| Maura Judkis, The Washington Post |
WHAT will we eat in 2019? If our nation’s prognosticators have their say, we’ll be crunching on salads of celtuce, a lesser-known green, mixed with either high-end bespoke vegetables personally designed by chefs, or virtuous ugly produce destined for the trash.
Maybe they’ll be topped with a crunch of chulpe corn or watermelon seeds. We’ll tear into interesting forms of bread – bing, from China, and manaeesh, from the Levant.
There will be CBD in everything, smokeless smoke in everything, and real milk in nothing – not in our milkshake IPAs, which are not what they sound like (they’re brewed with lactose) – because pea milk and oat milk are taking over. ‘Regional flavours’ will be important, specifically those from India, the Pacific Rim and ‘the ‘stans’ – Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Plant-based eating will continue to grow. Some products that were formerly shelf-stable, such as granola bars and olive oil, are going to need to be refrigerated. It will be a good year for dietitians, who are poised to become the new celebrity chefs. We’ll pay for our sandwiches with cryptocurrency, as if that’s no big deal.
Then again, it’s not like 2018 panned out exactly how the prediction-makers thought it would. Yes, we ate artisan pickles and had ghee and plenty of veggie-forward dishes. It’s true that Jewish delis are on the upswing, and Israeli cuisine hit its stride. And tsukemen, or brothless ramen, got more popular on menus in the United States. But why didn’t we get really into deep-frying, or Tanzanian barbecue seasoning? Chain restaurants never picked up on ‘trash fish’. Norwegian and Icelandic ‘Arctic cuisine’ has yet to hit the mainstream here. Other predictions – locally sourced produce, Instagrammable foods, ‘authentic ethnic cuisine’ and street food – were already in, some for more than a decade.
What is a trend, anyway? There’s no set way to measure one, no threshold of sales or number of products on the market past which a food becomes Certifiably Trendy, especially because food trends, like fashion, trickle down into mainstream ubiquity. There’s just a bunch of market researchers and food industry consultants and publicists and journalists, a little bit of data, a looming December 31 deadline and an intangible notion of what feels cool and new.
“The science to predicting a trend is to figure out, what is actually happening here? Is it just now, is there some sort of immediacy to it or does this actually have a longevity?” said Associate Director of food and drink for consumer research company Mintel Jenny Zegler. “And, what does that mean, and what is that reflective of, in terms of what consumers want?”
Some trend lists come from huge teams of professional trend-spotters and industry-watchers, and some come from just one person with a finger on the pulse. But all of the predictions tend to fall into one of four categories. In the first category are the vague, evergreen, massive buzzword trends – like ‘plant-based foods’ and ‘specialised diets’ – that will both always and never be trends, because they’re so all-encompassing.
But don’t count them out, said Zegler, whose report for Mintel pinpoints three trends: sustainability, foods for healthy aging and enhanced convenience foods. A list should be measured by its goals, Zegler said: Theirs is global in scope, and based on the work of 91 analysts in 13 countries, backed by actual consumer research data, and geared toward large brands for whom a menu change is a major supply-chain overhaul and a big gamble.
“I think a lot of what we’re trying to do is identify things that are already happening,” Zegler said. It’s “not necessarily that companies that we work with are astounded by this prediction. It’s more of, you know, this is where we should be going, and this is what we should be looking at”.
What many of us think of as trends, such as Thai rolled ice cream or ‘souping’ or cake pops, are actually fads.
“A fad is something that kind of comes quick and goes and maybe makes a viral sensation,” said Zegler, but a trend has staying power. “That is really impactful, especially in a business sense, that you know if you’re going to switch to make everything this new cool flavour, you want to make sure that it’s the flavour that’s going to last.”
But calling a major cultural force already at play within the industry a trend has another benefit: You can never be wrong. That extends to things that Zegler would call fads, too: Among this year’s lists, there are predictions that za’atar and CBD will become trendy. They’re in the second category – specific ‘predictions’ that are already trendy, in some circles, at least. Za’atar might not be everywhere yet, but it’s long been having a moment in the independent restaurant scene.
That’s the other tricky thing about trend lists: Whom are they for? When food media, which tend to live in coastal cities, see a list that predicts rainbow-coloured unicorn food as the next hot thing, they might think it’s hopelessly outdated. Meanwhile, if you go by sales figures, that trend is still making its way throughout the country: It was one of the most-searched food trends on Google this year, and it hit mainstream ubiquity, perhaps, when Sam’s Club began selling a unicorn cake.
“We used to say facetiously that when something appeared on a Marriott menu, you knew the trend was over,” said President Michael Whiteman of Baum & Whiteman, a restaurant consulting group.
Whiteman’s list said the big trends for next year will be more widespread culinary use of robots, an escalation of the ‘meal kit wars’, katsu sandwiches, Szechuan hot pot, and the aforementioned bing and food from the ‘stans – the latter, something that Whiteman has noticed becoming rapidly popular throughout Brooklyn, where so many trends begin.
“Could I be wrong on that? I certainly could,” he said. That’s the third category: Trends that may or may not take off – who knows? Whiteman’s list comes from travel, his many years of experience and intuition.
“You know, something catches your eye,” Whiteman said. “And over the course of a year you see three or four places and you say, ‘Well, let’s watch this’. I wish I had a scientific answer for you.”
The end-of-the-year list rush is real. “Over the past 10 years, the number of people making predictions online has probably quintupled,” said Whiteman, in part because journalists write about them (guilty). And, any company can use a food trend list as a branding and engagement opportunity, which is why you see lists from Google and Chase Bank.
Some might have an agenda: When Tyson, the country’s largest meat producer, predicts protein from animal and alternative sources will be very important in 2019, it’s not wrong: We’ve been seeing more and more meat and protein snacks on the market, and more innovation in the ‘motherless meat’ realm. But both sides of the coin benefit Tyson: The company continues to produce fresh and frozen chicken, and has also invested in Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based burgers.
“I don’t think any list is 100 per cent objective, because we all have dreams of what we’d like to see,” said Senior Food and Beverage Editor for Nation’s Restaurant News Bret Thorn. – WP-BLOOM