If you’re reading this, then you made it through 2020 intact (more or less). Good on ya! Now the real work starts. We can afford a look forward now that doing so doesn’t seem like such an exercise in gloom. There are two overarching trends greeting us as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. The first is a hyper-awareness of the foods and beverages we consume that surpasses anything preceding or predicted. The other is the synergy between food makers and consumer demands ignited by this awareness. Since the 1970s, there’s been an astonishing shift in the way food companies make and market their products. We’ve written about that often. What’s new for 2021 is the accelerated pace.

In the 1970s, so-called “processed” foods did not have a great reputation. As the industry changed, attitudes were slower to do the same. Even in the mid-1990s, most Americans still thought of all processed foods as less-than-healthy and filled with additives. Of course, the 1970s through the 1990s is when the obesity crisis took off like Elon Musk’s Starship. (So did the abrogation of personal responsibility, but that’s a story for another Viewpoint.)

I confess, I shared those same preconceived notions about the food industry. Then, in 2004 when I entered this side of food journalism, I got to know the people and companies in the food, beverage, and ingredient industries and learned that everything I thought I knew was wrong. The people creating and making prepared foods, and the ingredients in them (aside from the occasional dinosaurs and more infamous exceptions), were mostly interested in making wholesome, healthful, tasty, and exciting products, and reducing their reliance on complicated war chests of ingredients. 

Which brings us to the second trend: Synergy. The incredible and rapid strides made by developers in creating products such as plant-based mimics (“analogs” simply doesn’t do justice to many of these products) of meat, poultry, seafood, and dairy – and with the health of the environment every bit as much in mind as the health of the body – simply could not have happened without the industry graciously choosing to lead by following. That is, following consumer demands and keeping a constant finger on the pulse of what’s good for people and the planet.

While the plant-based mimics of meat and dairy have accelerated to a nearly $50B a year industry, lab-grown meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products also are moving ahead at warp speed. Something I predicted would take decades to perfect is running on a compressed timeframe, with multiple companies in multiple countries (including cultured steak pioneer Aleph Farms, Ltd., in Israel) approving and launching pilot sales of slaughter-free beef and poultry. And the pace of cultured seafood development is even more rapid. Cell-based fish filets from BlueNalu, Inc. are expected to hit the market by the end of next year. Dairy, too, is on the fast-track. Perfect Day Foods, Inc.’s ice cream from lab-grown dairy had a pilot launch that­ — at $20/pint — sold out in a few hours. In some respects, 2021 really does feel as if the future we envisioned when I was kid is finally here.