10 Food Trends That Will Shape 2018

(AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The year 2017 goes down in history as the most important ever in grocery. The food world around us is changing at incredible speed, and the industry must evolve. Grocery, now “cool,” is an industry that is attracting talent from the best schools and companies who would not even have thought about a career in grocery or food a few years ago (let alone raising millions for their own food startups).

Grocery retailers like Hy-Vee have created a new environment, both physically and intellectually, that these thought leaders of tomorrow want to be a part of. Consumer packaged goods companies are creating incubators that attract startups to help these brands understand how to become relevant to a new kind of consumer and offer them looks at innovations that they have never dreamed about.

It’s a new food world. Over the past 20 months, we have seen 17 CEOs of big food companies step down (some voluntarily, others not so) and open the doors for fresh-thinking executives. The new retail model must be built around the consumer, with the foundation that someone else thought through the way people want to acquire foods, and create an environment that empowers consumers and makes their lives easier, healthier and more enjoyable — whether it be in brick-and-mortar or online (and hopefully both).

These are very poignant times in the food world.

Our top 10 2018 trends are interwoven, like a Mesopotamian mosaic, which is the way the food world should be built.

Trend #1: Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is one of the most over-used terms these days, having quickly become the mantra for many brands’ marketing. But do they really understand what it means?

Jon Kabat-Zinn is credited as the father of “mindfulness,” after he created an eight-week course at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979 to treat patients with cancers and chronic pain. His premise was simple: a treatment based on Buddhist meditation designed to soothe neural networks. It worked. Meditation is all about a concentrated focus in order to increase awareness.

Now, we come to the new 2018 food world definition of mindfulness, which I will describe as simply “the quality or state of being conscious or aware” — not quite as lofty as Kabat-Zinn’s objective but a huge step forward for the food industry and for consumers. Mindfulness reflects a new consumer attitude, mostly led by millennials, to truly understand everything possible about a particular food or beverage and then support the company, whether it be a brand or a retailer, by aligning with its values and supporting it with purchases.

Innova Market Insights named “mindfulness” its #1 trend for 2018, illustrating how that body-mind connection is influencing new food and beverage product introductions in the supermarket. Seven of 10 U.S. and U.K. consumers want to know and understand an ingredient list. Food and beverage brand introductions that feature ethical claims on their packages have increased seven-fold since 2010, and these human, environmental and animal ethical claims continue to grow in popularity.

Retailers like CVS are executing on point with in-store executions like “snacks that give back” and the hospitality business is promoting “vegetarian vacations” built not only on the foods it serves but also on detailing how its facilities and practices align with the holistic values of a vegetarian consumer. On Monday, a McDonald’s in Bethesda, Maryland, became the chain’s first location to become “a certified green restaurant.”

Major brands like Honda and Subaru run ad campaigns designed to help others and new startups like FoodMaven, which attracted Walter Robb, ex-CEO of Whole Foods, as an active investor. The company is working to recapture the food that is lost in the system and then sell it to foodservice at a huge discount, to prevent waste.

One of the most critical areas where we are witnessing the mindfulness movement is in how we approach food. Movies, documentaries and books have shifted away from scaring us to inspiring us to make changes. Movies like “Okja,” in which a Korean farm girl raises a giant pig, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary “Before the Flood” are great examples that motivate us to understand GMOs and climate change in new ways, reaching deep into both our intellect and our hearts. The recent documentary “Wasted” finally brings real people and emotion to that overplayed and ignored statistic that 40% of all food is being wasted.

The new leaders of food are driven by a new set of corporate values: social conscience, health and wellness, enhanced nutrition and life hacking … and yes, they do want to make money. Big money.

Trend #2: Tactile 

If I had to point to one trend that I believe will have the biggest impact on our industry, it is tactile — the sense of touch. There is probably no profession more tactile than being a chef. Multi-sensory is the new secret weapon for food in products, their packaging and in-store.

The typewriter is back, in the documentary “California Typewriter” and Tom Hanks’ book “Uncommon Type.” San Francisco airport has a huge display of antique typewriters, some well over a century old, that produced best-selling novels, famous screenplays and even Beatles songs. Now, we can buy a $249 metal typewriter keyboard that connects to an iPad. It’s all about being involved. Feeling and hearing the connection is more important in food than ever. We have witnessed a more intellectual connection to our foods, and now it gets physical. There has been a food information “overload,” and now we need grounding.

Over the past year or so, we saw the first step in visuals, including unicorn-colored foods and black foods. Now the connection moves deeper.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR, has created a new food media world, where acoustic sounds like slurping, chewing, whispering and the crinkling of packaging trigger a euphoria, a tingling down the back of our necks.

Not convinced? YouTube stars like ASMRDarling, HungryCakes, ASMRTheChew and GIBIASMR have tens of millions of followers, and some of their videos have more than six million views. They have become the next food superstars, leading viewers into another dimension to feel and hear food.

In Shanghai, Aldi, which in China sells only through Alibaba, presented a food fashion show, where attendees ate on the sides of the runway and models paraded real food fashions.

Poke bowl restaurants — like PokeKing, PokeBowl, PokeWorks, Ocean Poke, Hokey Poke, Bravo Poke, Wisefish Poke and Poke — are popping up everywhere, offering a variety of colors and textures and challenging fast food and quick service restaurant formats.

3D printing will create more tactile food experiences and become a more efficient and less wasteful food production method.

Trend #3: Farming

It all starts with agriculture — where our food comes from. And that is about to change dramatically. By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.6 billion, with 65% of us living in urban areas. Our land, water, soil and environment are all under siege, and the USDA says that climate change is going to create challenges for us all.

This is a more direct farm-to-consumer connection as communities strive to get closer to nature. More consumers are opting for a plant-based diet. The FreshFoodNY app is a virtual farmers’ market where New Yorkers can purchase local food directly from farmers, fishermen and artisans. There is a new breed of younger farmers entering the fields; the USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture reports that the number of farmers under 35 is increasing, only the second time that’s happened since 1900. Of these new farmers, 69% have college degrees, far higher than the 40% incidence in the general population. Younger, smarter farmers will bring us into a new era of agriculture.

Innova shows there has been a huge rise in plant-based everything; last year’s trends list shared the opportunities for meatless burgers like the ones from Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Impossible Foods’ burgers are now sold in chains including Umami Burger and Bare Burger. Beyond Meat’s offerings are in the meat cases at Kroger, Albertsons, Shaw’s, Wegmans, Safeway and Ahold stores.

Vertical indoor farming is more efficient bringing more farms closer to where people live, reducing expense and environmental impact. In Linkoping, Sweden, a multi-use building will open in 2020 with 16 stories of farms and offices, at a 3:1 ratio, with a retail store and wholesale operation. This vertical farm building will save 1,100 tons of CO2 emissions and 13 million gallons of water. These vertical farms offer so many benefits, it’s impossible to ignore this as the farming of the future. A 30-story farm, for example, uses 26 million kilowatts of power — but generates 56 million kilowatts, through solar energy and biogas digesters, that can be sold to others. One farm acre indoors produces the same yield as four to six acres outdoors.

Bill Gates has bought 25,000 acres to develop a new “smart city” from the ground up, which I hope could be a new model for a food community – it’s the perfect platform for vertical farming, drone and autonomous-vehicle deliveries of groceries, and who knows what else?

Trends #4 & #5: NeuroNutrition and BioHacking

The unfortunate reality is that the foods we eat are the No. 1 cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S. Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health just reported that by the time today’s kids are 35, half will be obese. It is time to get our priorities straight. About 10% of the world’s population is on some kind of “exclusion diet,” having to avoid certain foods because of a specific ailment or allergy. Take into account “excluding foods” for preferences, and that number is reported to be well over 50% of the population. Even worse is the new report from the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, which ranked the U.S. 21st out of 34 countries in its Food Sustainability Index because of our inability to fight nutritional challenges. The U.S. consumer is smarter about food choices than ever, but we still have a long way to go.

NeuroNutrition looks at how our foods affect our brains, and BioHacking breaks all the rules to create a science for more individualized nutrition and products. The food and brain connection is important — from growing foods to cooking to how we eat to the nutrients themselves.

In 2018, look for EPA and DHA omega-3s to explode and become pervasive ingredients in all food and beverage products, for all consumers, from infants to seniors.

Innova has tracked a 36% increase in global product launches with brain claims over the past five years, especially in sports nutrition and cereals.

Chefs at London’s Squirrel Restaurant combine great taste with great nutrition, with on-staff nutritionists who help their patrons choose the foods that are best for their gut health, immunity, cholesterol, inflammation, fatigue and even depression.

Better-for-you claims, according to Innova, now appear on almost half of all products globally.

There are “engay” foods — products like salmon that are chopped and formed and reformed to take shapes designed specifically to help seniors avoid choking — and Dulse is a new strain of seaweed that has three times the nutritional value of kale and tastes like … bacon, of course! Ahimi Nigiri, a vegan sushi made from tomatoes, is being sold at Whole Foods.

The most exciting development may well be based on our DNA and determine what foods we need to achieve that “fountain of youth” that Ponce de Léon once promised us all. It’s not in Florida but in every supermarket.

Back in 2005, Hy-Vee, Byerly’s and supermarkets sold Cellf, a DNA kit to help manage the risks of heart disease or diabetes, among other diseases. Consumers were not ready.

Now we are. Neil Grimmer, a co-founder of Plum Organics, is one of the leaders in this emerging space, based on his personal experience in gaining weight and seeing his health diminish; he serves as CEO of the new DNA kit and nutritional foods startup Habit. Other companies like Fitnessgenes, WellnessFX, Cyrex Labs, EverylyWell and Geno Palate are all trying to make DNA food discovery a new path to nutrition.

Trend #6: Technofoodology

Technofoodology and Artificial Intelligence are the best things to ever happen to a grocery store. Alexa, Google Home, Sonos and other home-based assistants are ushering in a new way to buy our foods. We can easily replenish our foods by asking Alexa to reorder from Amazon. And just last week, one of the nation’s leading c-stores, Sheetz, announced that its “made to order foods” from all 564 stores can be ordered on Alexa.

By 2020, there will be 55 million smart devices in our homes, making that the biggest supermarket chain on the planet.

What this clearly shows is that the relationship between “the internet of things” and food is here. In our homes, smart refrigerators and cupboards will take over the automatic replenishment of those branded products that we can’t live without. The branded paper towels, condiments and other products we never want to run out of — those branded staples we love — will be automatically replenished. That leaves the supermarket with the “exciting” foodsto focus on — the fresh foods, the artisan foods, the prepared foods — and will allow the stores to become exceptional.

Trend #7: Advertising

David Ogilvy wrote: “The creative process requires more than reason. Most original thinking isn’t even verbal. It requires ‘a groping experimentation with ideas, governed by intuitive hunches and inspired by the unconscious.’ The majority of businessmen are incapable of original thinking because they are unable to escape from the tyranny of reason. Their imaginations are blocked.”

Advertising should inform and get people to buy, no question. When it comes to our foods, it also needs to tell the truth, especially about nutrition.

Today, people want a connection with the foods they eat; they want to know where foods come from. And if we can use advertising to empower them to eat healthier, we have achieved success. Cookie Monster of “Sesame Street” fame isn’t filling himself with cookies any longer; he has a new cooking show, and he and his sidekick Gonger embark on journeys in their food truck to source the ingredients — an Anthony Bourdain for kids, if you will, in a food segment that offers great promise in teaching our kids where our foods come from.

The ad rules have changed since Ogilvy and Della Femina’s halcyon days. We now have iPhones and social media instead of magazines and TV ads. But most CPG and retail brands are not taking full advantage of today’s media. Only 27% of brands engaged in storytelling last year, and they are mostly ignoring Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube. The reality is that three times the number of people trust word of mouth as trust online ads.

And then there is the science behind the advertising. Ghrelin is the hunger hormone. It tells us when we are hungry. In the 2011 study “Mind Over Milkshakes,” researchers found that when people thought they were drinking shakes high in calories, their ghrelin level dropped three times as much as when they thought they were drinking a shake that had zero fat and no added sugars and was low in calories. Another study found that when people ate food that was the same but was labeled differently — one was labeled “snack,” and the other was labeled “meal,” despite being the same size — the people who had the snack version ate 50% more.

It’s obviously not only what we eat; it is how we communicate our food messages, especially when it comes to nutrition issues that make the difference. What we believe has an impact on what and how much we consume.

Trend #8: Security

How safe do you feel these days? Personal security will be top of mind in 2018; we haven’t seen this state of anxiety since 9/11. The American Psychological Association’s 10th Annual Survey finds that over one-third of Americans feel nervous or anxious, and a similar amount feel anger or irritability. And we seem to be nervous about a lot. Retailers in particular should add visible security in-store and in parking areas. People will be avoiding large groups and events, so retailers will bring events in-store, hosting smaller ones and more often.

One-quarter of women and 18% of men are coping with their stress by eating more. The good news is that over half say they are exercising more. But the eating trend is affecting America’s health and well-being and underscores the need for in-store dietitians to help shoppers with good nutrition and other well-being services. Chains like ShopRite and others offer exercise classes. Retail dietitians are offering meditation and yoga classes. All of which are helping shoppers cope — and at the same time, building a strong relationship that goes far beyond the price of a can of peas.

Amazon and Walmart/Jet are testing in-home deliveries, which in my opinion just won’t work for a bunch of reasons, in particular personal security. Home Grocer and WebVan experimented years ago with placing delivery units in people’s garages, and that didn’t work; why do we now feel that allowing strangers direct access to our homes to put milk in our fridge will? The idea that unlocking a door triggers a video monitor on your phone, while maybe a nice feature that emotes security, also opens the system to hackers. And then there is the whole issue that once the Amazon Key is connected to your door, you are 100% Amazon for life.

The one benefit to all this anxiety? Over half of Americans say that because of the state of the country, they are volunteering and supporting causes that are close to their hearts, which underscores the opportunity for retailers and brands to do the same and align with their current and potential customers’ values.

Trend #9: Politics And Food

This is not about political parties; it is an overview of where we are today and what is coming. The USDA is one of the most powerful and largest government agencies and has not yet been fully staffed. Food Policy Action has created a scorecard that clearly depicts that food has now become a bipartisan issue as many existing regulations are being dismantled. To date there have only been six bills voted on to score, and all the votes have been along strict party lines.

Among the most troubling political moves to food businesses has been the country’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. “We Are Still In” is a commitment heavily supported by food, farmers and ranchers, and CSAs in particular, but only a few retailers have signed on to continue the tenets of the agreement.

There are two important focused efforts that will impact our food world in 2018. The first is the San Francisco ordinance that requires retailers to report antibiotic use by meat and poultry suppliers. Mill Valley, just across the Golden Gate, was where the ban on trans fats first started, and this ordinance could also expand across the country.

The second is the Farm Bill that will set in place eating and farming policy for a five-year period. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) has put together a terrific review of his position and the issues at hand. “The Fight for Food”is well worth the read as we gear up for what I believe will be the most controversial debates on the Farm Bill we have witnessed in our lifetimes.

Trend #10: Future Supermarkets 

Our final insight focuses on what the supermarket itself may look like in 2018 and beyond. It’s been a game-changing year for our industry and has set the foundation in place for an entirely new way to look at supermarkets

In 1989, I sat down with Herbert Hofer, a European artist, and shared my vision for what I hoped the supermarket in the year 2000 would be. No aisles, no gondolas, lots of fresh foods, lots of excitement, no check stands, products grouped by meal occasions — the top line was a food experience second to none. We haven’t gotten there yet, but the stores that are being built today are closer to this vision than ever.

Its time we rethink the four-walled structure, much the way Apple has done for its new headquarters. The grocery industry should wake up each morning thinking about how we can make the shopping experience better. UNATA reports that 68% of those who shop online are likely to switch retailers for a better online experience. Actually one in three shoppers switch for personalized offers based on history.

Eataly World opened Nov. 15 in Bologna, Italy, with a million square feet of everything food: 40 farming factories, 40 restaurants, six educational rides — a Disneyland for foodies if you will. They predict 10 million visitors a year (Disney World attracts just under 20 million). This is a blueprint for ideas we should be incorporating in our stores. Taste, education, excitement and empowerment — four things every supermarket should stand for.

Also in Italy, in Milan, the Coop — the supermarket of the future — uses technology to give shoppers total transparency and total information: how we should be using artificial intelligence and augmented reality and move it to everyday shopping.

We are witnessing food halls popping up throughout the country; we know these bring excitement. Food halls grew by 37% in 2016. Hy-Vee has done its version in-store, as have ShopRite and Mariano’s to name just a few. The message to shoppers is “we are all things food.” There is the new model that Reebok and B8TA, both here in Santa Monica, are testing: showroom-only stores where products can’t be purchased, just displayed and available to try. It’s a great concept to introduce new food products, to read the labels, to taste, to ask questions — a mini-model could be incorporated in every store.

In Japan, supermarkets have put greenhouses on top of, or adjacent to, supermarkets. Why not put a greenhouse right inside the store and allow shoppers to pick their own right off the vine? After all, we have beer and wine coolers where shoppers enter and select their brews; why not for produce?

Coles has launched a “quiet hour” once a week where there are no PA announcements, no music, no stocking shelves, no commotion, to offer the parents of the one in six children who have a developmental disability a haven to shop.

Waste-free supermarkets continue to grow globally, but here in the U.S., only a few exist; in.gredients (Austin, Texas), in Denver’s Zero Market and in Brooklyn’s Fillery have made commitments and should be a model for all stores to learn from.

It’s time to build stores that are truly energy efficient with solar glass blocks and solar roofing that not only reduce energy but create additional energy that could power an entire store.

Online grocery is at the top of everyone’s list, and there is no doubt that it will continue to grow and evolve. Click-and-collect will become the dominant online channel for all the reasons described here. Today, approximately 25% of all grocers offer this service. KMPG reports that almost 75% of shoppers would use this service to avoid delivery costs. and the International Council of Shopping Centers found that 61% who do use click-and-collect also come in the store and make additional purchases. Shoppers do want to have a relationship with their supermarket. They don’t want the experience to be faceless.

Online delivery will become more fractured, and more local. As we see these companies popping up on the landscape, companies like Milk & Eggs, GoodEggs and Thrive Market are creating a new model that serves just a local area with a specialty. They have developed unique, and sometimes proprietary, relationships with farmers and purveyors to offer curated offerings. They are not trying to offer the 40,000 products that are on the supermarket shelves; in fact, many of the products they offer aren’t on the supermarket shelves at all. Tomorrow, Boxed Spirits launches in California — the first bulk-sized alcohol e-commerce play that is directed to steal business from Costco and Sam’s in this category. We will see the larger national and regional delivery players having to shift to the auto-replenishment model.

One of the biggest threats to traditional grocers is being created by blockchain technology. INS Ecosystem, which wants to reinvent the way people shop for food, has raised over $60 million, and Unilever and scores of other manufacturers are signed up as partners. The goal is to out-Amazon Amazon with even greater efficiencies and to have brands sell directly to consumers, eliminating the need for retailers entirely.

As much as tech might want to disrupt the way people shop and make everything more efficient, let’s remember that this business is all about people and our relationship to shoppers. It’s time to imagine just what a supermarket can be.