It's easy to see how 2020 was an exceptional year for the food industry, in a literal sense. The exceptionality of 2020 due to the pandemic and the lockdowns, which forced customers to stay home, veering towards take away and ordering more of their food and drinks online, is to be expected to continue in 2021 but in a lesser manner. Hard to make previsions here, considering how wrong many have been last year, but the ongoing vaccination can make us hopeful for a more normal 2021.
However 2021 will turn out to be, and we all hope much easier for eating out than 2020, some food trends can be already gleaned from the past year(s), which are probably to be carried on into the new year. Here are then the top trends that anyone working in the food industry would do well to pay attention to in 2021.
Flavor fatigue, or not?
For flavor fatigue is meant the "cognitive depletion reduces consumer enjoyment of complex-flavored (but not simple-flavored) foods". In practice, instead of trying new foods and exploring different recipes, consumers tend to buy and cook more of the tastes they already know and love. That is shown by some statistics: 90% of US consumers purchased chocolate in 2020, potato chips are as popular as ever, and staples of US' daily consumption like coffee haven't dropped in popularity at all.
For 2021, there's no sign that these kinds of simple, well-known foods and ingredients will have a bad year. In general, it's easy to guess that food with a single "flavor dimension" that doesn't require a lot of attention and brain power will keep being super-popular.
Yet, depending on how 2021 will unravel, an ingredient of "food exoticism" may make a strong return. Plenty of people who didn't manage to travel much in 2020 are aching to do it in 2021. And with travel, food comes along. Trying the local delicacies and getting to know a new food culture were sorely lacking in 2020. It's arguable that a good chunk of US consumers will be dying to try foreign cuisines again, both at home than when traveling.
Comforting foods will be important in 2021
Hopefully, this new year won't be as stressful as 2020. Yet even if it won't, some habits that gained prominence in 2020 may be kept in 2021 as well.
Kerry, a taste & nutrition company, argues that consumers will keep loving comforting flavors, like chocolate, coffee, cookies, small treats and protein bars. All those foods that make us feel better, even briefly, and that helped us go through 2020. They may be unhealthy in large doses, but mental health is a growing concern everywhere, with no signs of getting any less so in 2021. A chip of chocolate or a slice of an earthy cake won't destroy our efforts at the gym (home gym, probably) and raise our morale for a while.
Foods that make us feel good, even if they aren't actually good for our health, can play an important part in our diets in 2021 as well.
Sustainability to the fore
In the US, consumption of plant-based foods rose in 2020, and there's no sign that this trend will be inverted in 2021. Quite the opposite. If in July 2020 a survey of Dataessential found that 58% of US respondents said that they wanted to increase their consumption of plant-based foods, that isn't going to disappear in 2021.
Food companies are scrambling to take advantage of this renewed interest in being more sustainable from consumers. Whether this means a more green packaging or animal-based proteins substitutes or yet going fully vegan, that remains to be seen. Surely consumers won't dislike any effort in being more sustainable, regardless of their being vegan or not.
Most importantly, a prevision that I am willing to make is that the focus of many consumers won't be on buying a type of food instead of another, but whether to buy it at all. If there's one thing we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is that some of the things we consume daily aren't absolutely necessary, food included. That means that consumers may feel more inclined in not buying a food at all, unless they have a better alternative or feel like they can't do without it. The food industry would do well to keep this in mind in 2021.
Health and immunity are essential
As a Hartman's Group 2020 report tells us, almost 90% of American adult consumers seek functional benefits in their food and beverages. That means that health and improving our immune system are of paramount importance compared to the recent past. Rightfully so, given the importance they have in times of viruses and health crises.
This, along with the vegan and environmental movements rising, should ring a bell in any food chain manager's ears. Vegetables and fruits will be more essential foods than ever. Fatty and fried foods, unless they can be considered "comfort food", are going nowhere. Healthy alternatives to these nature-based supplements, foods boosting our immune systems are definite trends for 2021.
That includes healthier, lower in sugar, alternatives to the always popular energy drinks. Consumers won't take as easily as before your drink without knowing its effects on their health. Protein-based drinks will be increasingly plant-based, thanks to the higher consideration that plants have to be healthy compared to animal-based proteins. Alcohol-free spirits are leading the way, showing how a fundamentally unhealthy drink can be rebranded as healthy, and the consumers will bite it.
Food industry got hit hard in 2020 but there are plenty of paths for it to recover, fast
Without making previsions on how and when the restaurants, bars, cafes and so on will be able to operate normally, and for good this time, 2021 is already showing signs of how these small/medium businesses can recover from the bad year.
Listening to the signs that last year showed us will be the key for a fast and good recovery. Consumers haven't stopped craving for good food and drinks, for trying new cuisines or for eating healthy. All this may arguably increase instead. Businesses will do better to try to cater to these needs, adapting their offering to better follow what the consumers are requesting.
Who knows, perhaps soon down the road to you there will be a fully vegan, plant-based restaurant that has paired alcohol-free wines, salads with supplements and low sugar energy drinks for the kids soon. All the packaging will be recycled and recyclable, of course. That may be a quite successful enterprise.