I don’t believe we can move too far down the list of 2016 trends before noting the swelling movement of ingredient simplification. This consumer-driven trend has sparked significant changes around the industry, from retail to foodservice. Major food companies have committed to wholesale changes in ingredient sourcing, which has disrupted supply chains and created acute frustration along with rare opportunity.
Take the case of cage-free eggs. A few years ago, consumers latched onto the idea of chickens raised outside of cages, and the trend has since crescendoed with an announcement from McDonald’s in September of 2015 that its eggs would achieve cage-free status by 2025. Since then, the list of retailers and foodservice outlets making cage-free commitments has exploded. Albertsons, Kraft-Heinz, Target, ConAgra, Subway, Walmart and Aramark have all set target dates for cage-free status. That list alone represents an enormous number of cage-free eggs.
To meet the demand, egg farmers are making fundamental adjustments in the way they raise hens. As the reconfiguration of some chicken farms takes place, the National Association of Egg Farmers issued a statement indicating that the changes will not yield a more humane environment for chickens, and that food safety concerns could arise.
I see the cage-free egg trend as part of a larger pursuit of ingredient simplification, the thinking being that cage-free eggs bring eggs closer to a state in which they would exist were hens left to their own devices. There may or may not be merit to cage-free eggs being somehow better or more natural than their caged counterparts, but really, the truth doesn’t matter. Consumer perception rules the roost, and it has driven bedrock change in the food industry.
Ingredient simplification extends to the omission of genetically modified foods, and really any ingredient whose character smacks of science. I’ve often read that consumers want nutrition labels to only include ingredients that they find in their pantries. All this while the percent of US consumers who actually read the Nutrition Facts label is declining, according to recent report by The NPD Group.
Other consumer demands that rest within the ingredient simplification context: gluten-free foods, dairy-free foods, plant-based foods, nut-based foods, and even the general demand for organic foods represents broad consumer desire to connect with the essence of the foods they consume. This intense concern with the origin of food uncovers some fundamental questions for food processors.
We all know that safe, consistent processed food requires measures that are in opposition to some of the ingredient simplification trends. As a result, the entire food industry is managing food safety, profitability and consumer demand like never before.
I wish there was a simple solution for simple ingredients.