What's Driving Food in 2019
It’s January 2019 and I just walked the floor at Winter Fancy Foods in San Francisco, the first big retail food show of the year where specialty food purveyors vie to be the next big thing on grocery shelves. And while the show takes place in Big Tech’s backyard, innovation seems headed in the other direction. Ingredient lists are getting simpler. Lab grown meat and other technological breakthroughs keep being promised, but they have yet to appear. For now, trends seem more about craft and recipe. Despite this, food may be the fastest changing industry after personal tech. Current mainstay categories like kombucha and oat milk didn’t even exist in most stores until a relatively short time ago. And entirely new diet philosophies have emerged in just the last few years, with millions of adherents and brands that cater to them. Here’s my take on what’s driving this fast-paced change in American food.
The Great Taste Expansion
My father was actually an early food entrepreneur, and when I took tofu sandwiches to my elementary school cafeteria both kids and adults made the kinds of faces people reserve for eating bugs today. We are a long way from that kind of knee-jerk disgust for new foods and flavors. Today, America is in the middle of a great taste expansion. Many people consider it a badge of honor to try new ingredients and recipes from other cultures. Kimchi now has more Google searches in America than Sauerkraut. You find baobab in cookies and ashwagandha in smoothies. Orange flavor is passé when you can have a soda flavored with yuzu or calamansi, two trending Asian citrus flavors at this year’s show.
In 2019, one new ingredient category seems poised to make a splash: seaweed! Nori sheets have been a popular snack for years, but now there’s a bevy of brand new and surprisingly tasty seaweed offerings, from kelp pickles to lightly sautéed seaweed greens that taste like kale, only better. There is new seaweed salsa that has a rounder, more complex flavor than most retail salsas. And one company is sprinkling a seaweed spice mix on popcorn, which I found delicious and addictive. In a word, the people who have been playing with seaweed are succeeding. There are now products that can go toe-to-toe with terrestrial vegetation. Goodbye kale chips. Hello kelp pickles.
The Deprivation Diet Cycle
Americans are also diving into whole new diet philosophies at a breakneck speed and changing every last thing they eat to be paleo, raw food, keto or gluten free. These diets tend to rise fast. Many also fall fast, with some disappearing entirely while others keep trucking along with a devoted following for years.
The food industry responds by creating new product innovations that cater to the most popular diet trends. The market for gluten-free foods was over 4 billion in 2016 alone, even though the vast majority of their customers are not celiacs and could safely eat lots of bread if they wanted to. Still, a thousand kinds of gluten-free crackers and cookies have emerged in recent years to meet the demand of dieters making major cuts to what they will eat.
This year, dairy products are getting redesigned to meet new diet standards. There are cream cheeses and fermented chevre-style cheeses made from seed and nut butters, and many are delicious! There is also keto ice cream (which, honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to try).
Here’s what I think is happening. It all comes back to Michael Pollan’s insight that we need to spend more time in the kitchen. Packaged foods sure are convenient, and we can make them incrementally better, but they can never replace the nutritional value of cooking in the home.
When a new diet like keto or paleo starts out, early adherents have to cook their own food. They then prosthelytize the diet because they feel a thousand times better. Then, as natural food innovators make a mountain of packaged foods that technically qualify as gluten free, paleo or keto, people start buying those because they are convenient. And as these same people start eating a diet of packaged foods again, they get diminishing returns in health benefits. And then when the next fad diet starts, the cycle begins again.
Maybe one day more people will figure out that they can mostly eat what they want if they cook it themselves. Convenient packaged products can be great but no one feels good if that’s all they eat, even if it’s that ice cream was keto. Until then, expect the rise and fall of new fad diet philosophies to fuel new food product ideas (and new fortunes in the food industry).
The Microorganism Boom
America’s taste for fermented and living probiotic foods is alive and well. After the rise of kombucha, fermented drinks continue to thrive, with fruit-flavored water kefirs and bracing tonics made with spices and apple cider vinegar. Food innovators are making prosecco from wild blueberries and chevre from sunflower seeds. I tasted a fermented honey sauce with garlic that was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tried. There were sourdough crisps and a delightful assortment of pickles and sauerkrauts. Oh, and fancy cheeses are still very popular.
People have been fermenting for thousands of years. America’s taste for such flavors is expanding fast. And it makes sense. Fermentation generally creates more complex flavors that fuel the great taste expansion. Also, health influencers and scientists tell us that fermented foods are an important part of our diet and our microbiome. I’m not sure what else we can ferment, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to eat and drink more and more fermented things in 2019 and beyond. My prediction is this year you will eat foods that are stinkier than last year and then ask for more. Fermentation is having that kind of moment.