Food & Drink

From the very beginning of this dreadful pandemic, it has been widely reported that COVID-19 has chased consumers into their kitchens and it appears many have remained there, falling in love with cooking and baking. As American consumers venture beyond pickling veggies and kneading dough, we see more experimentation with sophisticated recipes requiring the purchase of indulgent ingredients. Specialty foods that are not traditionally easy to find on mainstream grocery store shelves, and which command higher prices, continue to gain shelf space and incrementally displace bland traditional processed foods. The pandemic shutdown has seen consumers expand their pantries and develop more elegant palates – at premium prices.  

Recent IRI data indicates that higher income households, especially those led by millennials, are stocking up more on premium priced food items. The move toward more food decadence includes switching to unique flavors and experimenting with ingredients that consumers might previously have shied from. Several product categories; spices & seasonings, lunchmeats, frozen meals and novelties (ice cream, desserts, etc.), flavored and seasoned rice, BBQ and pasta sauces, as well as chocolate and fancy candies are experiencing double digit volume growth while simultaneously increasing prices upwards by more than eight percent (from IRI data spanning the 26 weeks ending October 4, 2020). 

Consumer preferences naturally shift depending on household income, however it is evident in this year of rolling pandemic shutdowns that consumers are focused on wellness, state of mind, and, yes, their home cooking. It all ties together: dealing with weight and digestive, heart, muscle, and immune health; the desire to maintain higher energy levels; even cooking with new smart appliances to support their goals – be it air fryer or insta-pot, bread maker, power blender, induction burner and fry pan combo, Keurig. All these critical elements are driving multidimensional consumer behaviors across food categories.  

A new array of ingredients is mesmerizing consumers and their more discriminating palates, according to recent Datassential research. Health and wellness claims promoting clean, safe, and natural ingredients like hemp, chia, beets, ginger, goji, black garlic, matcha, turmeric, maca, mushrooms, and lingonberries are captivating consumer interest and driving trials. Many new-to-consumer ingredients are found with the meat and dairy substitutes products.


Providing alternative sources of traditional proteins is growing exponentially faster than any other food segment – meat substitutes are projected to be a $23.8 billion business by 2023 despite existing for less than 10 years, in the USA. Total meat and seafood grocery sales in 2018 were approximately $53 billion. The global demand for plant-based foods will continue to significantly out pace animal proteins and the need for quality and reliable supply will be extraordinary given the current global supply-chains that have been established.

It is no surprise then to learn that meat and dairy substitute products; like pea-based mayo; vegan chocolate ice cream; oat milk frozen dessert; coconut, banana, or chickpea flours; as well as items like all-natural fruit concentrates replacing sugar in syrups are drawing consumer attention. Emerging new brands continue to leverage innovative product development practices and have selectively brought to market premium products despite COVID-19 restrictions.  

Food start-up brands are finding their way into consumer’s kitchens by directly connecting to the curious via on-line shopping and by convincing retail grocery buyers to take a chance on them. Consumer trials drive sales growth for many entrepreneurial food companies that are here to stay – I’m thinking of Nada Moo’s dairy-free coconut milk and natural agave syrup desserts; Chosen Foods 100% pure avocado oil-based dressings and mayonnaises; Lesser Evil’s assortment of healthy snacks like popcorn flavored with organic coconut oil blended with chocolate matcha and Himalayan pink salt; Smart Sweets candies using plant-based fiber while completely sugar-free.  

Many brands have extensive product assortments across several product categories; Banza is pioneering the boom in chickpeas, from pasta and pizza to mac & cheese and rice; Saffron Road is revolutionizing the frozen food, meal-kit, and sauces categories with unique, authentic and natural ingredients from global cuisines; and Miyoko’s line of products in the dairy category are totally vegan being completely plant-based. Even traditional premium brands like Haagen Daz are launching new products that meet discerning consumer diets with products like Heaven Ice Cream; light, no artificial flavors, fewer calories. 

As I follow and speak with leaders at emerging new brands and with specialty food retail buyers, I’ve come to believe that the current “trial” consumption trends will become “repeat buys” quickly – moving brands into mainstream grocery channels. COVID-19 has become an accelerator for trying new and premium food products that would not have been considered by average consumers in the past. Look for these products and use them in your own kitchen experimentation. Let me know what you think.  

Stay well, stay safe – eat healthy!

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