CHICAGO — Consumer trends often evolve at what may be perceived as a glacial pace. Four trends seen to be emerging less than a decade ago — transparency, sustainability, nutrient density and cognitive health — now are becoming rooted in many consumers' path to purchase, according to speakers at a Jan. 25 conference hosted by The Hatchery Chicago, an incubator that supports food and beverage entrepreneurs.

“Clear, straightforward communication is essential to connect with consumers and to educate them on the values of products,” said Lynn Dornblaser, director of innovation and insight for Mintel, Chicago.

This approach to transparency is particularly appreciated by younger consumers who want to be more informed about their food. It makes them feel as if they are involved, said Dornblaser.

Younger consumers especially are interested in messaging around sustainability, said Joan Driggs, vice president of content and thought leadership for IRI, Chicago.

A survey conducted by IRI in June 2022 showed that 35% of Gen Z and millennial consumers have “tried more sustainable food or beverage brands previously never purchased.” That number drops to 24% for older generations.

“Sustainably marketed products have grown share every year and accounted for 17% of total CPG sales in 2021,” Driggs said. “Younger consumers are pushing for more sustainability. Millennials purchased a significantly higher percentage of sustainably marketed products in carbonated beverages, cookies, frozen dinners, pet food and weight control.”

A survey conducted by Morning Consult, which found sustainability is higher on the list of priorities for younger consumers, supports IRI’s findings. Specifically, the survey found more than two-thirds of Gen Z respondents said sustainability has at least some impact on their food and beverage choices, including 32% who said it has a major impact.

Dornblaser discussed three of Mintel’s leading food and drink trends fueling innovation in 2023. First was “savvy sustenance,” which focuses on nutrient density and, she said, is being fueled by Gen Z.

“Brands will need to make basic nutrition and satiety messaging clear to help consumers stay in control of grocery budgets while easily nourishing themselves,” she said. “Industries also will work toward protecting the nutrition of future generations by devoting resources to improve soil health, water stewardship and climate change.”

“Staying sharp” was the next trend.

“Companies can help consumers optimize their mental performance at work, at home and at play,” Dornblaser said. “Nutrition will be a valued tool for cognitive health management that helps power people in their jobs, hobbies and leisure time. Consumers will look for foods and drinks that influence cognitive capacity, manage stress levels and optimize brain function.”

She provided guidance on how this may be applied to product innovation. For maintaining focus, promote sustained energy benefits. For digestive well-being, talk about fiber content. For emotional well-being, focus on flavor and experience.

“Long-term acceptance of focus and productivity formulations that are marketed with terms such as ‘adaptogens’ and ‘nootropics’ will require research into these now-niche cognitive health ingredients, yet they are beginning to appear in the marketplace,” Dornblaser said.

Market research by The NPD Group, Chicago, also found consumers have become increasingly focused on the role food plays in their mental health.

Dornblaser concluded by identifying the third trend — unguilty pleasures. Today’s post-pandemic consumers enjoy the freedom to indulge and treat themselves. This trend is being fueled by Gen Z, the demographic who missed out on so many milestone events the past three years, said Dornblaser.

“Gen Z will eat dessert before dinner,” she said. “Often, pleasurable food and drink are marketed as being naughty, guilty or frivolous. This approach can be alienating for consumers — even those who adhere to healthy diets — who need some well-earned, guilt-free respites.”

She said product developers should focus on flavor and experience. It’s about “small treats” or easily portioned products to allow consumers to indulge.

“A delayed moment of gratification can enhance the consumption experience, with flavors that build or change over time or are unknown until consumed,” Dornblaser said.