How does a food become a trend and see the light of a grocery store shelf?
It takes a certain type of analysis to extract the music from the noise and identify a bonafide food trend.
On the night of the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton supporters gathered under the sprawling glass ceiling of the 1.8 million-square-foot Jacob K Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. As the day, once filled with promise, unfurled into a sombre evening, the only humour that remained was a handful of puns about how the building’s larger-than-life glass ceiling had managed to remain unbroken.
Seven months later, I am meeting Elly Truesdell in the same colossal glass box to attend The Fancy Food Show. The stakes are admittedly lower, but inside the convention centre, over 1,400 specialty food exhibitors are trying to introduce their products into the commercial market.
Truesdell, who serves as Senior Global Coordinator of Local Brands, Product Innovation and Development at Wholefoods Market, decides which new products will be sold at Wholefoods.
This gives her the unique power to make or break a new food’s success. As we walk through the endless aisles of vendors, many rush up to her to offer samples of what they swear is going to be “the next kale”.
We try probiotic fermented coffee beans that look like shriveled up milk chocolate chips; herbal wood ear mushroom juice with slimy chunks of mushrooms that promise to stimulate collagen production; and Seed + Mill tahini made from roasted Ethiopian sesame seeds that is so intensely sweet and nutty it begs to be eaten straight out of the jar like Nutella.
One man, who represents a beef jerky company that Whole Foods doesn’t sell, shrugs as we walk by.
“Unfortunately, as a buyer, you can only work with so many beef jerky brands, or so many coconut water companies,” Truesdell explains.
“What I’m looking for now are things that are completely new to market —foods that can appeal to consumers but haven’t necessarily been seen before.”
This is surprisingly hard to find. From cheesecake made of cashew cream and lactose-free pea protein milk, new edible products are introduced almost daily. But it takes a certain type of analysis to extract the music from the noise and identify a bonafide food trend.
One of the best ways to do this is to look for products that fit into current health and flavour concerns.
Kimchi, the bright red Korean pickled cabbage dish whose North American popularity exploded in 2016, is a great example.
Trend forecasters knew that kimchi would be a hit because the tangy, fermented cabbage is gluten-free, low-carb and can easily be made vegan.
The fermentation technique used to make kimchi also appealed to the equally popular local food movement, which had identified pickling and fermentation as a means to preserving seasonal produce to use throughout the year.
This fermentation process, which turns crisp cabbage into wilted, salty strands of kimchi, also allowed for the growth of probiotics, otherwise known as the “good” bacteria that occurs naturally in fermented foods.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as the health enhancing properties of probiotics were already on most people’s radar after yogurt giant Activia helped push their health benefits into the mainstream.
This is why, on the day of our meeting, Truesdell is particularly excited about an ultra-creamy dairy-free yogurt made from nuts and plantains.
The probiotic, vegan, paleo and gluten-free yogurt made by yogurt company Lavva checks an array of pre-existing trend boxes. It’s also prebiotic, an increasingly popular non-digestible fibre, the star of which is quickly rising in the nutrition world.
But it’s not all a perfect marriage between nutrition, flavour and sustainability. Many believe that in order for a food to become trendy today, it must also work well on Instagram.
The photo-sharing platform has made eating an incredibly visual activity, and foods that are aesthetically pleasing enough to qualify as being “Instagrammable” benefit from a massive boost in publicity.
However, where Instagram succeeds in giving new foods exposure, it fails in ensuring this exposure has any lasting effect.
Many popular photogenic edibles like charcoal ice cream, rainbow bagels and meticulously arranged smoothie bowls are like stamps in a stamp collection. They forgo flavour for aesthetics, and Instagram-inclined foodies only require a single picture of each dish before they have no need to eat it again.
This means that foods created in an Instagram-vacuum often fizzle out in popularity after a few months, shortly after everyone has finished collecting their picture and moved on to the next big thing…..