The Future of the Food Industry: A Food Expert Roundtable Discussion in 2020

future of food

The impact of COVID-19 has changed so much about the food industry: occasions, locations, and access. But has it altered our relationship with food? In a recent roundtable with experts from the food and beverage industry, there was skepticism that anything so fundamental had changed.

What was certain is that shifts in how and where we eat have shaken up people’s relationship with brands and created opportunities to create new loyalties.

Gen Z is poised to shake up the future of food, by being open to more possibilities in their preferences and eating habits. Their fluidity will reshape what they buy and how we market to them.

Everything has changed. Nothing is different.

The pandemic has upended established habits and practices in many areas of our lives—and food is no exception. Meals that were eaten out are now eaten at home. Food products that were forgotten have been rediscovered. People that were consumers are now creators. This has led to both nostalgia and exploration.

“This is a great opportunity for legacy brands that were being ignored” one food manufacturer suggested. Being at home more has led to reminiscence and a return to the center of the grocery store. Cereal, for example, is making a comeback. And an ingredients producer noted that they were seeing “requests in areas that have not been popular for a while” such as soups and cookies. People also encountered new brands when their usual products were unavailable in the early days of the pandemic. In many cases, shoppers were required to consider categories that they had steered away from in recent years, because of a lack of availability and for some categories like animal proteins, rapidly rising prices at a time when many shoppers’ wallets are pinched. All these things have had profound impacts on what people eat.

“For a while, food was a therapist—a coping mechanism,” it was suggested. At the beginning of the pandemic, “we needed something to make us feel good” and respond to the stressful circumstances we all suddenly faced. But after ignoring portion sizes and putting on their COVID “19 pounds,” people are looking to lose weight and improve their eating habits by veering away from unhealthy snacks and towards healthy meals. But healthy does not necessarily mean abandoning Oreos; the consumer of perception of healthy is transforming to be more nuanced than ever.

“Healthy” is an often-misunderstood term. “As marketers and people, we think of the world as binary. But everything is dose dependent, and frequency dependent. Healthy is ‘I can indulge and control.’” A food retailer with a health-oriented positioning concurred, noting that “plenty of shoppers trust us not to put something bad in the food. So even if it is a 600-calorie cupcake, they assume it has the good sugar.”

With this subtlety afoot we as insights professionals must “listen appropriately” and look for the outsider voice, and not just focus on the surface meaning. That can be the key to a greater depth of understanding; a “peeling back of the onion.”

Our relationship with food, while shaken, has moved back toward an equilibrium. How, when and where we consume it may have changed, but the root things we want from it—nourishment, heritage, community, and indulgence—remain the same. And that is crucial because, when observing a body of water, it is easy to be distracted by eddies and waves. But it is the depths you need to pay attention to if you really want to grasp what is going on.

Healthy eating and flexitarianism: A shift in the deeps

Looking beyond today’s upheavals, these food experts are keeping a keen eye on Gen Z. For this cohort researchers and popular media use the mid-to-late 1990s as starting birth years, and the early 2010s as ending birth years. This is a generation who have always had the internet, and whose life has been marked by 9/11, ongoing conflict, climate change, a decline in trust, and a rejection of simple categorization. As a result, the “ethical and moral atmosphere of Gen Z is more concerned with broad societal and environmental impacts.” The question is “not just what is best for me, but how am I impacting everyone else.” In the world of food, this turns the camera toward veganism.

Gen Z, it was explained, are open to veganism but are not necessarily embracing it en masse. Veganism is seen by some as “preachy,” but being open to looking beyond meat is completely in keeping with a tendency toward “flexitarianism.” Gen Z were spoken about as being less “judgy” and more embracing of diversity in its many forms.

This makes understanding them more of a challenge. Instead of being able to put people into easy boxes, we need to understand that they are “more fluid in choice” and with that “comes a slipperiness—something you can’t easily pinpoint.” You need to have them explain their “story in their contexts.” Gen Z feel it is their “duty to grow, explore and try. It’s not just that they are open to new things. They feel compelled to try.” This Gen Z value seems like a direct build on the Millennial focus on experiences over things; for Gen Z, experiences are more valuable than ever, and even more than the generation before them, they’re eager to stretch boundaries and consider new possibilities.

For food, this means an opportunity and an obligation to look past the temporary knee-jerk nostalgia of today, and forward to a more fluid and less boxed-up future. For insights, this means looking past how people think, and focusing on the nuance of how customers feel, and subsequently how customers behave. We need to focus on the meaning of the eating and shopping experiences people desire, and not just be distracted by the superficial “what” of their actions.

One thing certain about the future of food in these tumultuous times, is that everything is always the same, but different.

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