“Food has always been expressive of identity,” wrote John Lanchester, British journalist and gourmand. It’s about who we want to be, and how we want to live. Food fashions and trends encourage us to choose who we want to be. Today, consumers want food to be fresh, local, and sustainable. They want “clean” and healthy ingredients: No more trans fats. No more hormones and antibiotics. Hold the aspartame and artificial caramel colorings, please. Food industry trends point to a healthier, cleaner approach to eating. And the big brands, the titans of the food industry—companies like Campbell’s, Kraft, McDonalds, and Panera—are taking notice.
The Culinary Revolution
Just a few decades ago, food was just… food. Sustenance. Grub. Americans wanted to eat cheaply and quickly. If it was on sale, we bought it and didn't think twice about it. Quantity was more important than quality. There was something workman-like about the way we approached food. Phrases like GMO and gluten-free were as foreign to us as posh restaurateurs eating delicate songbirds, the gruesome act hidden by napkins placed over their heads (a habit which was, apparently, fashionable in 19th century France). Somewhere along the way, however, things changed. We began to think more about how our food was prepared and where it came from. Chefs went from being behind-the-scenes pot stirrers to rock stars, the Food Network exploded in popularity, and the culinary revolution began.
Clean Ingredients and Ethically Minded Menus
Food industry trends come and go like the latest runway fashions. While most food trends have a short shelf-life— Remember kale, the Cronut, the pickle craze, or when Copenhagen and chef Rene Redzepi’s Noma was the center of the culinary universe—one thing that's been consistent over the past few years is consumer demand for clean ingredients and more ethically minded menus. According to a recent Zagat survey, 19 percent of respondents said it was very important to them that fast casuals offer GMO-free food, while 35 percent said it was somewhat important. And big brands and industry titans are listening; they are adapting their menus to keep pace with the changing American palate.
McDonalds, Chik-fil-A, and Wendy’s have all committed to sourcing only chickens raised without antibiotics. Starbucks changed the recipe of its famous Pumpkin Spice latte, adding real pumpkin and removing an artificial caramel color. And Panera has a "No-No List" of more than 80 ingredients that it keeps out of the menu, from artificial sweeteners to trans fats. Iconic brands like Campbell's, Kraft, Tyson, and General Mills are giving their recipes a healthy, modern makeover. Campbell's is cutting 10 ingredients from its famous chicken soup, stripping the recipe of additives. Between 2007 and 2012, America's top food and beverage companies sold 6.4 trillion fewer calories. A recent study found that last year customers ordered more than two hundred million dishes that were gluten or wheat free. All of these changes and trends are part of a healthier, more political approach to food.
According to Alice Waters, chef, author, and owner of Chez Panisse, “every single choice we make about food matters, at every level. Eating is a political act.” In other words, it’s not just food. It never was. Consumers have finally realized this, and America's tastes are changing. If food is an expression of identity, then that identity is based on conscious choice. Right now consumers are choosing to dine and grocery shop in a more responsible, healthful, and sustainable way. In the end, the consumer is in control of food industry trends. If he or she doesn't want heirloom tomatoes or organically fed chicken, there would be no market for those items. It's the consumer who teaches the big brands how to adapt to trends.