Exploring four key food trends for 2020

By Jo-Ann McArthur

Editor’s note: Jo-Ann McArthur is the President and Founding Partner of Nourish, a marketing agency that specializes in field-to-fork food and beverage, working across all aspects of the food ecosystem. Clients include producers, processors, retailers, manufacturers, food service and restaurants. Jo-Ann can be contacted at j@nourish.marketing. Sign-up for the agency’s monthly newsletter at www.nourish.marketing.

I always like to say that Nourish is an agency that knows a lot about a little. We have the dual privileges of specializing in the food industry and working across its entire ecosystem. As a result, we are often able to connect dots that others may not.

We publish an annual Trend Report, now in its fourth year. And by trends, I mean cultural forces and shifts, not fads. Fads are like a one-time volcanic eruption: they are briefly hot before they cool and then disappear. Trends are the tectonic plates that move beneath us and reshape the landscape. New food systems, as well as product development, take time, so we need to make sure we are looking at a longer-term horizon.

When we look at trends, we are not passing judgement or making value statements. We are just reporting what we see coming. Looking back, we are happy to say that all the trends we have covered since 2017 are still actively reshaping the food industry and providing opportunities for producers, manufacturers, retailers and food service providers.

Here are some of the trends that could affect you most in 2020 – both positively and negatively.

Make way, Millennials: Gen Z is on the rise

In our 2019 Nourish Trend Report, we identified a shift from Millennials to Generation Z as one of the top eight trends to watch in the food industry. Gen Z members today are roughly between the ages of four- and 24-years-old. They comprise a quarter of the current population, which makes Gen Z more numerous than both Baby Boomers and Millennials. Over the next few years, that figure will balloon to 33 per cent.

Remarkably, while they are still establishing behaviours, even the youngest are already influencing their parents’ and grandparents’ buying decisions. What we are learning is that they are markedly different from previous generations, especially when it comes to the way they view meat.

Gen Z is engaged, aware and optimistic about their ability to effect change. Almost half of all surveyed said they believe they can make the world a better place. Importantly, they have grown up in a digital world where no question cannot be answered with their mobile device, so they expect radical transparency. And they want proof – a claim without evidence (or a picture) is just noise.

We call this “Made Matters.” It is shorthand for things consumers care about: quality, ingredients, health, animal welfare, environmental and labour concerns. They want to know how and where food was grown or raised. Both Gen Z and Millennials are more likely to purchase animal-welfare-certified products.

The “Eating Clean” definition is expanding to include not just what is in food but the entire journey, from how it was raised and by whom, to the treatment of workers, animals and the environment. All these factors are growing in importance and are top-of-mind with younger consumers.

Canadians have a lot to learn about farming

Social licence still matters for producers.

Unfortunately, while Canadian consumers trust Canadian farmers, they do not fully trust our food system. The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity’s 2019 Public Trust Research demonstrated a dangerous disconnect between consumer perception of the food system and reality that needs to be addressed. Consistent with last year’s data, it shows that only one in three Canadian consumers believes Canada’s food system is on the correct course. Fortunately, those who feel the food system is going in the right direction outnumber those who think it is headed down the wrong track.

The same research shows that 91 per cent of Canadians know little or nothing about modern farming practices, but 60 per cent of Canadians are interested in knowing more – a trend we reviewed in the 2020 Nourish Trend Report. The disparity between consumer beliefs and on-farm practices must be addressed. As insiders, you and I know Canadian agriculture has world-class standards, but consumers are less clear on that fact.

Eating meat is no longer a black-and-white issue

The number of Canadians who identify as vegan or vegetarian is on the rise. Still, 64 per cent of consumers said they had no issue consuming meat “if farm animals are treated decently and humanely.” Consumers are looking for reassurance about how the animals were treated, backed by audits and robust standards. Producers have an opportunity here to share their best practices and excellent records on animal welfare.

In the 2018 Nourish Trend Report, the rise of “plant-based” eating was one of the disruptive trends we shone a light on. More Canadians across cultures and generations are reducing their meat intake and adopting a flexitarian lifestyle to support animal welfare, the environment and their health – the top three reasons cited in a Dalhousie University study. People under the age of 35 are three times more likely to consider themselves vegetarians or vegans than people 49 or older.

In 2020, attitudes towards sustainable consumption are reaching a crucial tipping point away from aspiration and toward necessity. Research conducted with online Canadian members of the Angus Reid Forum (on behalf of The Meatless Farm), found that 77 per cent of consumers say they understand the damaging environmental impact of eating red meat, and 74 per cent believe it is important to reduce their carbon footprint. Yet, only 38 per cent of Canadians reduced their meat consumption to do so.

Will we see the emergence of a “climatarian” diet, where consumers start making food choices not based on food preferences or values but instead based on carbon footprint and environmental impact?

The plant-based trend is here, and it is not leaving

Maple Leaf Foods’ plant-based Lightlife product line is an example of how traditional meat companies are diversifying and rebranding as “protein” companies.

Blended or hybrid products (such as mixed plant and dairy, or plant and meat) are starting to emerge as an easier way for consumers to moderate their carbon footprint without giving up their preferred taste for animal products. Rather than doing flexitarian as an “either/or,” it can be done as an “and.” Blended protein is an old concept that recent economic prosperity has taken us away from. During the Second World War period, there were Victory posters in Canada about protein rationing. Boomers grew up with mothers who mixed ground meat with oats to make the grocery money extend further. What is old is new again!

In the U.S., Tyson Foods recently launched Raised & Rooted, a blended meat and pea-based protein, shortly after selling its share in Beyond Meat, a totally plant-based processed meat substitute. Perdue, a major chicken processing company, offers a Chicken Plus line of products combining chicken and vegetables.

These products leverage the technology necessary to make plant-based products stable but incorporate real meat to deliver the taste and texture consumers crave. Given that plant-based ingredients are in short supply, this may soon be the only way new players can enter the market while staying competitive.

In Canada, Maple Leaf Foods, shifted its vision to focus on becoming “the most sustainable protein company on Earth.” (Note the exclusion of the word “meat.”) It has positioned itself for the future by creating a separate plant-based division and building a $300 million facility in Indiana to support growth.

We have seen rapid changes in consumer behaviour with the COVID-19 crisis. Some of that behaviour will have a legacy effect on our food system. We have already seen a shift-in-stomach from food service to grocery as more people cook at home. Consumers will want to support their communities and neighbours, so we should also see an even more significant move to locally- and Canadian-grown food.