GR-MR-2-Hershey Food Trends2by Bill and Mary Weaver
“Studying the new food trends is fun,” said Penn State Extension Educator Heather Mikulas at the recent Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference. “Big food conglomerates invest a lot of money in research, and fortunately, a lot of their findings can be applied to small producers as well.”
In fact, manufacturers are looking to local innovators for new food trends. “For the first time,” continued Mikulas, “the big guys are looking to you, in this audience for innovation!”
The restaurant industry in particular is invested in halting the loss of small farms, and is increasingly anxious to have locally grown menu items. Local is not only here to stay, according to Tom Ford, commercial horticulture advisor in Cambria County, speaking at the same convention on some of the same trends, “With many consumers, if it’s local, it’s better. There is a widespread distrust of the larger, global food system.”
In 2014, produce is hot. “Veggies are king, particularly locally grown produce, both in and out of season. This transects all other trends,” Mikulas continued. “More growers are selling their own fruits and vegetables out of season by working with a co-packer to can them or make them into jams and jellies under their own farm brand.
“Working with a co-packer extends your season and your market, and many customers prefer the brands of local growers over national brands because the local growers are a known quantity. ‘I want to know where my food comes from,’ is a frequently voiced sentiment.”
Health Halo
Another trend for 2014 is that some fruits and vegetables are perceived as having a “health halo” with consumers, who believe they’re high in antioxidants. “It’s a little perilous trying to capitalize on this trend,” commented Ford, “because a lot of claims are made, and they’re not always well-founded.
“But as a rule, dark blue and black-colored fruit, like black currents, elderberries and blueberries are generally high in antioxidants. The USDA has even come out with a black blueberry!”
Some vegetables can actually be given nutritional labels, such as the “Gold Standard” cucumber, which is said to have five times the beta carotene of ordinary cucumbers.
Gluten Free
Many folks are seeking to avoid gluten in pasta and breads — not only people who are genuinely gluten intolerant. Farm markets can capitalize on this trend. “If you have some gluten-free alternative flours, and use your certified kitchen, you can make pasta using them to sell at your market. This may work out very well for you,” Ford pointed out.
Some gluten-free flours that may appeal to your customers include lentil, chickpea, flax seed, almonds, amaranth, buckwheat, chia, chestnut, corn, quinoa and millet. If you have a certified kitchen, it may be worth your while to do some experimenting. Some of these,  may be higher in minerals and vitamins than more commonly used grains, so their nutritional value may be a selling point. The customer base that is close to the upper middle class is the most likely group to be attracted to these, added Mikulas.
My Farmer
Another trend that’s important in 2014 is that people are increasingly anxious to buy their veggies from a local grower where there is transparency, both in origin and production methods. They would like someone they can trust to think of as “my farmer.”
“People also want convenience,” Mikulas continued. “Can you package a stir-fry mix? Can you provide recipes for those families who are doing more cooking at home in more innovative ways? Can you provide some pre-cut items? If you can find special ways to appeal to this group, you may be able to change your price structure.”
Reducing Waste
Reducing food waste is becoming increasingly important in 2014. “Root to stalk” cooking appeals to younger buyers, who want to use the beet tops as well as the beets, and the garlic scapes, stalk, and even the garlic roots, which some innovative growers wash and sell as “angel hair garlic,” according to Ford.
Fruit and vegetable seconds, which otherwise would have been dumped, are being pulled in by co-packers, who are actively looking for new sources, and are doing private labeling wherever possible.
“The processors make your seconds useful, and keep them out of the waste stream.” In line with this “no waste” policy, growers and restaurants who compost are viewed favorably by customers; restaurants are serving smaller portions and, according to Mikulas, there are even apps you can get to help you find folks who can use your leftovers so they don’t go to waste!
Emphasis on Holistic Health
A lot of people are trending to what might seem like the more extreme diets, such as “Paleo”— essentially the cave man diet, eating lots of meat and very low carbs; the raw foods diet, which frequently uses nuts as a protein source; or the Fermented or Probiotic diets, where the foods are believed to be doing something special for your body.
“Most people on special diets are looking for more whole grains, whole vegetables and whole fruits.
Flavor Trends
In flavor trends, “Bold is old!” pointed out Mikulas. “Everybody expects jalapenos. Instead, make available to your customers the more subtle flavors of ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, chervil, roasted tomatoes and garlic and dried peppers.
Your customers will be looking for sweets with a focus on health, such as agave, fruits, honey, stevia, maple sugar and monk fruit, which can’t be grown here, but is becoming a sought-after sweetener.
Home Cooking
“More millennials are cooking at home for families with children,” Mikulas pointed out. Here are some things they’ll be looking for: “back to basic” foods; simple, nostalgic foods; and healthier versions of familiar recipes.
Supper clubs are becoming a popular form of home cooking. “They’re kind of a version of pot luck, where someone contacts other members and says, ‘Let’s do Thai next Thursday,’ and everyone cooks a Thai dish and brings it to share with the rest.”
More customers will be looking for plant-based protein. For those who eat meat, it is becoming increasingly important to many that the meat is humanely and sustainably produced. “Grass fed”, “cage- free”, and “local” are things people are focusing on. These qualities can be communicated through signs, through chefs you may sell to and by the local press.
Ethnic Cuisine
Trends include Peruvian, southeast Asian, regional ethnic (such as shrimp and crayfish), Malaysian and Midwestern cuisine. Quince paste is typically used with Marengo cheese in Spain. Piri Piri sauce is used in Portuguese and African cooking, and is made with hot peppers. Anything pickled is “in” added Ford, particularly when it is pickled in-house, fresh, that day.
Put Your Consumer Hat On
“With your consumer hat on,” advised Mikulas, “think about how people are making food choices, and aim to supply them as much as you can with what they are likely to want and need for the way they would like to eat.”