A year ago, almost nobody could have imagined how dramatically everyone’s life would change in 2020. What we eat, how we purchase it, and how we prepare and eat it are among the most far-reaching impacts we have seen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the 2020 Food & Health Survey, fielded in April 2020 by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 85% of Americans said they had experienced at least some change in their eating or food preparation habits because of COVID-19, and we don’t anticipate effect to fade much in 2021.
“COVID-19 has upended virtually every aspect of our daily lives,” says Joseph Clayton, IFIC’s chief executive officer. “While new vaccines and treatments will hopefully help turn the tide, IFIC’s survey data suggest that some of the changes we’ve undergone are proving durable, even many months later. Drawing on IFIC’s expertise in nutrition, food safety, and consumer attitudes and behaviors, we believe the pandemic will continue to be the dominant force behind a wide array of food trends in the coming year.”
COVID-19 Remains Food Safety Focus
IFIC surveys historically have shown little variation in consumers’ biggest concerns about food safety, with foodborne illness from bacteria topping the list almost every year. But that changed dramatically in 2020, when the risk to food handling and preparation related to COVID-19 was ranked the top food safety concern by more Americans than any other issue (24%), outpacing foodborne illness from bacteria (20%).
Despite there being no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 from food or food packaging, we predict food safety will continue to be top-of-mind in 2021, given the findings of our recent surveys. A September 2020 IFIC survey revealed that about half (49%) of Americans were concerned about the safety of food prepared at home. The same survey showed that coronavirus exposure and food contamination remain among the most common food safety worries. More recently, 39% of respondents in the 2020 Year-End Survey said the risk of COVID-19 when shopping for food or dining out was their top food-related concern
In 2021, we anticipate that this trend will be reflected in technologies and innovations. For example, restaurant customers can expect experiences that minimize face-to-face interaction, such as robotic or automated food handling. Food take-out will also offer more and more contactless options. Home food-delivery apps and services will make greater use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to meet customer needs and expectations around food safety, a trend that is already spreading across the broader food system.
Easy Does It: Convenience and Affordability Are in Favor
We’ve all heard stories and seen photos documenting culinary ambitions that were booming in quarantine, such as a proliferation of budding bakers and sourdough starters. But these kitchen projects may have run their course with consumers’ food priorities shifting toward convenience and affordability, and away from time-consuming and labor-intensive endeavors.
According to IFIC’s 2020 Year-End Survey, when Americans were asked how their cooking habits had changed over the past year, 36% reported cooking more simple foods, ranking ahead of trying new recipes (30%) or new cooking techniques (19%). At a more concerning level, nearly three in 10 (28%) said they are worried about being able to afford food for their household in 2021.
In the new year, we can expect to see simpler, more “semi-homemade” meals that incorporate affordable options like canned or frozen foods, along with convenient staples such as rice and pasta that can be quickly assembled for a well-balanced and budget-conscious meal.
Health Goals Are Also Simpler, Less Ambitious
Seemingly ages ago—in early 2020—42% of Americans said they had made changes to their eating or drinking habits such as limiting sugars, “clean eating,” losing weight, or following other diets.
In the coming year, well… not so much. Only 15% said they plan to make a food or beverage resolution for 2021. This seems to suggest that as people plan their New Year’s goals, Americans aren’t investing energy into fad diets or being as restrictive with food as they may have been in past years. Instead, Americans will be focusing more on their general health, rather than adopting drastic diets or resolutions.
If there is one place people tell us they will focus on, it is immunity. In the 2020 Food & Health Survey, out of those who said they are seeking foods or following diets for their health benefits, 40% wanted benefits for their immune function. In addition, nearly one in five Americans (18%) in December cited the pandemic as a specific reason they’re looking for foods to strengthen their immune system.
The Staying Power of Snacks
How often do you snack? For many Americans, the answer seems to be “more and more.” The 2020 Food & Health Survey, conducted in April, reported that one-quarter of Americans (26%) snacked multiple times a day, which was unchanged from 2019. By August 2020, that number had increased to more than one-third (36%).
In addition, 33% said they’re snacking more often when they’re bored or not hungry, and 32% are more often eating snacks alone—all possible indicators of the personal and professional lifestyle shifts many have undergone as a result of COVID-19. Some Americans reported more positive snacking trends, with 30% saying they have been eating healthy snacks or snacking on fruits and vegetables more often since the pandemic began.
In 2021, since nearly four in 10 report replacing meals with snacks, expect to see more substantial snacks (think protein, healthy fats and whole grains) serving as meal replacements.
Caffeine Craze: The Climb Continues
Americans in 2020 have had to juggle competing priorities and take on new roles and responsibilities. For many of us, it appears that the frenetic pace is increasingly powered by caffeine.
Nearly three in 10 respondents (28%) in December said they were consuming more caffeinated beverages than they did the previous January. (Caffeine consumption among American adults already is nearly universal, at 96% in the 2020 Food & Health Survey.) Parents of children under age 18 reported that they were more likely to need caffeine with lunch in comparison to those without children, with 67% of those parents saying that they consume caffeine in multiple ways vs. 55% of adults without young children.
In the new year, look for bedraggled Americans to keep turning to caffeine for help with their tasks and to-do lists.
Remember These Food Trends? They’re Baaack…
In January 2020, we predicted that sustainability and plant-based eating would be among the top trends of the coming year. While these trends took a backseat to COVID-19, all indicators are pointing to their resurgence in 2021.
According to the 2020 Food & Health Survey, 59% of Americans said it’s important that the food products they purchase or consume be produced in an environmentally sustainable way. Their knowledge of and interest in sustainable farming techniques like regenerative agriculture increased over the previous year, with net familiarity at 36% (up from 22% in 2019) and net interest at 57%.
At the same time, plant-based protein has been blossoming everywhere from restaurants to grocery store meat cases. IFIC research to be released this month indicates that the majority of Americans have tried at least one new type of plant protein over the past year, demonstrating that this trend has staying power.
Plant-based protein and sustainability go hand in hand, and we anticipate that interest in them will only continue to grow in 2021, along with the emerging technologies and innovations that make them possible.
The mission of International Food Information Council, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to effectively communicate science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety. We envision a global environment where credible science drives food policy and consumer choice. IFIC is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. For more information, visit https://ific.org.