Well, you made it through 2020, and now you have to prepare for 2021. Last year, most of us scrambled to cope with every new historic curveball lofted our way. In the food and lifestyle arenas, 2020 was marked by shake ups in supply chains, online ordering, and new demands on local food systems. We also saw novel pop culture trends enter the zeitgeist—from obsessions with sourdough to #cottagecore to TikTok.
While many are looking to 2021 with trepidation, we now have nearly 12 months of our new normal to learn from, which means we can be better prepared for what’s to come, personally and professionally. Here are the top 7 trends anyone working in the food and lifestyle industries should be paying attention to in 2021.
1. Flavor fatigue
Exhaustion, anxiety and stress are limiting people’s interest in complex flavors, according to new research published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. “Hedonic appreciation of food…varies with the degree to which consumers are mentally depleted,” the study’s authors write, concluding that “cognitive depletion reduces consumer enjoyment of complex-flavored (but not simple-flavored) foods.” This finding is reflected in the latest food trends: sales of salty, familiar snacks like potato chips are up as are sales of sweet treats like chocolate—90% of U.S. shoppers purchased some form of chocolate in the first few months of the pandemic. Food for Climate League found similar findings in our fall menu communications research sprints, with U.S. respondents in particular gravitating toward familiar and simple dish descriptions.
Recognizing the desire for comfort and familiar flavors, Dunkin’ Donuts brought back their fall favorite pumpkin donuts and coffee several months early. 85% of consumers say that eating their favorite snacks makes them feel ‘normal’ and nearly half say that eating them makes them feel happy, according to Frito-Lay’s annual snacking index.
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“Simple foods with a single ‘flavor dimension’…don’t take as much brain power or comprehension as dishes consisting of multiple flavor components (such as sweet, salty, bitter),” explains the behavior insights agency Canvas8 in their own analysis of what they call “flavor fatigue.” “The more mentally drained a person is, the harder it is for them to appreciate more complex tastes,” they conclude.
As many of the stressors of 2020 are likely to continue in this new year—think: overwhelming personal health and safety concerns, economic strife, content inundation, home schooling, marches for equal rights—those in the food and beverage industry should focus in on simple, approachable and familiar flavors that will appeal to our emotionally overwhelmed world.
2. Mental health awareness
Prior to 2020, the world already faced record high rates of anxiety, depression, and loneliness, in large part led by the Millennial and Gen Z generation, but in 2020, our mental health was taxed to a new degree. One-in-four young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 say they considered suicide in the spring of 2020, notes the United States Centers for Disease Control, specifically citing the pandemic as a leading culprit. Nearly one-third of the 5,412 survey respondents, across all age groups, said they had symptoms of anxiety or depression, and over a quarter reported trauma and stress-related disorders because of the pandemic.
Those under 40 believe that caring for one’s mental health is just as important as caring for one’s physical health and discussions of mental health are becoming more open and less stigmatized, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z. Some of the most popular pop stars and platforms of 2020 openly address mental health issues, be it Chloe x Halle or Bilie Eilish or Snap.
In the face of a year that challenged our wellbeing—both physically and mentally—many are looking to brands to help them lighten the load. For brands, this means a focus on affinity over awareness is key. “Post-COVID, people are looking for mission-driven brands that help them navigate the current situation,” writes Emily Tang, VP of Innovation and Insights at Datassential. “They’re attracted to brands with clearly stated objectives and values – to provide comfort, offer a solution to a problem, or to combat current issues.”
3. Sustainability as table stakes
Early in the pandemic, many made the assumption that, with our personal health at risk, public attention on the climate crisis would wane. That prediction turned out to be mightily wrong. 2020 was a banner year for the environmental movement. In the U.S., consumption of plant-based foods rose and all signs point to this trend continuing in 2021. A survey by menu research firm Datassential found that 58% of U.S. respondents in July 2020 said they want to increase their consumption of plant-based foods and 33% want to specifically increase their consumption of plant-based animal protein substitutes, with many asserting that plant-based eating is both healthier and better for the environment. The survey also found that 31% want to decrease their red meat intake.
Across the pond, the pandemic has accelerated the uptake of veganism. A quarter of British 21- to 30-year-olds say that the COVID-19 pandemic has made veganism more appealing to them, found Mintel. In fact, this fall, students at Oxford voted to ban lamb and beef from most of campus eateries in an effort to make the university more environmentally-friendly.
During the past year, around the world, people adopted many new sustainable eating behaviors such as wasting less food, which is one of the most impactful actions for tackling the climate crisis. The rapid shift in grocery availability gave many people a new focus on using all of what they have. The FMI U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends COVID-19 Tracker from the month of May shows that 51% of consumers say they’ll be better in the future (versus before the pandemic) about not letting food they have at home go to waste.
The eco-conscious mindset has also infiltrated the fashion, retail, and travel markets, with clothing and home goods companies launching new products with recycled, organic, circular materials, and hoteliers and cities alike are integrating sustainability standards into their business models. Skift Research’s 2020 Hospitality Innovation award went to Sensible Sustainable Solutions by Bensley, an open-sourced guide on integrating sustainable design into architecture and interior design for hotels.
In 2020, the concept of sustainable fashion, home goods, and travel also progressed beyond the things we buy and shifted to a focus on what we don’t purchase, or, in the case of travel, where we don’t go. Fashion brands have begun to taut their long-term wearability as a sustainable bonus. Consumer packaged goods companies are launching reusable containers, bulk, and responsible sourcing to all limit waste, and often, cost. When it comes to travel, some destinations are noting that, in order to maintain the sustainability of their cities, the number of visitors each year must be limited. Over-tourism has entered the list of sustainable travel concerns. Other issues like fair wages and gender equality are also a part of the sustainability conversations.
There are many sociological factors signaling a new relocalization movement. From championing local farmers, local talent, local businesses to local attractions, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us all to center our attention on what’s in our surroundings and what makes our town, city, region or state unique, beautiful and resilient.
World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) expects domestic tourism to return faster than international travel, providing a likely economic boost for local businesses. The lockdown has urged people to investigate every nook and cranny of their local environments. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement inspired many to seek out local businesses owned by people of color. This exploration sparked new patrons for many of these minority-owned establishments and a discovery, for some, of new local businesses.
Relocalization has also been a major issue is the agriculture sector. 2020 sparked greater consumer demand for local foods. For example, interest in farm box deliveries spiked around the world. These direct-from-farm boxes allow eaters to receive fresh, nutrient-dense foods from farmers they can meet and communicate directly with — two aspects of safety and security so direly desired these days. Further, these kinds of locally-sourced food services allow for safe culinary exploration—many are discovering new types of grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables cultivated right in their hometowns. Grocer shortages also inspired this movement, with many finding their local food systems to be more reliable.
“Relocalisation can not only improve food security, but support a more climate-smart sustainable food system,” notes the British agency Veris in their insights report. Even mega-businesses like Unilever are seeing the benefits of relocalization.
“Previously we shipped many of our products’ ingredients around the world,” Harry Brouwer then CEO of Unilever Food Solutions told Food Inspiration Magazine. “Since COVID-19 we were getting a different view on the goods supply chain. First we focus on obtaining the ingredients as local as possible. For each composite product we first check the possibility to acquire the raw materials locally. Only if that is not possible, because the ingredient is not locally produced, we are looking across the border.”
When asked if Unilever plans to revert to their more globalized systems once a vaccine is in place, Brouwer responded: “Absolutely not. We are not going back. This was a process we should have started a lot earlier. It is utterly ridiculous that we ship ingredients across the globe while they are also produced locally. The coronavirus crisis made our company realize that it is urgent and necessary to initiate this process right now.”
5. A desire to commune with nature
During a year in which many of us were housebound, the great outdoors took on new significance. Sales of seeds and baby chickens hit all time highs in the U.S. while people looked for birds and nearby trails to explore. NPD group notes that sales of bicycles were up 63% compared to the same time last year. Golf gear and paddle board equipment also saw growth as did searches for plant identification apps. In Japan, 2020 inspired many to look for plots of forestland. As reported in the Japan Times, a company that lists forested land for sale said they typically have around 10 to 20 deals a month, but in August of 2020, they received 500 inquiries, a fivefold increase from the same period last year. In September, they received around 650 inquiries. Meanwhile, in the U.K., folks looked not toward the forests, but their backyards as a potential natural oasis. A survey by LV=GI found that Brits spent an average £125 on their gardens during lockdown, with Millennials and Gen Zers between the ages of 25 and 39 spending the most on their outdoor spaces.
Over the past year, when people weren’t outside, they were sitting on the couch learning about nature. Many of the top streamed documentaries of 2020 touch on the topics of the natural world. Think: David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet, My Octopus Teacher, Kiss the Ground, and Down to Earth. Nature even dominated screen time on TikTok, Animal Crossing and Minecraft.
Oneness with nature is being discussed a cure all: A way to improve one’s mental health, a place to work out our bodies, and also an avenue to address the climate crisis. Some are calling for a “rewilding” of lands and our way of living. Rewilding is the return of our natural lands and ways of living to be in sync with nature. Some cities (like Detroit) and countries (like Britain and Australia) are seeing widespread adoption of urban rewilding programs. Some have named rewilding a 2020 gardening trend. And, in April of this past year, the Global Charter for Rewilding the Earth was released, a document already endorsed by over 30 NGOs around the world.
Ultimately, the interest in nature is all about health — healthy lands, healthy minds, and healthy bodies. And it’s a trend that’s likely to accelerate as we maintain our semi-quarantined lifestyles.
6. Health and immunity as essential
It should come as no surprise that, in response to a global health crisis, demand for products that claim immune-boosting properties are in high demand. Hartman Group’s 2020 report on Functional Food & Beverage Supplements finds that almost 90% of American adult consumers today look for functional benefits in their food, beverages, and, of course, supplements.
“Consumers are looking to become more empowered and resilient to help propel them through this time of uncertainty,” explains Laurie Demerrit, CEO of The Hartman Group in a Specialty Food Association webinar. “This has resulted in a stronger focus on health and wellness, which will open up new opportunities for functional products of all types.”
In the UK, the COVID-19 pandemic also shifted Briton’s diets, with 51% claiming to be eating more fruits and vegetables. In India, there’s a particularly potent focus on using one’s diet for immune-boosting benefits, with many emphasizing the power of ayurvedic ingredients.
This attention to personal health and a desire for control over one’s wellbeing has also benefited the supplements market. Nutrition Business Journal estimates immunity supplement sales in 2020 will be 51.2% over 2019 sales. “The biggest winner of all is elderberry—the purple syrupy herb is being pegged by NBJ to grow at just north of 200% in 2020. But it’s not even just immune-centric supplements that are being snatched up—sales of multivitamins, the cornerstone of nutritional wellness, are up about 112% in 2020,” notes New Hope Network. Similarly, Hartman Group reports that 31% of U.S. consumers are taking more supplements and 29% say they’re consuming more functional foods and beverages as a result of COVID-19.
What does this mean for businesses? It’s likely that, for a long time to come, people will be asking: What can this food, drink, lotion, or supplement do for me? How can it help protect me?
2020 was a year of reckoning with ever-present issues around racial equality. The Black Lives Matter movement is influencing perspectives on human rights issues worldwide. Indigenous populations are vocally protesting the co-option of their native lands, methods and traditions. In the U.S., Black Americans are pointing at the inequalities in healthcare brought starkly to light during the pandemic. Blue collar workers are demanding health and economic protections currently offered to white collar and higher-income individuals.
Much like 2019’s Me Too Movement, 2020’s Black Lives Matter Movement will have lasting impacts on the way we talk about and address inequalities across racial and economic lines. It’s a topic that once seen can no longer go unseen, and is an issue that has begun to impact the makeup of corporate boards, fair wage programs for factory workers, and internal HR policies.
Without question, the focus on racial equality will also infiltrate the other areas mentioned in this article: Access to nature, affordability of healthy foods, support for minority-owned businesses, democratization of sustainable living options, widespread need for mental health services and wellness programs, and even the diversity of flavors and representation of BIPOC communities in our local and global food systems and on restaurant menus.
While it may feel overwhelming to think about what comes next, you’ve already made it through one of the most turbulent year in modern human history. With that fortitude and strength, 2021 can become the year of a resilient recovery and innovation.
What trends would you like to see me cover next? Leave a comment below!