In lieu of a crystal ball, the next best thing to help retailers zero in on 2011 food trends is advice from industry analysts. This year however, due to a still recovering economy, pinpointing future standouts is tough, insiders are saying. "This is the first time in awhile that we're not sure what the next big thing will be," says Rodney Clark, managing director over consumer food and retail for Presidio Financial Partners, an investment firm based in San Francisco. "Consumers are a little more discerning with their money, they're going back to what they know and spending less."
Expect many 2010 trends (private label, coconut, gluten free, non-GMO labels) to still be picking up steam in 2011, he says. Beyond those, Clark along with two other experts suggests three emerging consumer questions that may lead to future changes for manufacturers and producers.
Water is our most precious resource. What are manufacturers doing to conserve it?
Thirty-five liters of fresh water are needed to produce just one half liter of Coca Cola, according to a report issued by the company with the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide land and water protection agency based in Arlington, Va. The same report found 640 liters of freshwater are used to produce one liter of Simply Orange Juice. It's statistics like these and consumers' growing water scarcity concerns in dryer regions, that will bring water conservation issues to the forefront in the near future, says Jason Morrison, program director at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based research company that focuses on sustainability issues. "All it takes is one prolonged dry period to get people talking about water pretty quickly," he says. "Our research shows that most consumers believe businesses should not only engage in water conservation practices but also be part of the overall solution concerning water quality and water access issues community wide."
Water footprinting – think of it like carbon footprinting—is an attempt to try and quantify the water use of an organization, product or locality. Increasingly, he says, investors are including high water dependence as a potential risk when evaluating potential ventures. Expect more food manufacturers to invest in cutting water use, but don't necessarily look for a water footprint label, which in some cases would actually require water to be created. Morrison is working with United Nations Global Compact to determine how companies can best communicate water-related information with various audiences. The initiatives will be unveiled near the end of 2011.
I support manufacturers cutting the sodium in packaged foods, but how will these products taste?
Hostess, Butterball and Snyder's of Hanover are just a few of the major food companies to sign the National Salt Reduction Initiative, a New York City-led partnership of cities, states and national health organizations, which aims to cut the salt in packaged foods and restaurants by 25 percent over five years. The move could potentially reduce American's overall salt intake by 20 percent according to information supplied by involved businesses.
While conventional companies can turn to synthetic ingredients to account for the loss in flavor after cutting salt, that's not an option for natural's manufacturers, says Kantha Shelke, principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food science and research firm. "It's my hope that natural manufacturers will see this as an opportunity to reposition themselves in the category," she says. "Natural should mean minimally processed."
Shelke suspects spices will play an increasingly prominent role in natural product formulations. Options such as cinnamon and clove not only enhance flavor but also prevent spoilage. The idea is supported by the latest flavor predictions released by Comax, a Meliville, N.Y.-based research laboratory that specializes in natural flavor technology. The organization's 2011 "Tastes of Things to Come" report includes a "Homespun" category which predicts flavors such as, pumpkin pie, gingerbread, French toast and toasted peanut to increasingly pop up in the marketplace.
Also expect manufacturers to include ingredients with natural umami flavor, Shelke says. Umami is the "savoriness" of foods and occurs in things like cheese, maple syrup, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. "I think of it as the "roundedness" of a food," she says. "Humans rely on the flavor profile for filling out taste and delivering a sense of satisfaction."
What labels can I trust at the meat counter?
High unemployment and low discretionary income mean people are going back to the old ways of doing things, Clark says. Families are keeping chickens to gather their own eggs, organic gardening and pickling. These practices, which are bringing consumers closer to their food, are leading to an even greater awareness in the market, particularly at the meat counter.
Customers want to know that the meat they're purchasing is humanely raised and not pumped with hormones, says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. Looking for labels that ensure quality is no guarantee. "Free range" and "cruelty free" markers are not held to set standards making them meaningless at the meat counter. The confusion has created a place for Heritage breeds to step in, which Carter predicts to be the next "big thing."
Heritage meats come from traditional and historic breeds of animals that haven't been bred for the conventional market. They're generally better adapted to being raised outdoors, and are humanely raised and handled. They also taste a lot better than conventional options.
"The modern conventional hog was bred to be a lot leaner than traditional breeds," Carter says. "The pork today has lost a lot of the flavor that many of us remember with traditional hams and pork chops. The heritage breeds have more fat but, dang, they are tasty."
The trend started as a grassroots movement, and now chef's are jumping on board experimenting with the cuts on menus. Slowly, producers are raising animals to reach the retail sector, Carter says. Expect to see some of these meats in stores near the end of 2011.