Tyson, Kraft, Pepsi, Nestle, and ConAgra: these are some of the world's largest food companies, whose combined annual sales easily exceed US$100 billion dollars. That is billion with a capital “B”. Each of these giants, in turn, spends millions of dollars on market research and trend forecasting.

Where do all the world's most successful food multi-nationals go for insight? How do the big-time “players” in the food industry spot the new “meta-trends”? Each and every one of the global food superpowers sends at least one research chef to the annual American Culinary Federation's (ACF, St. Augustine, Fla.) national conference--held this year in San Antonio, Texas. In fact, most send a team of chefs to ensure that every possible bit of valuable information, including after-hours networking sessions, can be covered.

The ACF is an organization that represents and supports culinary-focused chefs nationwide. More than 40,000 strong, the ACF is the largest combined group of these frontline culinary innovators. No other organization can claim such a vast pool of restaurant professionals, with such experience, and who contribute daily feedback. Somewhere in the ACF, a few innovators know what the next homerun product will be. These culinary professionals are truly on the “chefs' edge.”

Upscale to Retail

Even the newest marketers or would-be culinologists today know that many, if not most new retail food trends, as opposed to fads, begin in restaurants. Trends do not begin in the test kitchen; they never have, and they never will. The genesis of new restaurant items begins almost exclusively in high-end, independent operations. Chef- owned, expensive “white tablecloth” restaurants can afford to be wildly creative, alarmingly innovative and passionately avant garde.

Unconcerned about stock value or shareholder's opinions, and years before the average consumer had ever heard of chipotle flavor, chef Rick Bayless of the now famous Frontera Grill (Chicago) already was putting it on his menus. Decades before the multi-nationals discovered Caribbean and South American flavors, chef Norman Van Akin was creating wonderful, innovative Nuevo Latino cuisine in his legendary Miami area restaurant. Chef Alice Waters of San Francisco was leading the way toward organic, seasonal produce long before marketing executives began thinking there might be something to watch there.

However, Joe Sixpack is ignoring the health messages and is ordering the Enormous Omelet Sandwich at Burger King (Miami). Soccer moms are standing in line at Cold Stone Creamery (Scottsdale, Ariz.) for high-fat premium ice cream. “Fast casual” chains that have reduced portion sizes and de-fatted their menus have watched customers walk away, and watched their stock prices fall. Nevertheless, marketing surveys keep indicating customers want healthy foods. What is going on? The market forces can be categorized into four culinary “meta-trends.”

1. Authenticity

The hottest new buzzword being everywhere during this years' chefs' sessions was authenticity. This is not referring to simply old fashioned or classic recipes. The word has taken on a whole new meaning in the culinary lexicon. Out in the front lines, where the restaurant “check hits the deck,” customers vote everyday with their credit cards. A change is in the wind. Everywhere, customers are losing, and may have completely lost, their trust in food authorities.

Every time a prominent or high-profile expert tells the general public that the culinary sky is falling, a little bit of trust is lost. Carbs kill; oops, never mind. Butter is bad; oh, maybe not. It is all about fat; no, maybe it is trans fat. An entire generation has grown up knowing that the authorities will change the facts about nutrition again and again. Yes, they can all read a label now. However, they may no longer believe what they read. They certainly do not believe it will remain true forever. This is causing a growing change in buying patterns.

Consumers no longer want new education before buying a new product. Customers are beginning to look for food items they know are authentic through prior knowledge. By authentic, they mean not made in a laboratory. The growing organic foods movement is really a symptom of this larger trend. For many consumers, organic simply means authentic. It means safe. It means reliable. It means trustworthy. People do not want eating to be a stressful, difficult task.

Executive chef James McDonald, CEC, has taken this concept to the extreme. Chef McDonald is the owner and operator of two upscale restaurants in the city of Lahaina, on the Island of Maui.

The menu in both his restaurants, Pacific 'O and Restaurant IO, are built around only fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs. The proteins on his menus are primarily local free-range chicken, beef and pork. His seafood entrées are freshly caught. Chef McDonald has taken authenticity to a level that would amaze most businesses. He has actually purchased and operates his own nearby vegetable, fruit and herb farm. Almost 100% of the produce used in his restaurants is from his own farm. Picked at the absolute peak of ripeness and shipped daily, the flavors and colors are beyond compare. Planted, grown, picked, prepared and served fresh daily, it is real food. What could be more authentic?

The buzz during the ACF conference told of customers nationwide beginning to look for authentic menu items. Will this preference make its way down the ladder from fast casual, to quick-serve restaurants, to retail? Perhaps it will. The growth of organic produce has proven that at least some customers are willing to pay a premium for peace of mind.

2. Ethicality

Those who walk into any Starbucks (Seattle) coffee shop and ask for a bottle of water will be directed to a high-profile display promoting the company's own Ethos water. The product is being marketed as part of a program to provide clean, fresh water to the world's children. Who could not wish to assist in such a worthy cause? And now, just by purchasing an upscale product that they were going to buy anyway, customers can assist. Are customers really staring to care about such things? The answer is yes.

Globally, the majority of the world's Baby Boomers have reached the beginning of their golden years. At the end of one's life, every person starts to come face to face with mortality. Realizing, finally, that no matter what diet they maintain or medical procedure they undergo, they are about to “meet their maker,” consumers will change their attitudes and behaviors. A large percentage will turn to religion. An even larger number will begin to try and “set right” issues they believe have been left undone. As a result, those who can afford it will be willing to pay more for foods that make them feel that they are doing the right thing.

We are already seeing this in the fast-growing success of fair trade coffee and brands that market the ethicality of purchasing food that is grown, processed, shipped and sold by people and companies that “care.” Purchasing such products allow aging and affluent Baby Boomers to feel good about themselves, while still consuming the upscale products and services to which they have become accustomed.

3. Food Security

The world has become a dangerous place. Everywhere customers look, whether on TV, the Internet or in newspapers, headlines scream how unsafe one is. Consumers are seeking security and comfort. They want and need to feel safe about the foods they purchase and the restaurants they patronize.

This year, for the first time during the national chefs' conference, an expert on food security was a featured speaker. As recently as three years ago, food security was not even mentioned during the annual convention. In the past, one of the mandatory courses for chefs wishing to renew certification was food sanitation. In fact, the course is still being called by that name on various documents and forms. However, the course materials and information are now about food security. It is clear that even at the most upscale restaurants this has become a developing concern. Can one truly say that this is a trend? Again, the answer is yes. When even the smallest “white tablecloth” restaurants are beginning to spend money on food security, it is evident that this is a change in the way restaurants do business. Food security is a growing trend. Marketing the comfort, safety and security of new products may be a golden opportunity.

4. Exotic and Indulgent

In many of Chicago's neighborhood supermarkets, the spice selection has grown to more than double in size over the past 18 months. In San Francisco, some food stores have had to begin locking the saffron behind the counter to combat shoplifting. In trendy nightclubs, the hottest-selling new vodkas now market the hot kick of capsicum, tropical fruits or blends of spices. Hot pepper vodka and hoodlums stealing Indian spices; we are seeing the beginning of a trend.

There is a definite trend toward the exotic in spices and flavoring. Cardamom is the hot new spice flavor. Based on interviews with chefs during the ACF national conference from every corner of our country, use of this spice is going through the roof. According to statistics from Datamonitor (London), cardamom sales are up at least 650% over the last 12 months. However, it is not being used as a lone flavor. The driving force behind that increase is a big upswing in exotic menu items such as Indian curries and Asian entrées. Add to that exotic sweet goods and coffee products, and cardamom is becoming a star. Look for an increase in other exotic flavors like lemon grass and kaffir lime. These flavors are being blended with the already intense flavors of Spanish and South American-Latino cuisines. The resulting exotic fusion has not been officially named. However, a number of very successful upscale restaurants are specializing in this exotic blend of flavors, ingredients and techniques. Again, the aging Baby Boomers are driving this trend.

A desire to indulge in luxury as a reward during their final years, plus openness to new exotic flavors and ingredients, brought on by media-driven gourmet food awareness, is fueling the rise in new exotic flavors. A huge reserve of spendable assets, combined with a limited time to spend them, is creating a willingness to indulge. The Boomers are not dead yet! They are still a demographic with whom to reckon. The long-term legacy of their final spending spree may leave a lasting change in what the world wears, watches, listens to, eats and buys.

Slowly, these four “meta-trends” are building globally. Today's instant global communication network ensures that future trends will be shared by the entire planet. National mega-trends will be surpassed by global meta-trends (planetary shifts in attitude). The trends noted above cross all national, ethnic, social and political boundaries. Today's product developers are clearly looking at a new century facing a paradigm shift. Even local chefs know their customer is the world. Live locally, think internationally, and sell globally.