What’s behind our food fads?

Sensemaking / What’s behind our food fads?

Alisha Bhagat explores the currents that keep menus in flux.

By Alisha Bhagat / 31 Oct 2016

What we eat is constantly evolving. Turtle soup, sweetbreads, pickled walnuts and scotch woodcock seem like exotic items today, but 100 years ago these dishes were menu staples in New York City. A glance at vintage menus reveals a slew of dishes that leaves modern eaters puzzled. But we need not go into the distant past to find radical changes in how we eat and what we eat. Foods like kale, coconut water and quinoa have become commonplace in the past 10 years. While some of these have become popular due to food fads, many of them are enabled by a complex global supply chain that enables coconuts to be processed in Thailand and shipped via cold storage to markets in New York. The sophistication of the global delivery network and supply chain has made food highly global and ever changing.

The popularity of food media such the Food Network can spread the desire for niche ingredients out into the mainstream. I confess that I once spent hours searching local stores for Iranian barberries to make a rice dish, only to realize that I could buy them online. My grandmother certainly didn’t have the same lust for novel ingredients. The future of food is ever-changing, but through Forum’s work this year on the Protein Challenge, we have come across the following signals of what might be next:

1. New Ingredients

In the past year there have been lots of old niche ingredients entering the mainstream in new ways. Foods such as turmeric and mate are popping up in packaged goods. Algae is being mass produced and entering the mainstream, particularly as a plant-based protein. And it’s hard to read an article about the future of food without learning about the inclusion of insects in everything from food bars to high end restaurant dishes.

2. New Products

A lot of interesting plant-based products have hit the market this year including the Impossible Burger, Just Mayo, and Ripple milk. These offer nutritious products with a smaller footprint than their conventional meat or dairy-based equivalents. Plant-based products have received a lot of funding and are expected to disrupt the traditional food system.

3. New Production methods

Some ingredients on the up, such as algae, are coming closer to scale thanks to new production methods. Algae is grown in vats in a factory and needs limited resources. Scientists have been experimenting with lab-grown meat for the past few years and there is a push to reduce cost through greater scale. 3D printing provides another production method and German nursing homes are experimenting with 3D-printed pureed foods that can be shaped to resemble familiar dishes.

4. Convenience still counts

Finally – people continue to be time-crunched as ever and to favour convenience above all. This has made for extreme solutions, such as Soylent, a shelf-stable, ready-to-eat meal replacement that can take seconds to prepare and consume. For those in cities, there has been innovation around rapid food delivery with companies such as Maple that send out prepared foods daily. People who still like to cook might go for Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, which provide meal kits complete with ingredients and instructions so that a home-cooked meal becomes an easier proposition. The food we eat will continue to evolve, as will the entire supply chain from production to format of consumption. What seem like small shifts today could impact the grocery basket, dinner plate and restaurant menu of the future.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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