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15 food trends farmers can expect in 2021 and beyond

The food industry worked hard during the global pandemic adapting to change. COVID-19 rewrote the playbook for grocery stores. What can farmers expect from food trends in 2021 and beyond? Here are four experts and 15 top trends in the grocery industry.

• Erik Brown, executive leader of procurement, Whole Foods Market

• Christine McCracken, executive director, animal protein, Rabobank

• Jan Miller, executive editor, food, Better Homes & Gardens

• Tina Potthoff, senior vice president of communications, Hy-Vee

1. Immune system boosters. That means superfoods, probiotics, broths, sauerkrauts, and much more. Suppliers are incorporating functional ingredients such as mushrooms to support the immune system. Citrus, for natural vitamin C, is selling big in grocery stores. “While we are seeing growth across the board in citrus, we are seeing major increases in lemons, lime, oranges, and mandarins,” says Brown. Organic citrus is also hot. “The entire citrus category is showing growth, but organics is increasing and growing ahead of conventional counterparts,” he says. Cooks are embracing functional foods, beverages, and supplements that offer the promise of elevating the human body’s resilience, recovery, longevity, and performance, according to Miller. “The lines of functional foods and beverages are blurring with mainstream grocery,” she says. Low-alcohol beer is being brewed with CBD. Alcoholic kombucha is gluten-free, bubbly, and can be filled with live probiotic cultures. Grown-up baby food means on-the-go squeeze pouches full of rhubarb, rosemary, purple carrots, and omega-3-rich flaxseeds.

2. Adventurous ingredients. Snacking tomatoes, chilis, and herbs like lemongrass are popular. Seasonings are kicked up, such as applewood smoked salt and Meyer lemon honey. Home cooks want simple approaches to achieving bolder flavors, says Miller. “They are shunning complexity. They have a strong appetite for healthful sauces and innovative spice blends that boost creativity, fun, flavor, and variety. They want fast, flavorful, and fun meals,” she says. Home cooks are using walnut and pumpkin seed oils for a delicious nutty flavor. Sunflower seed oil is in many new products and is versatile enough to use at high temps or in salad dressing.

3. Organics. Asparagus and baby broccoli are lighting up the organic sales for Whole Foods, says Brown. Organic foods are not so much a diet issue any more, according to Potthoff. “It’s more about people wanting to experiment with different eating habits. We are starting to see a healthier population rising,” she says.

4. Wider variety in produce. “We make sure we have a robust fruit and vegetable section,” says Potthoff. “People want variety. It’s not so much apples, oranges, bananas. They want the different culinary experiences they see on social media sites.” This year is a breakout year for a wide variety of greenhouse and vertical greens, based on what Whole Foods is seeing in the market, says Brown. Fruit and vegetable jerky is a new shelf-stable way to enjoy produce. Everything from mushrooms to jackfruit is being served jerky-style, with finishes of chili, salt, ginger, and cacao drizzle. Upcycled foods are hot; those neglected and underused parts of an ingredient that would have otherwise been food waste are now on the market and selling well. Chickpea is the new cauliflower. It’s now in products like chickpea tofu, chickpea flour, and even chickpea cereal.

5. Breakfast fun. This includes sous vide egg bites and “eggs” made from mung beans. “For people working from home, sit-down breakfast has become a key meal,” says Miller. Cooks are making it special by giving added attention to dishes and beverages every day, not just on weekends. Home cooks need inspiration and are willing to consider nontraditional breakfast foods such as fried rice, savory Dutch baby pancakes, and breakfast salads. 

6. Local foods. This is a popular and growing segment at Hy-Vee, says Potthoff. “When you walk in our stores you see our HyVee Homegrown, Go Fresh/Go Local signs. It is our commitment to work with local farmers to provide close-to-home fruits and vegetables.” The grocery chain works with more than 250 farmers from around the Midwest to supply fruits and vegetables, says Potthoff. To get that label, the produce has to be grown within 200 miles of the store. Every store works with different farmers. Hy-Vee is now expanding into rural areas with its Dollar Fresh brand, a smaller format store. New Dollar Fresh stores will open later this year and in 2022. 

7. Plant-powered movement. Tofu has gained attention in the past year because of its lower price, shelf-stable packaging, and neutral flavor, says Miller. Vegan dishes have gone mainstream. Home cooks are not necessarily going all in, but dabbling, she says. At the very least, vegetarian offerings are expected. Miller predicts a post-COVID boom of health content, diet strategies, and lose-COVID-weight-quick schemes.

8. Meat and more meat. The livestock markets are booming in 2021 and the reason is simple, says McCracken. “The demand for meat (and poultry) has been incredibly strong, and the industry is having a tough time keeping up.” The supply shortfall follows production cutbacks during last year’s disruption, productivity challenges, and labor constraints in processing plants, she explains. “Stimulus dollars helped fuel meat demand, just as food service began refilling their supply chain, creating an explosive market that few saw coming,” McCracken says. There is a lot of pent-up demand. “People want a break from cooking at home; they are ready to go back to restaurants, host family dinners, and grill with friends.” She’s watching to see if consumers revert to old habits, or if they permanently shift buying patterns given their newly acquired skills. “Historically, a lot of people had issues with knowing how to prepare pork and they weren’t very adventurous,” she says. “A lot of people figured it out during the pandemic.” Strong demand comes at a cost, however, as commodity prices reach new highs. “Consumers may face a little sticker shock as higher prices reach the store shelf,” says McCracken. There are no signs of slowing down so far. “As people are vaccinated and things fully open, you could be looking at an extraordinary summer.”

9. Online shopping. “We saw five years of growth with our HyVee Aisles Online program within the first six months of the pandemic,” says Potthoff. Another program called Mealtime to Go allows users to log into the website and order a meal to be delivered to their home. “We saw numbers skyrocket when the pandemic struck, because people wanted to stay safe,” she says. “People became accustomed to ordering online during the pandemic, and now they’re sticking with it. The acceptance and user rate has grown tremendously.” People who appreciate going to the grocery store are getting vaccinated and going back to their old ways. Eating establishments in grocery locations are opening up again. “People want to leave the house, and we want to be an option,” she says. 

10. Changing preferences. People changed their favorite products during the pandemic. “It’s follow the bouncing ball when it comes to consumer preferences,” says Potthoff. During the pandemic their favorite cut of beef or brand of toilet paper might have been unavailable, so they switched to something else and liked it. “People were purchasing things so quickly that we saw people brand-hop,” she says. “If we didn’t have one brand available they were fine with accepting another brand they’d never tried before. They were experiencing and testing different things that they hadn’t in the past. We have seen some brands lose favoritism.”

11. Stocking up. “As we saw fluctuation in the pandemic, we made sure we were back-
stocking supplies,” says Potthoff. “We knew there would be rushes as different outbreaks occurred, so we had a robust warehouse and were stocking up even during times when we didn’t need to. We were prepared for the surprise.” After the big rush in spring 2020, there was another mad rush of people stocking up during the 2020 holiday season, says Potthoff, as another wave of COVID-19 hit hard. The freezer aisle is king now. Stock up. You never know. 

12. Home cooking. “People went back to their roots and were cooking home-cooked meals during the pandemic,” says Potthoff. The use of recipes surged, soups and stews were popular, and meat was very popular. “Last spring we were having a meat pandemic, a crisis, but now things have leveled off and people are continuing to grill and cook at home.” There is a resurgence and reshaping of shared family food experiences, such as kitchen investments and improvements, including more dining table sets. More family members are getting involved in the cooking. Pantry packing and more overall meals at home make cooks more prescriptive toward grocery shopping, says Miller. Shopping days are now more distributed since people are working from home.

13. Comfort eating. Home cooks are loving nostalgic, comfort recipes, says Miller. “We are appreciating our ancestors’ cooking and some of the hardships previous generations encountered as we experience this modern pandemic. It has made us better understand their lifestyle and sensibilities. Heritage cooking is big.” From bread baking and pasta rolling to canning foods, foraging, and raising chickens, more families are taking on homesteading activities. There was a big spike in bread machine purchases in 2020, says Miller. Expect a significant uptick in economical dishes suited for larger gatherings and potlucks as families take strides to reunite with family and friends, she says. Larger models of air fryers are emerging to accommodate families, says Miller. Hamilton Beach is releasing a slow cooker with an air fryer lid. It can function as a slow cooker using the lid to crisp a crunchy topper, or it can be used as a stand-alone air fryer. Convenience appliances are key, as home cooks experience cooking fatigue.

14. Making the planet a priority. Cooks are buying brands that demonstrate commitment to change through adopted practices such as upcycled ingredients, plant-based foods, regenerative meat and eggs, and sustainable seafoods. “Making a sustainably produced item is almost a requirement in the market today. From seafood to microgreens, home cooks want their food to come from companies that are committed to doing what’s right,” Miller says.

15. Restaurant retail. More restaurants, even those in upscale markets, are creating meal kits that allow patrons to re-create their dishes at home. Restaurants are creatively rethinking their operations to function like mini grocery stores – innovating by offering cocktails to go, meal kits, and artisan products. It’s a new take on takeout. A few trends coming out of restaurants include Asian fried chicken, birria (traditional Mexican savory meat), and hot honey. Innovation in to-go (even for fine dining), delivery, and single-serving meals will continue post-COVID. Salad bar items became prepackaged during the pandemic. Buffet lines with free choice options went away in most areas. “We want to go back to a salad bar where people can make a selection,” says Potthoff. Look for innovations when the salad bar returns.

Humane Certification

“At Whole Foods Market, we believe that customers should know where their food comes from, how it’s grown, and what ingredients are used,” says Erik Brown, executive leader of procurement at Whole Foods Market. All the meat in the meat department at Whole Foods comes from animals raised to the company’s animal welfare standards, which means no antibiotics or added growth hormones ever. “All beef, pork, chicken, turkey, and lamb in our meat department and our own prepared foods kitchens must be Global Animal Partnership Animal Welfare Certified,” he says, “and we require egg producers for our dairy department to go beyond cage-free, meeting our animal welfare standards for laying hens.” 

Some animal welfare laws and regulations may be delayed, says Christine McCracken, executive director, animal protein, Rabobank. That makes it hard for retailers. “They can’t sign a long-term agreement until they know how the laws will be implemented. The packers say, ‘I can’t get a deal from my retailer, so I’m not going to give a long-term contract to a producer.’ The producer says, ‘I’m not going to make changes unless I can get paid.’ ” She uses the example of egg producers who shifted to cage-free housing after large retail and food service companies made public commitments to be 100% cage-free. “The fine print still left them some flexibility, with a loophole that stated, ‘If the market is insufficient, they could opt out of their commitments, unless required by law,’ ” says McCracken. “So after the industry spent millions transitioning to cage-free, premium eggs were being sold into commodity markets at a loss.” 

Meat demand always comes down to a price-value relationship, says McCracken. “Yes, younger consumers are more focused on how the animal was raised, but it is still difficult for producers to get paid for that added cost. Shoppers make buying decisions based on perceived quality, which is often taste and not how the animal is raised.” Animal welfare is hard to quantify, she says. “Everyone agrees that animals must be raised in the most humane way possible, but how do you get paid for that? There is a cost. You can’t just keep raising the bar on producers and not expect to pay for it. You don’t want to end up like Europe where meat is quickly becoming a luxury.” 

Anybody who is willing to pay for premium meat should be able to buy all they want, she says. “But there is a huge share of the population that lives on a limited income and still needs safe, affordable meat. Americans value choice and should be provided with meat and poultry products that align with their values,” McCracken adds. 

“There are very real environmental and labor challenges that are already adding to the cost of meat production,” says McCracken. “Inconsistent regulatory burdens only drive smaller producers out of business and ultimately tax the consumer. Unfortunately, these challenges will only increase in the years ahead.”

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