Then again, it’s not like 2018 panned out exactly how the prediction-makers thought it would. Yes, we ate artisan pickles and drank Cristalino tequila 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 Dec. 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 Jenny Zegler, associate director of food and drink for consumer research company Mintel. “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 “specialized diets” — that will both always and never be trends, because they’re so all-encompassing. But don’t count them out, says 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 says: 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.”
“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 flavor, you want to make sure that it’s the flavor 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 orange wine 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-colored 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 Michael Whiteman, president of Baum & Whiteman, a restaurant consulting group.
Whiteman’s list says 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 percent objective, because we all have dreams of what we’d like to see,” said Bret Thorn, senior food and beverage editor for Nation’s Restaurant News.
Straddling the line, industry-watchers say, is Whole Foods — which, yes, uses its year-end list to promote its products, but also has its finger on the pulse. This year, the company is predicting good things for eco-friendly packaging, exotic ice cream, and snacks made of ocean greens beyond seaweed. (Whole Foods is owned by Amazon, which shares an owner, Jeffrey P. Bezos, with the Washington Post — but that doesn’t mean our office break room is stocked with exotic ice cream.)
“At the end of the day, the consumer is in control of what trends truly take off, but we always hope to be the first place they go to find them,” said Rachel Bukowski, Whole Foods’ team leader for product development, in an email. “Probably the closest thing to a ‘miss’ that we see is when we’re a little too early on a trend.”
The fourth category, of course, is trend predictions that seem to hit the perfect sweet spot: Still under the radar enough, but gaining momentum, and poised to take off. For this year, that might include Peganism (paleo veganism), lab-grown meat, shelf-stable probiotics (active beneficial bacterial cultures in foods that don’t need to be refrigerated), as well as healthy desserts made with such ingredients as taro pudding and quinoa.
“I tend to look at what the independent [restaurants] are doing, because that tends to be where trends start,” Thorn said. “If they make it into the smaller chains, we really have something going. It’s an open question of when it becomes really mainstream. If it goes to casual dining, like TGI Fridays, if it makes to fast food, like McDonald’s, it’s a thing.”
But most of the people reading these predictions aren’t restaurateurs or food producers. They might not even live in cities where these trends are readily accessible. But from late December through early January, they’ll eat them up nonetheless.
“It is something that people want to be part of,” Zegler said. “They want to be part of that leading edge. They want to be the first one in their friend group to identify this.”
Most of all, she says, “They want to be able to post on Instagram.”
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