When it comes to predicting culinary trends leading into the year 2021, using a traditional method of analyzing restaurant data will leave your company out in the cold.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many restaurants shut down or went exclusively curbside, therefore, precious, usable data was squeezed out of it. And, with almost all limited time offers (LTO) halted as well, very little new ground has been broken in 2020. Instead, look at the inward personal concerns that have arisen this last year — concerns that will most likely stay strong as we emerge from the pandemic and inform the future trend direction. 

One of the biggest personal concerns on everyone's mind is the worry about staying healthy and keeping our immunity strong. This worry is driving a renewed interest in health through nutrition and functional ingredients that can strengthen the immune system or provide perceived impactful benefits. 

The focus on functional ingredients has potential to be a solid growth driver for many retail lines. However, don't overlook the fact that we are still talking about food. Younger generations aren’t satisfied with just a function. They want flavor as well. Their expectations are high and they refuse to settle. This marriage of function and flavor has potential to be the biggest driver of new trends into 2021.


With the current pandemic surrounding our thoughts, our health and staying healthy will be on the forefront of most Americans minds. This would suggest that the general public may be interested in how to help boost their immune system through foods. It’s helpful to remember as we discuss the thought of functional foods, that most all foods are functional. 

Protein is commonly referred to as the building blocks for our bodies, and carbohydrates provide energy, while vitamins and minerals help the body function properly. It’s important to recognize that all food is functional, however, we are focusing on more specific functions that can address the general public’s health concerns. For this purpose, we are looking at three different consumer perspectives, and each one addresses a different persona: instant gratification, long-term fitness, and clean label. 

Instant gratification: Even before 2020, the country was already ramping up instant gratification functional flavor in prescription bars. Millennials and Generation Z are looking for more immediate satisfaction and will gravitate to the promises of functional foods that address what is forefront in their lives now. For example, stress, energy levels, and sleep. 

Addressing these concerns can be accomplished by positioning ingredients rich in vitamins or fortifiers for promoting qualities we desire like energy, endurance, better sleep, and now add a better immune system. Ingredients high in vitamin B for instance can be used to deliver against the promise of reduced stress. 

According to a study published by MDPI in 2016, high doses of vitamin B helps to control symptoms of stress by reducing serum homocysteine levels in the body. This will move away from fortification of the alphabet vitamins and into ingredients that you can call out on a label that are naturally high in those vitamins. 

Long-term fitness: Living longer is now a reality. The generations prior to Baby Boomers, they didn’t expect to live much past their 70’s. Now, it’s common to live well into our 90’s. This shift in the mortal expiration date has people focusing on staying healthier longer. 

Generation X and older will focus on foods promising long-term fitness with the lure of prolonged health, such as cardiovascular health or improved memory functions. Millennials and younger will be looking to protect their health from potential diseases and the natural effects of aging. This is the category that will benefit from ingredients that can act as antioxidants, such as turmeric and rosemary. Products with the capacity to help us age gracefully will continue to gain in popularity as our desires to stay healthy remain a top priority.

Clean label: This hasn’t gone away, and hopefully never will. The food we feed our families today has benefited greatly from this movement, however the focus of clean labels may shift slightly. In the recent past, the clean label movement was to eliminate perceived harmful and difficult to pronounce ingredients with ones we might find in our own cabinets. Now, it will be to bring back old classics. 

All trends have their moments and many lose favor only to become recycled later on. As an example, back in the 80’s, palm oil was cast out as evil. It miraculously made a comeback 20 years later when it was touted as the new replacement for trans-fat, and it has been going strong ever since. The same thing is happening to some of the natural products we started to chastise a few decades ago. Natural ingredients such as butter, eggs, and even meat will be valued for their incredible wealth of vitamins and minerals, as well as their all natural “halo” appeal. 


In the world of culinary trends, flavor will always be of the utmost importance, and must be prevalent in any trend if it is to have longevity. Why eat something just because it will make you healthier? Isn’t that called medicine? 

Adventurous eating as a trait has been gaining strength with each generation, starting with the Baby Boomers. The youngest generation, Generation Z, is no exception. They show promise to be the most adventurous generation, and they will account for an astounding 40% of the buying power in the world this year. This makes them the largest and most important generation for brands to address. This young generation has high expectations for their food: it needs to be clean, it needs to be fun, it needs to be good for them, and it needs to taste great.

International flavors will remain strong: Comfort food benefited heavily from the lack of certainty during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, a majority of consumers have been cooped up for a large part of 2020. Restaurants shuttered or were reduced to curbside pick-up and travel has been grounded for the most part. People are craving both some sort of normalcy and to get back to the experiences that they have been denied this year. One way that this will manifest is through their food. 

More than ever, people will turn to their meals to not only nourish them, but to help satisfy the desire to explore new parts of the world, or remember past experiences. To put it simply, if they can’t physically travel, they will do it through their food. Understanding and balancing the desire for normalcy against the lost excitement from new experiences, the consumer will gravitate towards safe culinary exploration. 

New flavor development will continue to arise in the big three international categories of Latin food, Southeast Asian food, and Mediterranean food. This will allow for the feel of traveling through food, yet deliver comfort with easily understood ingredients combined on a substrate that they know and love. 

Looking ahead, the combination of flavor and function in our foods will be the next big arena for growth in our industry. The consumer will be looking for a story of new experiences combined with the potentially beneficial effect on health. When consumed on a regular basis, these meals will nourish both their longing for experiences as well as their desire for sustained health. They will continue looking for a product that satisfies both. In other words, they want to eat their cake and feel better too.  

Maybe the biggest question of the last 20 years isn’t what’s coming next, but rather how can developers and companies take advantage of this moment of disruption when consumer behaviors are shifting. The different behaviors and spending preferences develop to securely solidify their place for the future.

Dax Schaefer is the corporate executive chef and director of culinary innovation at Asenzya, Inc. Readers may contact him at (414) 764-1220 x325, or at dax.schaefer@asenzya.com


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