fromBiena’s Vegan Ranch Puffs to Three Wishes cereal made with chickpeas, catering to the plant-based trend.
Hurt by the pandemic and the recession, restaurants, especially fine-dining locations, desperate for revenue will be preparing more ready-to-eat or ready-to-heat foods to sell in grocery stores. This began, says Webster of Menu Matters, with high-quality, technique-focused comfort meals that work for a family or multiple people. Going forward, she expects to see more innovation and more meals for smaller groups and singles.
When Americans stay home, their coffee habits move home too, and more products will become available to meet this need, according to WGSN’s forecasting. Anything “that’s fancy and turned instant with a new specialty process,” says Nielsen of WGSN.
Voila, in Bend, Ore., offers instant coffee from specialty roasters around the world, and from Jot in the Bay Area there’s what Nielsen calls a “hipster coffee concentrate.” For bags, there’s Steeped Coffee in different blends, which work like tea bags. And to keep environmentalists happy, Stirz in Canada offers pre-portioned coffee in a pouch with an edible wrapper so the whole thing goes directly into the cup. This is designed for outdoor/camping use, but can be used indoors, too.
Coffee is also being added to food products, according to Whole Foods, which points to Muesli, protein bars and yogurt that contain some joe.
Nondairy cheese is going to continue its meteoric rise to fame in 2021, “with an expansion into a wide range of cheese types and formats,” Webster says. “The quality and performance of these products is improving significantly, and they allow for an easier entry for consumers into the plant-based alternative category than with something like a burger, which requires greater commitment to the meal occasion. So many consumers have now been engaged—to some degree—in the non-dairy category thanks to a growing array of alternative milks that shifting into the alternative cheese category is likely going to be an easy transition.”
Companies include Follow Your Heart, which offers 17 products such as vegan cream cheese and feta crumbles, available in conventional and specialty retailers. These products, says Director of Marketing Lauren Kahner, are appealing to a broader base. “We’re seeing health-conscious consumers, those with dairy intolerances and those looking for more sustainable food options, coming to our brand,” she says.
Nondairy products will expand into cheeses, yogurts and other products in 2021, according to Webster, who says, “Innovation here will absolutely be focused on mass market rather than niche vegetarian and vegan consumers.”
One company already doing this is Core & Rind, which offers varieties of cashew cheese sauce. Sales of these products have tripled in 2020, according to co-founder Rita Childers, and they appeal to “health-conscious millennials, those with dairy allergies and people on specific diets, like vegan, paleo, keto and Whole30.”
Regular dairy cheese will also maintain its rock star status into the new year, says Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “It fits every single bill,” she says. “It can be regional or global, and consumers are looking for both. They’re also looking for nostalgic food products, and it fits comfort and familiar but it can also be exotic too.”
Webster expects to see more innovation in regular cheese with “flavors, possibly different or unexpected formats for specific cheese types like blue cheese slices.”
Everyone knows chocolate is made from cacao, but most consumers don’t know there’s a by-product from the cacao bean—cacao pulp—which has a sweet-sour tropical flavor.
Last year, Mondelez International teamed up with Barry Callebaut AG and launched CaPao, a plant-based snack brand made with cacao pulp. And Nestle Japan launched Cacao Fruit Chocolate in the form of a KitKat. And this fall, Oded Brenner opened a new cafe, Blue Stripes Urban Cacao, in New York City, with cacao pulp dishes. Nielsen expects to see more of this in 2021. “A lot of this is about resourceful use of all the plant and upcycling,” she says.
Whole Foods believes we’ll see other foods upcycled too, saving waste, and companies doing this will rise in popularity. The Ugly Co. features upcycled kiwis, apricots, nectarines and peaches; there will be flour made from okara, or upcycled soybean pulp; and we’ll see Pulp Pantry’s Pulp Chips, made with upcycled veggies, next year, too.
Whole Foods’ annual predictions this year anticipate that the lines will blur between supplement and grocery categories, bringing superfoods, probiotics, broths and sauerkrauts to the forefront. Suppliers will incorporate functional ingredients such as vitamin C, mushrooms and adaptogens into products to foster a calm headspace and support the immune system. The trend is already starting: Bee pollen granules, boasting protein, folic acid and B vitamins, were recently spotted at Safeway.
Diets like keto and paleo are likely to stay popular, but Webster believes consumers in general will take a more holistic view of their health and foods they can eat, and the diets’ popularity will plateau. “The heightened interest in health due to the pandemic has made consumers more conscious of what health is and how to get healthy,” she says.
Whole Foods predicts breakfast is going to become more important in consumers’ lives now that many no longer have to commute. Innovative products we might see are plant-based sausage patties, egg bites and breakfast pizzas.
Webster thinks grocers “will definitely up their prepared foods game in the breakfast category to hopefully catch people who may still be shopping early to avoid crowds and who may be reluctant to make multiple stops [to the grocery store then to a restaurant] for a breakfast item they miss from their commuting days.”