Food fads like local eating and farm-to-table may seem like niche interests that only apply to a small group of young adult consumers or foodies. But, brands like Chipotle and Panera have seen skyrocketing popularity—enough, in fact to help Chipotle, at least, weather a major food safety incident—after embracing this and other all-natural trends. It has become clear: If you’re in the food industry, you need to be paying attention.
There's a lot of evidence that the greater interest in where the food we eat comes from has passed from fad to become a fixture in consumers' buying habits.
What Is “Clean” Food?
Foods that are perceived as “clean” or “all-natural” fall into a number of categories. Locally-sourced foods are popular with some who want fresher foods and who worry about the environmental impact of the machinery required to transport foods. In animal products, more people are concerned with humane living conditions and slaughter. The foods that pass muster with so-called clean eaters can be remarkably inconsistent and sometimes even bear little relation to which foods are actually safer and more sustainable.
Spending on organic foods has grown from $1 billion to $28 billion in the past 20 years. But, despite many people's beliefs, there is no conclusive evidence that organic food is better for you or even always better for the environment. Seventy percent of consumers say that they do not want GMOs in their food, though extensive scientific testing has proven the safety and value of such modified crops.
But, these preferences are increasingly governing the choices that consumers make.
In a recent survey, 92% of respondents claimed to want all GMO products labeled, and it would be easy to conclude that many would avoid those products. Meanwhile, the locally grown industry has turned into big business, weighing in at a $6.1 billion a year.
How Big Businesses Can Benefit
This is an area that can be tricky for larger brands. A lot of consumers have turned away from familiar big labels, instead seeking a vague sort of authenticity from smaller and local brands instead.
Many consumers are increasingly seeking out smaller brands and local producers. About 7.8% of farms sell directly to consumers, with about 70% of those using only direct to consumer channels to market their products. Regional grocery chain Publix has capitalized on this with labeling that calls attention to produce and dairy that is produced in a store's local area. Chipotle also maximizes this trend by incorporating locally grown produce where possible. According to store figures, their restaurants sold more than 20 million pounds of local produce in 2014 and have made a commitment to increase those numbers in future years. Buying local and letting your customers know more about your supply chain can help.
A number of brands have also made headlines by eliminating GMOs. Chipotle advertises on their site that they are against GMOs and plan to remove them from all foods served there. In 2013, Target announced a plan to remove all GMOs from their Simply Balanced brand. Foods under that label will contain at least 40% organic ingredients and were on target to be 100% GMO-free by the end of 2014. Complying with these food industry trends can mollify consumers and make them more likely to continue to do business with your brand.
Education can also help retain business. While, as recently as 2013, one third of consumers said they were avoiding gluten, there has been a backlash against the gluten-free trend as more people become educated about the rarity of true gluten intolerances and sensitivities. By continuing to share information about what is in your products and how it affects health, you can win back and keep trust.
Most food industry trends are cyclical. Tastes will sway from one side to another, with a few trends becoming permanent. By taking on the best of the food trends and not investing too deeply in less supported ones, you can continue to build your brand in uncertain times and maintain a good relationship with your customers.