Food continues to be an important part of personal -- and generational -- identity, and it’s no surprise that today’s consumers are looking to take advantage of healthy food options in new, convenient ways. This focus on health and convenience is visible in different ways across generations and is driving changes for the food industry. Manufacturers and suppliers alike need to understand what ingredients should be incorporated into final products to meet varying generational consumer needs. 
From my experience in the food ingredients industry at Univar, I see this complex relationship -- and the resulting trends -- from my close collaboration with suppliers and manufacturers. As an ingredients distributor, we see the changing landscape of consumer food preferences across multiple generations long before products hit supermarket shelves.  

Millennials (Gen Y)

As the most ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history, Millennials (ages 17-34), have the most diverse palates and tend to prefer a wide variety of healthy, convenient food options. As a result, we’ve seen an increase in demand for healthy, convenient foods, including acidified protein drinks (such as smoothies and fruit drinks), gluten-free bakery products, gluten-free tortillas–even gluten-free cupcakes. There also has been an increase in demand for alternative milk beverages (such as almond or oat milk), in which we recommend gellan gum for stabilizing calcium, while providing a more flavorful product for consumers. A new product that’s helping manufacturers develop the healthy convenience foods that Millenials crave is Licresse, derived from the licorice root and naturally high in antioxidant-rich phenolic compounds. The natural product is a preservative alternative that infuses antioxidants, preventing oxidation in meat, dairy and beverage products.

Gen X

Generation X consumers (ages 35-47) tend toward food products with health-conscious factors, such as sodium-, sugar- and calorie-reductions. Roughly two thirds of consumers, according to Mintel, value “high in” characteristics (e.g., fiber, vitamins) as opposed to “reduced/low” attributes (e.g., sodium, calorie). As a result, there currently is a push with manufacturers to reduce sugar and sodium without claiming it on food labels. This trend has pushed manufacturers to find alternatives that reduce sugar and sodium without changing taste. For example, Salona -- a natural, low-sodium sea salt -- allows 25-50% replacement of sodium chloride without changing a product’s texture or flavor. Meanwhile, Enliten brand stevia has a clean and consistent quality that allows manufacturers to reduce sugar by up to 25%. Both Salona and Enliten stevia are just two examples of reduction trends aimed largely at the Generation X market. 

Baby Boomers

Among Baby Boomers (ages 48-66) we’re seeing a strong focus on incorporating supplements to ward off the impacts of aging, such as reduced bone density and muscle depletion. Increasingly, manufacturers are turning to new formulations to reach Boomers who want foods fortified with protein, fiber, calcium or omegas. Products such as energy bars and beverages are increasingly popular, and suppliers have created ingredients like Nexira Fibre Gum -- a 90%-soluble, natural fiber resource -- to meet fortification demands. This fiber gum can be added to drinks and snack foods to give Boomers the extra dietary supplements they need. 
Understanding how to incorporate these trends in food products can be a daunting process, as manufacturers must decide and prioritize which health-focused changes to make, while considering logistics, such as production times and cost-efficiencies. Amidst this challenging landscape one simple rule reigns supreme across generations: Consumers prefer products that taste good. While shoppers are navigating various diet needs -- from increasing their vitamin intake to reducing sugar consumption -- they will almost always choose the option that best satisfies their palate.
That is the trick: Today’s consumer expects that healthy changes be made to their favorite food products with minimal change in texture or taste. Everyone along the food manufacturing supply chain is challenged to blend superior taste, with nutrition and convenience, in new and creative ways. The industry is full of exciting innovations to meet emerging trends and ever-changing consumer demands across generational preferences.
1. Millennial Marketing, “Millennials Seek Fresh Tastes and Flavors,” 
June 1, 2012
2. Mintel, “Attitudes Toward Healthy Food,” June 2012