“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” goes the saying. With 2020 well in the past and 2021 half over, it’s a safe bet to say things are going to be different now. Better-for-you food and beverage products have been big business for a long time, occupying a solid corner of the food and beverage industry and enjoying strong and steady growth over the years. Yet after a year and a half of total disruption, signs are that consumers have taken a great leap forward when it comes to the focus they put on what they consume.
The research organization The Hartman Group has kept a steady flow of research coming throughout the troubles of the past couple of years. As 2020 gave way to this year, in their “What Will Health + Wellness Mean in 2021” report, the group noted that one-third of US consumers are, among other positive efforts, sleeping more, exercising more, consuming more functional foods and beverages, and more of them are taking supplements. The report concludes that these actions align with “adopting entirely new solutions or rededicating oneself to regular use of familiar ones.”
Hartman’s follow-up report, “Functional Food & Beverage and Supplements” noted that “consumers are seeking empowerment in order to take control of both their own and their family’s health through behaviors that build immunity and resilience.” Consumers’ concerns over “green” issues also rose sharply. Upcycling, organics, sustainability, corporate responsibility, and living wages reached enough of a tipping point in the consumer zeitgeist where the Hartman Group termed sustainability and company responsibility a “business imperative.”
The political turmoil that accompanied the health turmoil in this recent time period also impacted the food world. In the years preceding the onset of the global pandemic, the US food industry’s fascination with global flavors and international culinary influences was becoming firmly entrenched in the mainstream.
Last spring, Hartman spotlighted a ripple in the approach to ethnic cuisine influences in “Revisiting the Diversity of American Foodways.” The group’s researchers concluded, “How we understand diversity in the US has evolved due to both changing patterns of immigration and changing definitions of race and ethnicity, with ramifications for our food and beverage culture.”
Whether these ramifications will be positive or negative remains to be seen, but in the new era of cancel culture and accusations of cultural appropriation, product developers could find themselves getting the wrong kind of attention for something along the lines of an “Asian Style” breakfast bowl or a less-than-authentic Nashville Hot Chicken appetizer.
Such disruptions will prove to be minor, though, as flavor and indulgence also continue to provide much-needed comfort to American consumers. Ingredient technologists have enjoyed phenomenal success in the past few years cracking the code on fats, sugars, meats, seafood, dairy, alcohol, and other products that formerly were a source of worry to consumers.
Analogs and variations of all these items that have few or no calories and healthful enhancements have ensured that foods and beverages are not destined to “stay the same” as they were and that, as they hit the mainstream, people will have at least one big worry lifted from their shoulders. They can have their cake—and burgers and ice cream and cocktails—and enjoy them too.