Research Chefs Association is the leading professional community for food research and development. Its members are the pioneers of the discipline of Culinology – the blending of culinary arts and the science of food. I recently attended their conference on the Future of Food, where I held a speech about Generation Z and their attitudes toward food.
There’s a special place in my heart reserved for the food industry. Not because I believe there is anything saintly with this industry, nor because I’m particularly interested in cooking or eating, but because I believe food is at the center of almost everything that is interesting about the future.
Everybody eats. Food entangles every aspect of what we in foresight call STEEP categories. Food is emotions. The early memories of a mother’s love. Or punishment when you’re forced to eat something you don’t like. Food is the glue of celebrations, social gatherings, traditions and holidays. Food represents cultural pride and cross-cultural diplomacy. Food evokes our passion for animal welfare, for health and for the environment. It’s the consternation of imperfect body images. Food is how we display our social tastes and our biological resolve. Or alternatively, our poverty and nutritional misfortune. Food is the manifestation of both gluttony and starvation, and reminds us how unfairly the world’s bounty is distributed. Food is the cause of love and food is the cause of war.
So how will Generation Z shape the food industry? And how is food shaping generation Z?
According to Jennifer Zegler, a consumer trends analyst with Mintel, 62% of adults who have eaten ethnic food say they are confident in their ability to prepare ethnic and international food and some 66% of ethnic food eaters who are parents say their children enjoy eating ethnic or international food. Not only is the U.S. population becoming more multiethnic. Eating “outside” of ones ethnic tradition has almost become a norm. We have come a long way since Italian pizzas or Chinese take-out were exotic peculiarities. Children who grow up in families where ethnic variety as a part of the nutritional landscape will not balk at sushi dinners or hummus snacks. It’s just the new “meat-and-potatoes”.
A white paper from 2012 from flavor researchers at FONA International lists natural foods as the most important trend when it comes to children and food. Natural foods are different from foods that have been “enriched” with nutrients or which have certain properties due to genetic modification. What is natural to food scientists and what consumers perceive as natural can differ significantly. FONA claims that natural foods are understood by consumers to have intrinsic healthful qualities like fruits, vegetables and nuts don’t need health claims because consumers already view them as nutritious. This means no high-fructose corn syrup and no or only natural food dyes. And no GMO.
Obesity Declining – at Least in the West
Globally the number of obese people has doubled since 1980, and there are signs that the very obese (and poor) are getting fatter. But there is good news as well. For the past 10 years several countries in the West have seen a leveling off, and even decline in the number of overweight people. The decline is most pronounced in the youngest cohort, a fact which is particularly encouraging since nutritional habits are formed in the early years.
During my time as a “food futurist” I made the forecast that junk foods would become the ‘new tobacco’. Today, younger generations in developed countries are far less interested in tobacco products than generations past were. Likewise, with stronger focus on health, Mc Donald’s is quickly taking over the villain throne that used to belong to the Marlboro Man. When more people kick the junk food habits were are destined to see positive results in people’s health. Except for one serious side effect…
Eating Disorders Increasing
Sometimes it may seem as if nutritional health shifts are not brought on as much by reason and moderation as they are by a media hype with an almost fetish-like obsession with various types of food and diet fads. The sudden awareness of food intolerance, obsessions with macrobiotic diets, paleo diets, ancient grains and other nutritional peculiarities is greater than ever. This obsession affects how people express their individuality through food, even in the extreme forms of orthorexia. In fact all types of eating disorders are up, with a whooping 119% increase between 1998 and 2006. This is a serious problems as eating disorder is our mental illness with the highest mortality.
But this unfortunate development should not be blamed on efforts at improving health and nutritional awareness among children. A constant media stream depicting underweight models combined with the deep wells of online pro-ana and pro-mia communities are more likely causes. The last few years have fostered a more curvy female body-ideal, but back in fashion is also the corset and a potentially dangerous new (or old, even presumed extinct!) celebrity trend called “waist-training”.
With a 24/7 unedited news cycle, whistleblowers and a growing sense that our planet is on the verge of collapse, younger consumers make decisions on the whole food cycle, not just flavor and texture. Vegetarianism, locovorism and other ethical considerations are influencing Millennials and post-millennials’ dining experiences, and even those of parents given their childrens’ influence on family decisions. The whole supply chain matters. Food producers must account for the sustainability and ethical considerations of the food they grow and what they are doing to relieve world hunger. If you don’t have a clear answer, be ready for people under 35 to dump you! And greenwashing doesn’t work. Generation Z have strong BS-radars and will judge you on your genuine approaches. The good thing is that they are very forgiving of failure. So if you failed and lost them, you can most likely win them back again if you do right. Which is why McDonald’s still might have a chance if they play their cards right.
Little Food Snobs or Emerging Normovores?
Let’s for a minute take a look at other lifestyle trends. When millennials grew up they were constantly told that they are special. And a good type of special. This led many in this generation to exaggerate their uniqueness. We see it in their body adornments and tattoos, hipster styles and quirks handpicked to exude eccentricity in social settings. As with all social trends, there are backlashes, especially from folks who believe this type of “uniqueness” comes across as contrived and superficial. Out of this contention transpires a counter trend, one which conspicuously sports esthetic blandness – or normcore. The message with this “back to normal” trend is as clear as it is understated – that truly interesting people don’t need the extra ‘oomph’ for social credit.
What if there is a similar shift in food trends? At SXSW this year, celebrity chef Dave Chang talked about ‘Normovore’ to illustrate the consumers who are tired of expressing social superiority by conspicuously consuming organic chia seeds or matcha-infused 95% dark vegan chocolate or whatever else is the latest food fad. Instead we might see a growing number of kids who yearn for ‘soul food’, grandma’s signature dish and savory stews. And who brags about it too!
So what is the future of food?
Besides in-vitro meats, vertical farming and popup restaurants, you mean? I think we will see a generation that continues to widen the horizon of what is considered edible. One who consumes sushi and ale from bitter hops whenever they want to, not as a contrived way to one-up their peers, but because they feel like it. They will judge the quality of food just as much by how it was raised as how good it tastes. They are multicultural enough to see that questions of morality can be subjective, yet they will hold some values sacred. And oh, give them food trucks and low-key restaurants with experimental recipes, excellent food quality and good atmosphere. Because to Generation Z, the future of culinary art is just as likely to be conceived in a trailer as in a multi-million dollar food lab.