A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 18, 2015

From Kale to Quinoa: The Business of Forecasting Food Trends

Food is a big business. Food is also fashion, which means the trends determining what people want to eat (as opposed to what they do eat) may be less predictable than, say, machine tools.

But there is data, which means there are patterns, which means predictability is not just possible but important.

While transportation, refrigeration and urbanization mean that it is easier - and more profitable - to meet whatever foods are trending hot because companies know where people are and how to get stuff to them, figuring out the various niches for which some may pay a premium takes research.

Opinion leaders matter, as they do in any fashion-driven enterprise. So do demographics. And, sometimes, luck. After all, who would have predicted the emergence of typovores: people who only eat animals with the same blood type as their own. JL

Sarah Nassauer reports in the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. food sales were flat in 2014 compared with the previous year while foods labeled with health attributes such as gluten free, organic, and GMO-free rose 13%. Americans bought $16 billion worth of food with protein claims on packaging last year, a 5.3% annual increase.
Fat is good for you, artificial sweetener bad and cricket flour is a real thing being sold as a healthy source of protein in snack bars.
Food companies and grocers count on us flitting from one eating habit to another to profit from a steady supply of products tailored to new tastes. But forecasting eating habits is tricky. Some new foods or health trends become common parts of daily life, like $4 lattes, while others such as caffeine gum fizzle.
Predicting which is which—and tracking a trend on the way up and down—have become especially important to big food companies as shoppers turn away from old standbys in favor of food perceived as healthy or premium. Overall U.S. food sales were flat in 2014 compared with the previous year while foods labeled with health attributes such as gluten free, organic, and GMO-free rose 13%, according to sales data from Nielsen.
Shoppers have recently started gobbling up whole milk nearly as often as skim, according to Nielsen data. Butter and eggs are resurgent after years of sales decline amid low-fat diets and fear of cholesterol. Eggs are now seen as a good, cheap source of protein.
Food trends typically advance in predictable stages. New culinary fashions often appear first in a creative chef’s kitchen, at an ethnic restaurant or are invented by the eccentric owner of a small food company, says Kimberly Egan, principal and chief executive of CCD Innovation, a food and beverage strategy company that created a commonly used model for a five-stage food trend timeline. Foods like açaí (pronounced a-sai-EE), kimchi, kale, coconut sugar, sprouted grains and fancy burgers first became popular this way.

In the early stage, almost anything can get a day in the sun. Cricket flour is now being pitched by a handful of small companies as cheap protein that is better for the environment than cattle and chickens. Bugs are common food around the world and pulverizing them to flour, disguised in snack bars, will make crickets palatable to Americans, say fans. It is a “zero stage” trend, Ms. Egan says.
If the food makes it to the next stage it shows up on food blogs, food truck menus and in high-end cooking stores like Sur la Table. Later it might make its way to menus at casual chains like Bonefish Grill or Chili’s and food TV shows, says Ms. Egan. The trend usually hits recipe websites before finally ending up on fast-food menus and grocery shelves, she says. Quinoa, chia seeds and sriracha, a hot chili pepper sauce, have hit this level.
For big companies, the trick is jumping on trends quickly, but not so quickly that they overcommit to a passing fad. At Campbell Soup Co. CPB -0.69 % , General Mills Inc., GIS -0.25 % WhiteWave Foods Co. WWAV -1.39 % , whose brands include Horizon Organic, and other companies, employees analyze food sales data, read trend and health research, and mine the Internet for mentions of a trend, what they call “social listening
Protein, for example, shows the nuance required in reading trends. The typical meat-lover eats plenty, but still many consumers want more, especially at nontraditional moments like breakfast and afternoon snack, say food researchers. Companies are flooding grocery shelves with plant-protein-laden bars, breakfast drinks and cereal and pointing out on labels that it is in hot dogs and candy bars. Americans bought $16 billion worth of food with protein claims on packaging last year, a 5.3% annual increase, according to Nielsen.
But eating more plant protein from soy or peas and less animal protein isn’t yet a widely accepted habit, says Michael Goodman, director of innovation at Campbell. The company’s scientists have been tracking academic research and U.S. government dietary guidelines that recommend consuming less animal protein, expecting the shifting research to nudge eaters toward more plant-based diets, says Mr. Goodman. To jump on the trend Campbell’s started selling V8 Protein bars and shakes last year which include pea protein, soy protein, brown rice protein, quinoa and milk.
“We are banking on some of that science to be working with us” to move plant protein eating from fringe to mainstream, he says.
For a new food, flavor or health trend to become widely accepted it needs to hit on big behaviors like the struggle to make weeknight dinner or shoppers’ current desire to feel that food is natural.
Hoping to stop a sales slide of Yoplait yogurt, brand owner General Mills has gradually changed the ingredients in some varieties, removing synthetic dyes, high-fructose corn syrup and aspartame, an artificial sweetener. It changed its packaging to note the changes. Yoplait sales have started to creep back up, likely because taking out these ingredient appeals to people’s desire for what General Mills dubs “proactive wellness,” says Matt Wilson, global trends manager for the company.
Our idea of being healthy has moved away from dieting, in favor of “how do we eat good food? How do we stay active? How do we get good sleep?,” Mr. Wilson says.
Three years ago, Campbell was tracking two big trends: younger shoppers who want more adventurous ethnic flavors and the need for easy weeknight dinners. To respond, Campbell introduced dinner sauces, which can be heated in a skillet, oven or slow-cooker with a meat and come in a variety of flavors from Thai curry to pot roast. The best-selling flavors are “different from what they [consumers] would normally have, but not so different that it’s foreign and scary,” says Mr. Goodman, the company innovation director.
The company plans to stop selling a cheddar bacon beef sauce. “We thought the consumer was really hungering for those familiar flavors,” but it likely wasn’t exciting enough, says Mr. Goodman. Slow cooker Moroccan stew is also on the chopping block, likely because it was too unfamiliar, he says. Chicken marsala, pot roast and Thai curry are selling well.
“You just can’t always tell between a Moroccan stew and Thai curry what is going to be a hit,” he says.


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