Food trends

We live in a fast moving world. Consumer preferences change much more rapidly today than they did just one decade ago. Any business that doesn't keep up with the trends affecting its customer base will soon suffer financially, and eventually become roadkill.

Food is the major driver of visits to entertainment venues. In fact, in our opinion, with few exceptions, if entertainment destinations aren't formulated as eatertainment destinations -- meaning food drives frequency more than entertainment -- they won't be successful in today's society, where socialization goes hand-in-hand with food and drink.

So what's happening with food trends? Our company reads volumes of industry magazines, journals and research in the restaurant industry, as we also make observations as we travel throughout the U.S. and the world. Here's our synopsis of major food trends that not only will drive away-from-home dining and snacking decisions, but food purchases for in-home dining, as well. We have organized the trends into five mega-trend categories: health, wellness, sensory/indulgence, authenticity and choice.


For a long time, consumers have claimed they want healthy choices. Today the focus seems to be veering away from low-carb and low-fat crazes to a broader approach to healthy eating. One of these is portion control. This gives people the kinds of foods they like to eat, but in reduced quantities. This broader approach hasn't eliminated the demonizing of certain food ingredients. Today the least wanted of these is trans-fat. One of the sleeper categories is gluten-free products. Three million Americans can't digest gluten. Foods free from other allergens should see an increase, also.

Research by the National Restaurant Association found that nearly three in four adults (72%) say they are trying to eat more healthfully in restaurants than they did two years ago.


Wellness is related to health but encompasses a proactive, rather than a reductive approach. The concept of wellness evolves from the growing idea in Europe and North America that diet has a marked effect on one's health. In other words, you are what you eat. Research by the market research firm Datamonitor shows that three-fourths of U.S. and European consumers believe this. Foods making the "high in..." claims appeal to this wellness attitude, with the biggest winner now being whole grains. Foods containing omega-3 fats, antioxidants and other health-promoting qualities are also becoming very popular.


Tom Vierhile, editor of Productscan Online, describes this mega-trend: "Globalization is driving experimentation and exposure to new tastes and preferences. Consequently, consumers are increasingly choosing bolder foods, different flavors and new sensations. They are also seeking to pamper themselves with upscale luxuries." (See our article Affordable luxury, the new consumer paradigm for more on upscale luxuries.)

This mega-trend is evidenced by the growth in the consumption of seasonings, spices and herbs. USDA import data shows consumption in this area has doubled in the past 20 years. Hot spices associated with exotic cuisines have shown the greatest growth. Cardamom, used extensively in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, has seen its consumption grow 650% from 1983 to 2003.

The chart below shows the growth during just the past two years in the popularity of ethnic cuisines with the American public.

Which of the following cuisines do you currently eat on a regular basis?
[choose all that apply]
  2003 2005
Brazilian 4% 5%
Chinese 53% 55%
Indian 8% 13%
Italian 64% 72%
Japanese 14% 21%
Mexican 60% 62%
Mid-Eastern 9% 14%
Tex-Mex 28% 33%
Thai 14% 23%
Source: Consumer Panel

Americans are growing fond of spicy foods. This trend has spilled over even into fast food. A year ago McDonald's introduced a Chipotle dipping sauce that has been a big hit and is now introducing a spicy chicken sandwich. The demand for spicy food is being driven by the nation's increasing ethnic mix, a more well-traveled public with an increasingly educated palate and diet plans that have dieters cutting back on fat and adding spices for flavor. Lynn Dornblaser, director of Mintel, a research firm that tracks consumer product introductions, says, "The U.S. palate now understands spicy."

What is your favorite spicy food?
Buffalo wings 28%
Salsa 23%
Jalepeño peppers 15%
Pepper Jack cheese 9%
Curry 7%
Firehouse chili 6%
Other 11%
Source: Insight Express survey of 1000 adults in December 2005

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, is fast becoming a superfood, as it both fits the indulgence and the wellness mega-trend categories with its decadence and high antioxidant content. Watch out for chocolate beverages, especially hot gourmet sipping chocolates.


Consumers are looking for authentic ingredients. They are paying closer attention to what actually is in the foods they eat. Mad Cow disease, bird flu and mercury in fish have made people more aware and concerned about where their food comes from. Natural and organic are major aspects of this mega-trend. Organic food sales are rapidly growing. Consumer Reports magazine, in the January 2006 issue, ran a major report on organic foods and strongly recommended that consumers purchase organic fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, eggs and eggs. Organic is going mainstream, with supermarkets and even warehouse clubs like Costco carrying organic selections. The Seattle school district has adopted a new policy encouraging organic food in school cafeterias. Even vending machines are going organic, with schools in Rhode Island, California, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Connecticut installing vending machines stocked with all-organic treats.

A 2005 Whole Foods Market Organic Trend Tracker survey found that 10% of consumers said they consumed organic foods several times a week. In a survey one year earlier, the rate was only 7%. The survey found there were a number of reasons Americans are buying organic foods. The top four reasons are:

  • to avoid pesticides - 70%
  • freshness - 68%
  • health and nutrition - 67%
  • to avoid genetically modified foods - 55%

And 52% of respondents agreed that organic foods and beverages are both "better for my health" and better for the environment.

Fresh fruits and vegetables were the most frequently purchased category of organic foods (73%), followed by non-dairy beverages (32%), bread and baked products (32%) and dairy items (255).

Regional foods are part of the authenticity mega-trend. Consumers are coming to recognize regional foods as more complex and tasty, as well as friendlier to the environment, due to less need for shipping. Consumers want authentic ingredients. Generic Italian no longer works. They want Neopolitan or Tuscan with authentic ingredients.

Accompanying natural ingredients and regional authenticity is small-batch production, or artisan foods. Artisan foods convey a greater appeal than mass produced foods.


Americans want to "have it their way." Whether that means no-trans fats, organic, smaller portion, or hold the mayo and substitute whole wheat for the roll, Americans have been trained to expect a customized food experience, and that is exactly what they are now demanding.

If you think these mega-trends apply only to adults, you are missing how these trends trickle down to youth. Kids are eating healthy. A 2005 survey by The NPD Group found that fresh fruit is the top snack food consumed by both girls and boys between ages 2 and 12. And for both boys and girls ages 2-7, the second top snack food is yogurt, followed in third place by potato chips for boys and gum for girls. For children ages 8-12, the second top snack food is gum for boys and potato chips for girls, and the third choice is potato chips for boys and gum for girls.