There is no question 2020 was a challenging year for the food industry. Safety concerns, staffing and supply chain issues and altered logistics stressed every link in the supply chain. As they reacted, companies put their core values to the test, often becoming stronger and more resilient in the process.
As we enter 2021, we are eager to see how the industry evolves and innovates to meet the growing demand for affordable and nutritious food.
Here are some popular 2021 food predictions–and our take on each of them:
Sustainability, regeneration and climate-friendly menus on the rise
We saw climate-smart diets gaining popularity in 2020, with Just Salad and Panera among the players who incorporated these attributes into their menus. Among Kroger’s 2021 predictions, the company noted:
“In the coming year, consumers will find a growing selection of eco-friendly products that reduce their carbon footprint including plant-based and plant-blended meats, sustainably packaged and more”.
Our Take: The Next ‘Organic’
Eco-friendly products, while increasingly popular, are unlikely to have a large scale impact anytime soon. Nevertheless, they raise awareness and give consumers a chance to show advocacy through their purchases. If eco-friendly products gain salience in the consumers’ minds (becoming like “organic” for instance), then a bigger impact is possible. Regenerative agriculture will continue to gain popularity across the value chain. Companies’ awareness on the role of soil to capture carbon and mitigate climate change will increase, as will smart solutions to accelerate this journey. The Circular Economy movement will also continue to gain momentum in 2021 with companies exploring solutions to move beyond the traditional take-make-waste model through the use of upcycled ingredients and reusable packaging, among others.
Flurry of retail and restaurant acquisitions and bankruptcies
2020 pushed many companies to redefine their business models. Some jumped into strategic acquisitions to serve niche markets, while others couldn’t stay afloat. Grocery e-commerce firm Mercatus predicts that as Amazon gains territory in the retail space, competitors will also start to consolidate and expand their footprint. QSR Magazine predicts the level of debt currently carried by many restaurants will force many into M&A deals of bankruptcies in the next year.
Our Take: Diversification and experimentation with offerings will continue.
We saw a wave of innovation this past year from retail and restaurants rapidly adjusting to the hurdles brought by the pandemic, and we will continue to see them expand into new segments. Retailers will continue to diversify and shift offerings to be more experiential, blurring the line between food retail and foodservice. How consumer buying patterns will resume after the vaccines remains to be seen, but there is no question that retail and foodservice will blend even more in 2021.
CRISPR and gene editing move from lab to table
Jennifer Kuzma, a professor at North Carolina State University and co-director of its Genetic Engineering and Society Center says:
“Consumers will see food with a lot of different traits, such as fresher and tastier, although they will not necessarily know they are gene edited. I do think now we’re going to see gene editing and CRISPR-based crops enter the market in 2021.”
Our Take: Small wins
Gene-editing technology CRISPR was identified by the Attention FWD team as one of the key Forces of Change shaping our future. Given the controversy the food industry has seen with genetically modified products, the road for consumer acceptance of gene-editing technology in food production will be long and will likely experience backlash. Nonetheless, gene-editing technology will see small wins in 2021.
Automation is the new normal
Forbes predicts that self-driving vehicles will take a leap forward in the coming year.
“As more states allow for legislation to enable the use of autonomous tech, personal delivery robots and other self-driving vehicles will gain more regulatory wins. The coming regulatory changes will mean more robots doing more deliveries across the United States, testing society’s acceptance, validating business models and being embedded into people’s daily lives.”
Our Take: You won’t notice
Accelerated by the COVID crisis and growing health and safety concerns, innovation in automation will continue to climb to the top of the priority list for many companies. While this will be a critical year for self-driving technology, you may not notice because the first advances will be in business-to-business trucking. 2022 will likely be the year when driverless home delivery and taxi services will become widespread.
Blockchain and tech-enabled transparency skyrockets
The COVID pandemic has heightened consumer concerns over food sourcing and handling.
“Innova Market Insights said that transparency throughout the supply chain will dominate as the top trend of the year, with six in 10 consumers interested in knowing more about their foods’ origin. The firm said that can be achieved with new packaging technologies such as invisible barcodes.”
Our Take: Blockchain will provide evidence for corporate storytelling
True, consumer awareness and expectations of transparency will continue to increase and spark a flurry of smart solutions featuring blockchain technology to strengthen ingredient and product traceability. However, we doubt that many consumers will actively engage with blockchain technology. (Do you really want to scan a barcode to learn what boat caught your tuna fish?) Companies are more likely to engage consumers by telling compelling stories about their workers and raw materials across the supply chain. But those stories have to be authentic, and blockchain technology will serve as the lie detector test.
Companies and consumers climb aboard the health and immunity bandwagon
After a year of stress and anxiety, consumers have developed a heightened concern over their wellness and safety. This will further fuel the food-as-medicine trend. Food Dive predicts a skyrocketing demand for functional foods and beverages in 2021.
Our Take: Accelerated growth in food brands that provide immunity boosters
The functional food and beverage trend is indeed accelerating. New research into the connection between food and the immune system is driving growth. We believe the winners in these markets won’t be the supplement makers but those who create food brands with added functional properties. Furthermore, cannabis edibles will continue to move into the mainstream and be offered in a variety of food beverage and products, with federal legalization well within reach in the next two years.
Connecting the gut microbiome to wellness and mental health
Recent studies suggest a connection between the trillions of organisms living in our gut microbiome and our overall health.
“Products targeting the microbiome have been shown to help address specific metabolic conditions and issues such as weight management, immune system support and better emotional well-being. This provides fertile ground for food and beverage innovation with functional solutions like prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics that support microbiome function.”
Our Take: We’re at the tip of the iceberg in gut microbiome research
Because the first wave of articles about the microbiome has already crested, this may seem like last year’s fad. But the truth is that the research of our gut microbiome is still in early days. The understanding of how neurotransmitters like serotonin, epinephrine and dopamine are affected by the “gut brain axis” is just beginning to become clear. Studies thus far make compelling connections between gut microbiome and overall health. This is simultaneously an evolving science and consumer space and will certainly be a driving force this year.