KANSAS CITY — The normal courses of many trends in the world of consumer goods took a variety of unexpected detours in the past year-plus, and food was no exception. 

In fact, because of COVID, 2021 is a year “unlike any other” when it comes to food trends, said Maeve Webster, president of consultancy Menu Matters.

“While it would be wrong to say there aren't any trends this year, the truth is there's a lot more focus on getting back in business and staying in business rather than focusing on true innovation or pushing boundaries,” Webster said.

The result is a continuation of many trends that were picking up steam before the pandemic — things like Nashville hot, buffalo, elote and gochujang.

At the same time, Menu Matters is also tracking variations on familiar items. Take honey: spicy honey, hot honey, smoked honey and fermented honey are just a few of the new takes on that particular old theme.

Operators are also looking for ways to create new experiences that don't push the boundaries too far because everyone is just looking to get back to 100% operations and drawback as many customers as possible without alienating anyone.

“It makes perfect sense that operators are looking to take the familiar and create new iterations on a theme,” Webster said. “We're seeing a lot of play with flavor systems or flavor profiles that are traditional with a specific dish — like cacio e pepe, or negronis, or Thai iced tea — but that are pulling that system apart and recreating it as a breakfast sandwich or snack or dessert.”

Such innovations highlight the inventiveness of the food industry professional while still leveraging the popularity of the system itself, she added.

Health to the fore

As consumers take a holistic approach to their diet and lifestyle, functional foods and beverages are in demand, said Amy Marks-McGee, founder of consultancy Trendincite LLC. 

Products that support the immune system are a good example of this trend. According to IRI data, 37% of consumers say “food is a better medicine than medicine,” and 17% reported they would buy more products that support immunity as a result of the pandemic.

“Prior to the pandemic, the trend to holistic health was gaining momentum, and the pandemic just propelled individuals’ interest in self-care and boosted the demand for functional food and beverages,” Marks-McGee said. “Sustainable food and beverage piggyback on this trend as consumers look for better-for-you and better-for-the planet products. From milk alternatives to meat analogs, plant-based products align with consumers’ desire for healthier and sustainable foods and beverages.”

Watermelon and pineapple are among the popular seasonal flavors that are garnering more attention because of their health properties, Marks-McGee said. Florals and botanicals are also trending. In terms of functional ingredients, elderberry, mushrooms, adaptogens, and collagen are making inroads, and cannabidiol (CBD) infused food and beverage launches continue to be popular.

Redefining “normal”

Coming out of the pandemic, it’s a myth to think that things will go back to exactly the way they were before, said Suzy Badaracco, president of consultancy Culinary Tides. 

“There is never a return to ‘normal,’” she said. “There is only evolution.”

As the fears around the pandemic and the recession subside, consumer confidence builds, she said. And as confidence builds, experimentation returns to food and beverage development. First up: hybrids and mashups, which will lead to food fusions later on.

Ethnic trends, meanwhile, will be led by travel trends. Where Americans will be allowed to travel first will also be where the latest flavor trends are going to come from, Badaracco said. Politics play into it as well. 

Whenever the United States comes out of a recession, Badaracco said, there is renewed focus on health and sustainability. COVID-19 was a strong voice for sustainability, but consumers abandoned it, temporarily, due to budget stress caused by the economic downturn. That’s starting to reverse now, she said.

Health-related concerns are more in the spotlight than usual because of COVID, Badaracco said. As the pandemic continues to recede, immune system-related concerns will fade into the background somewhat and be replaced to a perennial concern: obesity.

Also look for mental health issues to remain at the forefront, due to the effects on stress, sleep, anxiety and depression related to COVID and its lingering effects. 

Webster expects 2022 to be a more normal year when it comes to trends, with what she calls “true innovation” returning to the fore. 

That said, given all of the labor issues, supply chain disruptions, price inflation and lingering uncertainty about what may happen in the second half of 2021, she said it makes sense that operators are playing it a bit safer this year to make sure they’re back on track and ready to hit the ground running once the pandemic is fully in the rearview mirror.

Look for continued flavor innovations in the fresh perimeter going forward, Webster said, as the channel builds on its successes picking up the slack for foodservice during COVID.

“The pandemic really opened the door for retailers to innovate and grab share as restaurants shut down or were limited in their ability to serve patrons. We've seen a lot of play with meal kits, preparation kits, recipe ideas, new products. I think retailers really stepped up their game over the past year and a half and are going to be an even more formidable competitor to restaurants and foodservice going forward.”

COVID’s lasting impact 

COVID’s biggest impact on flavor trends, Webster said, could be in the ethnic category. Without being able to travel internationally, people aren't exposed to new cuisines and don't bring those expectations back with them. 

In addition, many smaller ethnic operators were impacted by closures.

“We lost a bit of the engine that introduces those new flavors, foods, formats and preparations into our culture,” she said. “I think we'll see experimentation with those cuisines that are more familiar in our culture or those that were already gaining a greater foothold, like Korean.”

Formats that can be easily communicated to an American audience, or flavors from those cuisines, will be incorporated into some of the growing and trending formats like fried chicken sandwiches, Webster added.

But it won’t be until 2022, she predicted, that there’s a real resurgence of exploration and experimentation with cuisines that have yet to gain any kind of momentum or awareness here.

COVID created big spikes in demand for comfort foods, snacks and breakfast foods with nostalgic flavors, Marks-McGee said. Those categories will continue to impact flavor innovation and be mainstays. 

But with workers going back to their offices and kids going back to in-person school, convenience will become a focus again and there will be a resurgence of grab-and-go products as well as quick and easy meal prep.

With limited travel, US consumers are exploring local and accessible destinations. Marks-McGee sees regional flavors continuing to gain traction. 

“The best example is BBQ and the many different regional styles, flavors, and recipes,” she said. “As travel opens, I foresee more consumer interest in travel outside of the US. Consumers’ pent-up travel demand dubbed ‘travel revenge’ will drive flavor innovation inspired by multicultural and diverse foods and beverages found in remote destinations.”

According to DoorDash’s Deep Dish 2021 midyear report, 68% of Americans plan to visit new places post-pandemic.

To check out our August installment of Commissary Insider, click here.