What’s driving the food and drink trends of 2021?

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Events of the last year have been instrumental in shaping consumer trends. The speed of change has been remarkable. Consumer behaviours seemed to be transformed overnight, and businesses have had to adapt at pace.

Now, in 2021, there is some benefit of hindsight as catering professionals can identify the food and drink trends that will help us meet people’s new needs in the workplace.

The agility and flexibility that have been crucial during this period may have been quick to come about, however a positive is that they have revealed some hidden strengths. We have realised that rapid change can happen when it needs to and risen to challenges on a scale that we never expected to face. Could this even be an era of innovation for our industry?

What’s next?
Experience is moving up the agenda. The best way to connect with people today is no longer through commodities, goods, or services, though providing quality is of course still vital. As goods and services can be quite easily replicated or copied and are increasingly commoditised, connect instead through the personal, memorable experience you provide.

In this new era, we compete through personalised experiences. One interesting factor is this: the best personalised experiences have to be co-created. It’s about setting the stage and allowing the participants to make the experience.

We may see a change in the way companies relate to their customers, with big organisations learning from start-up culture. Marketing teams like mine will increasingly look to build relationships with real users, and find ways to excite them through co-creation and market research.

Before we look at some key food and drink trends, it is important to note that real cultural change tends to be slower than the changes we have seen, generally taking place over years rather than months.

So, what’s on the menu?
First up is functional food – foods that deliver additional benefits on top of their nutritional value, such as probiotics and prebiotic fibre. Prior to the pandemic, food and beverages with a functional upside had already seen strong growth, with an increased interest in gut health.

This trend has continued. It includes foods with anti-viral properties and also herbal and mineral supplements or vitamins, which are all experiencing high levels of growth. There is an increased focus on foods that are believed to target different areas of health, depending on the individual’s personal priorities.

There is also growing scepticism around so-called “immune boosters”, a term adopted by some influencers and brands that is not based in real scientific evidence. In 2021, brands can embrace functional foods as a way of supporting consumers, but should steer clear of fads or terms that overpromise.

Next up is plant-based. This year there is a specific trend towards “veganising” traditional meals. This could be straightforward to engage with, as a lot of familiar foods happen to be plant-based.

Nutrition is an important part of the plant-based trend. When our nutritionists developed the 2021 refresh of our Plantilicious range , establishing nutrition criteria was crucial. Ensuring plant-based dishes rival or outperform their meat counterparts on key nutrients such as protein helps consumers embed plant-based eating within their lifestyle.

The trend for plant-based bakery products like croissants, brownies and muffins, is growing exponentially in the US. With plant-based sausage rolls (our own version at Eurest includes quinoa, sweet potato and squash) ever-popular in the UK, this is one to watch.

We are also seeing a spike in interest in food and drinks traditionally associated with indulgence or leisure. Stress and uncertainty drive alcohol and snack sales, and these have increased. It is important that the public is nudged toward a balanced lifestyle, and this can include comfort food where appropriate, for instance as a treat at the end of the working week.

This brings us on to two more trends – mini treats and ‘food for mood’. During recessions, there tends to be a spike in smaller treats as we forgo more expensive items. Providing mini treats supports this need.

This year we are all likely to be less inclined to engage with diet culture, which is usually pervasive at this time of year. Food for mood means we are focusing on mental health, positivity and micronutrient dense foods. This is tied to the rise of home exercise and gut health, but it can also be interpreted as a way of removing pressure and another element of restriction from our lifestyles.

More trends for 2021 include:

  • Reducing food waste – root to stem cooking is on the rise as people focus on store cupboard recipes and using up what they have.
  • Home delivery, meal kits and recipe boxes – this huge trend includes plant-based options.
  • Local – this trend has been strengthened by the search for greater food self-sufficiency.
  • Sugar reduction – along with greater transparency in labelling.

Unchanging needs
As we think about how society and ways of working may have been permanently reshaped, we need to be conscious of the factors and needs that will not change.

While remote and flexible working are now common, many workplaces have remained open. Consumers who work in sectors such as manufacturing and logistics have had to adapt on-the-job to more subtle changes. Pandemics generally last around 12-15 months, so we need to remain aware that once this is over, much of life will continue as before.

People and organisations stick with business as usual, when they can. It is what their lives and business models are based on, after all. However, in this new era, innovation is surely more interesting. Because there are many questions unanswered, and because we have all been moving so quickly, there is an opportunity – an invitation – to innovate.

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