BY IAN DOIG • PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK
Farmers take food trends personally. Why are consumers canoodling with exotic foodstuffs such as camu camu and macadamia milk when Canadian farms literally produce acres of the world’s best food and litres of the best drink? And, after all, it’s food with proven, rather than wishfully presumed, miracle health benefits.
Really sticking in the craw, the gluten-free (GF) trend may have lost its frantic edge, but has settled in as a seemingly permanent fixture on restaurant menus and grocery market shelves. So, it was a welcome relief to hear FarmTech 2020 speaker Mairlyn Smith, actress, nutrition expert and author of Peace, Love and Fibre, pitch a sensible, science-backed approach to eating.
“It’s so important to eat grains, and I’m a big fan of barley,” she said. Smith is militantly anti-diet and a critic of Keto, GF and any faddish eating that diminishes fibre intake. Fibre, she said, is the key to health, happiness and successful aging, and she cited the scientific proof. She also cited oats, flax seed and canola oil among the exceptional dietary building blocks grown on Prairie farms.
Admittedly, her Edmonton audience of ag industry professionals was predisposed to accept her grain-friendly message, but it bears constant repeating to a broad audience. While watermelon seed butter may scratch a fleeting itch for novelty, Smith’s whole-grain boosterism speaks to the bedrock level of food trends: healthy eating.
This gives Canadian agriculture plenty of traction with which to sway consumer eating habits. Food trends are largely underpinned by the desire to eat in a healthy way. Globally, the Canadian agricultural brand is synonymous with high quality.
WHAT DRIVES CURRENT FOOD TRENDS?
“What consumers believe and what nutritional scientists believe often are at odds,” said Jo-Ann McArthur, president and chief strategist of Nourish Food Marketing. The Toronto, ON, food and beverage marketing agency serves an international clientele. GrainsWest recently spoke to McArthur and Chris Forrest, VP of public relations and content for agricultural ad agency AdFarm. The Calgary agency serves clients across North America. The two companies have teamed up to produce the Nourish Network Trend Report, which annually identifies consumer food trends.
Defining food trends as cultural forces and shifts rather than fads, the report attempts to analyze the big picture in a way that’s useful to the agriculture and agri-food sectors, said McArthur. “It’s not just about, ‘Hey, charcoal ice cream is going to be a thing this year.’ We try to get above that.”
The gap between consumer opinion and food science reflects the current state of societal trust. In the world of nutrition and lifestyle, there’s a lot of noise, misinformation and celebrity hucksterism à la Gwyneth Paltrow. “We just don’t know who to trust anymore,” said McArthur. The not knowing causes the consumer food trend pendulum to swing from sensible to questionable. Grains may be OK for a time, and then high-fat, high-protein Keto dieting is all the rage followed by slow carbs.
Some of the food trend upheaval noted in previous Nourish reports from 2018 and 2019 is due to generational change as the large and influential millennial cohort starts families. Boomers cooked and baked, but today’s young, two-income families prefer food prep options that take 30-minutes or less. The generation is also driving a delivery boom, treating cooking as a hobby.
These trends are global, affecting the food consumption patterns of our commodity trading partners. As populations become heavier and unhealthier on average, consumers tend to look for silver bullet solutions, said McArthur. The rise of selective eating has seen true omnivores turn to gluten-free, low-carb or plant-based eating. Taking the trend further, personalized eating tailors one’s diet to their DNA profile. McArthur points to Nestlé, one of the world’s largest food companies, which has set up an entire Japanese division to develop such an initiative. Companies around the world are developing personalized meal boxes based on subscribers’ DNA. While the general population may not adopt genetically customized meals, McArthur said consumers may adopt personal dietary plans that include, for example, probiotics and CBD products.
Another trend in its infancy the report identifies is environmental-impact or climatarian eating. Eating based on carbon footprint and a desire to minimize environmental impact has appeal across demographics. “For boomers it’s about personal health, but for Gen Z and millennials, it’s about the health of the planet,” said McArthur. “I can see it coming down the road. Consumers will start to make choices based on that.”
IN FARMERS WE TRUST
As consumers navigate the ebb and flow of these trends, the one reliable beacon of trust they cite is farmers. “That should never be taken for granted,” said Forrest. “It’s a massive opportunity for Canadian agriculture to really step into this next decade as a new golden era of world-class food and crop production.”
More than that, the country itself has a sterling reputation on the global stage. It’s not just farmers who are trusted, but the Canadian agricultural brand, said McArthur. “Globally, it’s seen as the gold standard. There’s huge, huge trust.” It’s a solid one-two punch: Canadian farmers grow premium commodity crops, and healthy eating can deliver long-term results in the way the latest miracle diet can’t. Canadian farmers will have substantial, sustained leverage in shaping and responding to food trends.
Communicators such as and McArthur and Forrest have plenty to work with in crafting this response. “We see a really amazing story to tell here,” said Forrest. It’s one of rising technology hubs working to advance every aspect of food production. It’s about farmer adoption of field practices that benefit soil, water and air as well as precision technologies that enable targeted weed and pest control.
“All of this world-leading work has been done by farmers and their commodity associations on the sustainability and environmental side,” said Forrest. “It’s now our job to ensure our message resonates with consumers in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to their daily lives. As a mom or dad who wants to provide affordable, healthy and ethically sourced food for their family, there’s a really great story there to tell.”