As the natural products industry’s stature has grown in market size, so too has its influence on the broader food manufacturing and CPG landscape. What’s happening with organic and natural food trends is what’s happening at food retail in every channel, including the restaurant industry from casual eateries to fine dining restaurants.
Local? Budweiser has touted itself as “America’s largest local brewer.”
Plant-based protein? Even McDonald’s has jumped on the latest exploding food trend with its McPlant offering.
The natural products industry, overall, passed $250 billion in consumer sales in 2020, with a compound annual growth rate of 8% over 10 years, according to Nutrition Business Journal. At the same time, conventional grocery has maintained much slower 1.6% growth.
Sales are expected to surpass $300 billion by 2024, according to NBJ forecasts.
No wonder eyes turn to natural food brands for what’s next in natural.
Innovation in the natural products industry isn’t the prime driver of growth, even though it is a factor in growing market share and rising organic and natural food trends. Just look at what today’s consumer is demanding from the food industry: clean label ingredient lists to meet healthier lifestyles and myriad ways of eating such as paleo, keto, vegan, plant based, etc. Gone are the fad diets of yesterday. Today, these ways of eating feed a lifestyle.
The organic and natural foods industry has long been the leader in serving these dieters’ needs while also addressing environmental and social issues.
Here’s a high-level look at how those foundational industry values combined with a changing consumer market translate into the food trends of today.
Food trends vs. food fads
First, some definitions. What’s a food trend? What is a food fad? And what is the difference?
Too often people use the words “trend” and “fad” interchangeably.
Fads have a short life. Remember when #unicornfood filled Instagram feeds. (Of course, you forgot about that social media food fad.) Or think back to the rush on health food stores and supplement stores across the country for raspberry ketones for weight loss fed by the Dr. Oz effect.
Oat milk? It seems every brand has launched one. Fad or trend? The continued growth in the plant-based market points to possible longevity.
Trends last longer and tend to grow and shift as they mature. Consider the rise of plant-based eating today. Foodies and industry don’t fully agree on its origins, or even its definition, but a shift to including more, if not primarily, plants on the American plate has grown, continues to grow and likely will take a larger hold in the years to come.
Such changes that birth smaller trends (and sometimes even fads) are what we call macro forces. For example, the paleo diet might fade from the forefront (it is still an important way of eating) but the macro trend of “ancient wisdom,” which involves taking the wellness lessons of the past and applying them to the present, will continue to manifest in the organic and natural products industry.
Top organic and natural food trends for 2021
As food has grown as a hobby, top social media topic and a trend unto itself, sharing organic and natural food trends predictions has become a special annual season of its own.
Here’s what some trend watchers say people will be eating and seeking in their natural products purchases in 2021. The chart offers a shorthand view of some of the top natural products trend picks and where trend spotters agree.
Whole Foods Market is among one of the most highly watched trends predictors every year. The natural products retailer’s food and health trends predictions for 2021 range from consumers bringing cereal back as a pantry staple to the more specific growth of chickpeas and fruit jerky.
“There have been radical shifts in consumer habits in 2020. For example, shoppers have found new passions for cooking, they’ve purchased more items related to health and wellness, and more are eating breakfast at home every day compared to pre-COVID,” said Sonya Gafsi Oblisk, chief marketing officer at Whole Foods Market. “Food trends are a sign of the times, and our 2021 trends are no exception.”
But in good trend-watching fashion, some of the panel’s prognostications also build on wider natural products industry focuses such as upcycled foods.
Food processing and commodities trading corporation Archer-Daniels-Midland Co., known as ADM, focused its 2021 predictions on changes spurred by the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.
"The global health crisis has changed consumer preferences in new and unexpected ways," says Vince Macciocchi, ADM president, Nutrition. "We are seeing a heightened demand for foods and beverages that support immune systems, enhance our mood and reduce our environmental impact, driven in part by emerging human tensions. This has provided a unique opportunity for brands to develop disruptive new products that will forever change the way we eat and drink. It's going to be a year of innovation, marked by significant breakthroughs in nutrition."
The top trend prognosticators seem to agree on: plant-based food.
More 2021 food trends predictions
- The top 10 nutrition trends for 2021, according to Natural Grocers
- The Fresh Market's top 10 specialty food trends to watch in 2021
- Specialty Food Association Trendspotter Panel reveals 2021 trends
- WGSN's new Food and Drink platform forecasts 8 rising trends for 2021
- Acosta reveals top CPG industry predictions for 2021
Organic food trends today
Organic food has grown up from the crunchy image of its roots. Today, organic is a $55.1 billion market across all retail channels. Organic food sales reached $50.1 billion while nonfood sales, including dietary supplements, personal care, textiles, household cleaning products, pet food and flowers, hit $5 billion in sales.
Once upon a time, industry analysts and marketers believed consumers graduated to organic food when they started their families and wanted the best for their babies. Today, organic product appeal for millennials and Gen Z shoppers now extends beyond their families and into more than issues of food and farming. They also choose organic food for its human and animal welfare practices and for its sustainability and transparent supply chain stories.
Organic has grown from food trend to foundational expectation for food brands in the natural products industry.
Where is the organic market headed next?
The conversation is expanding as producers adopt and brands demand regenerative agriculture practices, those which “regenerate” soil that has been stripped of its nutrients and biodiversity by synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The marketplace hasn’t yet caught up with the regenerative movement, but such movements do take a while to make it to the wider consumer market. Just consider organic’s birth itself.
It’s the chicken and the egg question of natural products trends and innovation: Which comes first, vision or consumer demand or some magical blend of the two?
- Check out some of the early Regenerative Organic Certified brand adopters.
- 2019 organic category performance review
Macro forces for long-term food trends
We at New Hope Network believe that to truly understand the nature of trends in organic, natural foods, supplements and personal care—and the forces driving these markets—we must expand our field of vision to take a look at the "why" behind them or, in other words, the "macro force" most relevant to shaping the future of natural products.
Macro forces have their origins in three paradigm-shifting cultural forces New Hope Network identifies as "Holistic Health and Wellbeing," "Empowered Communities" and "Modern Life." Each can comprise more nuanced macro force trend patterns, patterns that paint a more holistic and longer-term vision to indicate how the natural products industry is innovating. Below those macro forces are trends that come to life in today’s products.
New Hope Network tracks about 70 trends across 18 macro forces.
For example, the “plant wisdom” macro force encompasses social, environmental, animal welfare and health concerns. This longtime rising market force in the food landscape has natural brands meeting consumer demand for ways to replace or reduce consumption of animal products with plants. Trends such as “eat more plants,” “plants elevated” and “more protein please” emerge as consumers look to plants to nourish themselves and the planet. These trends manifest in myriad ways, in what we identify as subtrends: plant-based superfoods, foods with “hidden” vegetables, as well as a new generation of plant-based proteins, alternative dairy products and new “meat” products—some of which combine meat and vegetables to reduce but not entirely omit meat consumption.
Understanding natural products industry trends
How is consumer behavior shifting toward organic and sustainable options?
New Hope Network NEXT Data and Insights created natural products industry consumer behavior and engagement indexes to track consumer attention on natural and organic values including interest in health, economic and social issues.
The index was set at 100 based upon “normal” 2017 behavior before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. Since spring 2020, New Hope has assessed the state of consumer alignment with natural products industry values with biweekly surveys of how consumers perceive their shopping behaviors. The above chart is updated monthly to measure consumer sentiment.
Understanding what consumers say is important to them helps us to assess the health of the industry. From this brand owners can see the values driving today’s market and how they might be shifting.
The total consumer NPI behavior index is an aggregation of core consumer behaviors that drive natural products industry growth. Within the index are eight behaviors that analysts measure to create the total consumer behavior index. Represented as statements such as, “I am willing to pay more for environmentally responsible practices or socially responsible practices” or “I pay more for high-quality ingredients and prioritize natural brands and ingredients.” Ultimately there are eight statements consumers evaluate based upon the degree to which each statement reflects their behaviors. New Hope analysts then group eight statements into three aggregate measures of eco-social behaviors, nutritional quality behaviors and a total score.
The eco-social consumer behavior index measures environmental, community and other externally focused behaviors:
- I believe buying can be a moral decision.
- I am concerned with how livestock are treated.
- I am willing to pay more for products that demonstrate socially responsible practices.
- I am willing to pay more for products that demonstrate environmentally responsible practices.
The nutritional quality consumer behavior index measures personal health and other internally focused behaviors:
- When making food choices, I prioritize natural brands, products or ingredients when possible.
- I buy food which was grown in a way to maximize its nutrition (such as local, organic, free-range).
- I value who grew my food and how it is made.
- I pay more for high-quality ingredients.
Get a deeper understanding of the development and use of these consumer indexes.