My deep dive into what’s to come in 2021 uncovered more changes in the business models for farms, food manufacturers and grocery stores than in products. “It’s a total sea change,” says Phil Lempert, food industry analyst and editor at SupermarketGuru.com, in Santa Monica, Calif. “For food companies, the number one priority right now is not innovation, it’s production efficiency.”
The pandemic has uncovered gaps in distribution, packaging and sales, which have led to an increase in product shortages and stressed consumers. Lempert is watching companies solve inefficiencies by cutting back on the number of products they sell. He notes that one soup company has dropped its varieties from 80 to 40. He’s seen supermarkets skip distributors and contract directly with farmers to guarantee product quality, availability and delivery. He’s even sees some stores limiting the number of certain products that consumers can buy.
Katie McBreen, vice president of communications and strategy for the Consumer Brands Association, says, “We’ve seen a definite movement toward [product] optimization as a result of COVID from food, beverage and snacks to cleaning products.” Large companies are focusing on streamlining product offerings, culling outdated items and prioritizing core brands.
The average number of product offerings in grocery stores declined more than 7 percent during the four weeks ending June 13, according to data provided by Nielsen.
Changes in how we shop
Offering a smaller selection of items can reduce consumer confusion, boost sales, and trim time and expense for shoppers. “The supermarket in six to nine months from now is going to look totally different than it does now,” says Lempert, who predicts changes in both layout and operations because of the pandemic.
He believes many supermarkets will implement a “reservation” model, and will be laid out in two sections: The back part will stock packaged goods that will be bundled up for you from your shopping list while you browse the front of the store, which will carry fresh vegetables, meat and bakery items. Lempert predicts that an average 22-minute grocery shop could take just 10 minutes with such a layout, mitigating some grocery store anxiety for customers.
And shoppers are rethinking how they buy their food, how it got to the store and what goes into the products. “Consumers are demanding transparency,” says Lempert. “They want to know where the carrots in that frozen dinner came from and what the name of the farm was. Companies are understanding that, and are adding more transparency in their manufacturing processes.”
Some farms are installing real-time cameras so customers can see how the animals are treated. Other food growers are becoming “food justice certified,” which is a domestic version of the well-known international fair-trade movement. The certification shows consumers that their food was grown on a farm that cares about the employees, animals and environment.
Many companies operate in a “conscious capitalism” model, where they strive to balance social responsibility with financial success. Rather than solely focusing on taste, they also promote their interest in animal welfare, waste reduction, fair wages and sustainability.
More plant-based items on the shelves
While there may be fewer innovative products on the shelves, they seem to have something in common: a focus on health, especially the growing interest in plant-based food. Sales data from Nielsen shows that sales of plant-based milk alternatives grew 19 percent in the past year, and sales of plant-based meats grew 46 percent.
After noting the popularity of plant-based burgers, and the double-digit sales growth in plant-based foods in 2020, food manufacturers are making over other animal-based foods. Health professionals continue to debate whether these highly processed products are nutritious, but that hasn’t stopped innovation. Stores are now carrying eggs made from mung bean protein isolate, bacon made of coconut oil and rice flour, and mock tuna fish made from a blend of pea and soy protein isolates.
For those not ready to fully commit to plant-based eating, there are new “blends” available. Examples include 50-50 cow’s milk and almond milk blends; and burgers made from equal parts pea protein and beef. These products allow companies that sell meat and dairy to get into the plant-based market.
New 'functional' foods and beverages
An upswing in functional foods and beverages — products that contain beneficial nutrients for health — has also been predicted by many 2021 food trend reports. “I think more and more of these functional foods will appear on the immunity front, especially with the current COVID-19 situation,” says Amy Gorin, a plant-based dietitian, and a food media and trends expert, in Stamford, Conn.
Gorin has seen several products made with mushrooms (which claim to help you focus), snack bars with adaptogens (which claim to provide energy and calmness), and dark chocolate fortified with vitamin B12, a nutrient required for proper immune function.
“With any of these functional foods, it’s important to be aware of your overall intake of nutrients from fortified products,” says Gorin. “For instance, if you’re eating that chocolate with vitamin B12, you likely don’t also need to take a vitamin B12 supplement.”
Beverage companies are also jumping on the wellness bandwagon. “We are going to see an explosion in the functional beverage category, from beverages that contain melatonin-rich ingredients to help you sleep, to shelf-stable kombucha and even hard kombucha (which contains alcohol),” says Gorin.
One soda company has created a nighttime noncarbonated beverage to help facilitate a restful sleep during these stressful times. The beverage contains L-theanine, the same amino acid that’s found in tea, and is said to promote relaxation. Where legal, you’ll also find beverages with added CBD oil to reduce anxiety and promote restfulness. And watch for even more fermented kombucha drinks. These brews are known for containing beneficial probiotics, which are part of a strong immune system.
Remember, it’s important to look past the nutrient content claims in any of these new products, and check the full ingredient list. A product that is high in protein or vitamin C may also be high in sugar, or contain alcohol or highly processed ingredients. A bit of added vitamin is not enough to make a product nutritious — it’s the whole product that counts.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By and specializes in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes Featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”