NEW YORK — The events of 2020 will largely shape how consumers eat and drink in 2021. As Americans continue to cope with the ongoing pandemic, racial unrest, and political and economic turmoil, brands and products promoting an elevated experience, positive social impact and immunity benefits will gain even greater relevance, according to the Specialty Food Association, which represents a $158.4 billion segment of the industry.  

The New York-based organization convened its Trendspotter Panel of professionals representing various strata of the culinary landscape to identify key trends for the year ahead, citing examples seen at the recent Specialty Food Live! virtual marketplace. Top themes include home-cooking inspired by restaurant cuisine, purpose-driven purchasing, and functional ingredients that tap into physical and mental well-being.

“COVID-19 has a massive impact on trend predictions heading into 2021, as consumers cook and eat at home more, turning to everyday meals and special treats to comfort and support their mental and physical well-being,” said Denise Purcell, director of content for the Specialty Food Association. “We’re seeing several trends around experimenting with flavors and ingredients, as well as turning to functional or plant-based foods and twists on classic products to avoid menu fatigue.”

Gourmet condiments, cooking sauces and cocktail mixes

Kicking up home cooking

As consumers seek to replicate restaurant experiences at home, expect to see more gourmet condiments, cooking sauces and cocktail mixes. Examples from the Specialty Food Live! event include smoked watermelon salt, smoked maple old-fashioned cocktail mixer and a Chicago hot dog-inspired condiment combining seven toppings. Restaurants also are offering meal kits and components for consumers to use at home.

“At-home eating will be the name of the game in 2021,” said Melanie Zanoza Bartelme, global food analyst at Mintel and member of the Trendspotter Panel. “We will see consumers looking to brighten and enliven the monotony of preparing so many meals in a row.”

Classics with a twist (think sheep’s milk chocolate) may help vanquish food boredom. Several brands at the Specialty Food Live! event featured products such as pretzel bread mix, flavored edible spoons, glittery maple syrup, and a unicorn s’mores skillet kit to deliver a dash of whimsy to the home kitchen.

“These are serious times and with some areas still experiencing closures in theaters, stadiums, concert halls, and other entertainment venues, we are looking to have fun at home,” said Jonathan Deutsch, director of Drexel Food Lab at Drexel University and a member of the Trendspotter Panel.

Yolele fonio chipsSimilarly, while international travel is off the table, products that provide global flavors and culinary adventure to homebound consumers will hold greater appeal. Examples at Specialty Food Live! include flavors and ingredients from Scandinavia, Cambodia and Senegal, such as sea buckthorn and fonio, as well as spices and herbs native to regions including West Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia.

“I’m seeing more prominence and appreciation of regional ingredients from parts of the world often overlooked —specifically, an interest in West African ingredients and cuisine,” said Dawn Padmore, vice president of culinary marketing and events, Karlitz and Company.

Meanwhile, a Middle Eastern confection, recently touted as a good source of iron, is reemerging. Halva, a sesame seed-based treat, appeared in the form of halva butter and shelf-stable halva slices in flavors such as toasted coconut and triple chocolate. Propelling its popularity is recent growing interest in tahini sauce, as well as black sesame flavor in ice creams and lattes.

Purchasing with purpose

Shoppers have shown heightened interest in recent years in supporting brands that align with their values. The events of the past year have amplified the importance of conscious consumption. Increasingly, consumers are seeking out companies advancing equity, diversity, justice and inclusion across the industry, casting a bigger light on women- and minority-owned businesses.

“For me, 2020 highlighted topics amongst all brands: cultural appropriation, community impact, ethical practices,” said Tu David Phu, a chef and Trendspotter Panel member. “More than ever, brands are focused on these three categories and trying to align their messaging with this. Movements like #metoo and #blacklivesmatter have empowered consumers to voice their opinions on what they expect from their favorite brands. This pivot/shift is mainly due to Generation Z coming into the consumer marketplace as adults. Food brands need to shift now as this new demographic is taking over the marketplace.” 

Health and wellness products

Eat, drink and be healthy

Health and wellness will remain in focus next year, driving continued acceleration of functional ingredients, plant-based foods, and formulations with reduced sugar. Products at Specialty Food Live! include fermented honey sauce and prebiotic snacks to improve digestion and clarified butter infused with herbs to promote women’s health, restful sleep and cardiovascular health. Also on the rise are mushroom powders such as reishi or lion’s mane, cannabidiol and medium-chain triglycerides.

Plant-based foods and beverages are expected to increase 10% to 20% annually through 2024, according to the Specialty Food Association’s recent state-of-the-industry report. New applications include meatless mixes for home cooking, dairy-free queso made with aquafaba, plant-based tzatziki sauce and oat milk chocolate.

Products featuring low sugar or natural sweeteners will be another top theme heading into next year. Condiments spotted at the event were sweetened with such ingredients as dates, peaches, carrots and jaggery, a cane sugar consumed in Asia.

“Sugar as the devil will become a more prominent message in 2021,” said Clara Park, corporate chef of Culinary Innovation for Chelten House Products. “We will continue to see a decline in the levels of sugar in foods and drinks and an increase in the availability and popularity of alternative sweeteners like monk fruit, keto-friendly sugars, and coconut sugar.”