KANSAS CITY – Over the years, I have always enjoyed reading food-trend reports, particularly those predicting trends for the coming year. It recently came to my attention that the April 2013 issue of Food Technology magazine, which is published by the Institute of Food Technologists, included a feature focusing on the top 10 food trends for 2013 as uncovered by contributing editor Dr. A. Elizabeth Sloan. This article also piqued my interest because she and I worked together on several projects early in my career, during Gorman Publishing’s annual New Products Contests (retail and foodservice) back in the mid-1980s when she was director of the Good Housekeeping Institute.

Some highlights of her report include:

• Consumers used to eat food for sustenance. Today, one in four people enjoy eating occasions described as savoring — which conveys a new, upscale eating experience defined by freshness, distinctive flavors, foodie narratives, among other things (Hartman, 2011). One in 10 shoppers now buys higher-end meat cuts to recreate a restaurant dining experience (FMI, 2013). Consumers also are interested in experiencing bolder flavors, including tangy, smoky, salty, herbal, sour and bitter — this is approximately twice the number of consumers from three years ago (Technomic, 2011).

• When consumers hear the word fresh, they think healthy. Nine out of 10 people think fresh foods are healthier, and 80 percent look for the word fresh at retail stores and 58 percent in restaurants (Technomic, 2012). Healthy foods are also linked in consumers’ minds to the phrases “house-made” or “home-made,” plus keywords such as “from scratch,” “artisan,” “authentic,” “seasonal,” “real” and “never frozen” (Technomic, 2012). Consumers have a renewed interest in animal-welfare when it comes to their foods. “Farm-raised,” “grass-fed,” “free-range” and “cage-free” are all terms perceived as conveying healthfulness.

• Millennials (Generation Y, also known as the Millennial Generation, is the demographic cohort following Generation-X, according to Wikipedia. There are no precise dates for when Generation Y starts and ends. Commentators use beginning birth dates from the latter 1970s, or from the early 1980s to the early 2000s) continue to reduce their restaurant visits for the fifth year in a row. As a result, this means the market for developing at-home meal products designed to appeal to the newest generation of cooks is increasing. Millennials possess limited cooking skills and are most likely to eat pre-cooked fresh retail meals and frozen dinners (Packaged Facts, 2012). Although 44 percent of younger cooks relayed preparing dinner with fresh foods is very important (MSI, 2011), they are also more apt to use meal helpers, including ready-made sauces or meat. However, they have less preference for complete kits (Hartman, 2008).

• In more recent years, there has been a large increase in adults who are eating alone, regardless of family dynamics. One survey (Hartman, 2011) observed adults eating alone are more likely to choose fresh/refrigerated meals instead of frozen dinners, which the survey claims creates a new market for producers. Kids, too, are also eating alone more often, which shows a promising market for new fresh/refrigerated meals for kids (Technomic, 2012). More time-stressed consumers are now eating breakfast differently — first often eating a little something at home, stopping for coffee a little later on and then snacking mid-morning (MSI, 2010).

• Food safety has been on most adults’ minds in the past year. Up to 17 percent have stopped buying a certain food or brand because of certain food-safety concerns (IFIC, 2012). Meanwhile, 27 percent of shoppers perceive antibiotics/hormones in meat as being a “serious health hazard,” (FMI, 2011); and nearly three-quarters of consumers say humane treatment of animals is important when shopping for foods (MSI, 2011). Consumers also like calorie count information to be posted at restaurants, and 22 percent of consumers surveyed (Technomic, 2012) said those numbers impact their order decision.

• Consumers in years past were more interested in trying ethnic flavors, in general. However, their interest most recently has been more about how ethnic cuisine’s food items, flavors and ingredients can be integrated into American foods and forms, Sloan wrote. Mexican griddle sandwiches or tortas along with pressed Cubano sandwiches may soon upstage paninis. Sriracha, chimichurri, aioli, yuzu, queso fresco, Thai chili and more are among the fastest-growing ethnic flavors on non-ethnic menus (Datasesential, 2013). Four out of 10 American Culinary Federation chefs said children’s sushi is a hot trend for 2013 (NRA, 2012).

• Hyper-local sourcing, which includes restaurant gardens, farm/estate brands, small-producer suppliers and the mainstreaming of farmers’ markets, reflect consumers’ fascination and appreciation for foods that are agriculturally related. Equally important, consumers have become more interested in the cut and breed of animal they buy (Technomic, 2011).

• In 2012, one out of the five best-selling new foods were bite-sized or handheld; 45 percent of consumers want snacks they can eat on the go (IRI 2012; Wyatt, 2013). Mini-foods introduced were sweet and savory. As a result, restaurants have added bite-sized food to their menus. Meanwhile, 67 percent of consumers said they find it “extremely appealing” to get their flavor through dips/condiments, which represents an 8 percent increase vs. 2009 (Technomic, 2011). 

Looking back over the past three decades, much has changed in meat and poultry offerings — and for the better. These changes include more closer-trim and further value-added products are being offered; many offerings possess fewer controversial ingredients plus contain less fat, cholesterol, calories and other things deemed detrimental to human health; more portion control and pre-cooked/par-cooked items are available; enhanced packaging components, graphics and features, such as recipes plus preparation and storage methods, are readily available; and a far-greater variety of products for all income levels and household sizes are in abundance, just to mention a few.

What’s disappointing today, however, is there appear to be far fewer press releases and press kits on new product launches compared to years past — and some companies’ web sites are woefully outdated — for example, some web sites’ most recent new product and general news posts are several years old.

Nevertheless, industry, in general, has stayed the course regarding continuous product improvement —making products tastier, healthier and more sustainable, among other things — and the proof of this can be seen in any retail meat case, as well as on restaurant plates. The days when most American consumers were largely passive regarding their meat and poultry choices are over. Industry can expect consumers to be more vocal about what they want — and don’t want — in meat and poultry products, ranging from the animal-welfare practices used to the ingredients included to the companies’ sustainable activities to the types of packaging used.

Those packers and processors who continue to listen closely to consumers, and then respond in kind by offering products and services focusing on consumer demand, will not only survive — but will also be the ones who will prosper in the years to come.