Functional Foods and Flexitarianism Among 2021 Food Trends Product Developers Should Know

As an unprecedented year for the food industry draws to a close, everyone’s looking for some normalcy. But even if the global pandemic ends in 2021, the food industry isn’t going to snap back to pre-COVID-19 habits. 

Outdoor dining, upgraded takeout and delivery menus, and ghost kitchens are here to stay, says Mike Kostyo, senior managing editor and trendologist at Datassential. The past nine months in particular have blurred the lines between at-home and away-from-home eating. “If you’re a manufacturer, your foods may be on a family’s dinner table alongside dishes they ordered from a restaurant,” he explains.

But the changes to watch for in 2021 aren’t just about how and where people eat. Look for pre-COVID trends—the rise of functional foods and plant-oriented flexitarian options, among them—to ramp up as consumers move beyond the traditional comfort foods they craved amidst the uncertainty of 2020.

When it comes to product development—whether for dairy, frozen or center-store aisles—innovation will be key, Kostyo says. “Consumers are already telling us they miss new, exciting flavors and concepts. We saw them try new brands and products over the past year because their go-to options were out of stock, so consumers are in a ‘new experience’ mindset.”

Beyond Comfort Foods

Many people were stress eating in the early days of the pandemic. But now, “everybody is trying to figure out how to maintain a more normal, healthy lifestyle” in the COVID era, says Nikki Trzeciak, executive chef and senior manager of culinary & sensory at Saputo Dairy USA. Consumers want to dial down the decadence, she adds.

That desire will likely bolster flexitarianism and functional food-forward products in 2021. It’s about developing products that find a balance between satiation and healthfulness, Trzeciak says. What might that look like? Trzeciak suggests substituting ingredients such as mushrooms and shredded vegetables for 20% of a burger’s meat content. With some added umami flavor in the mix, people won’t really notice the change but still feel satisfied, she explains.

Another option: Use organic and non-GMO cheese instead of traditional varieties to boost a CPG offering’s perceived health halo.

It’s about knowing how to use functional foods in a way that works without polarizing people. Chicken salad, for example, can be fairly unhealthy because of all the mayonnaise. But pull out two-thirds of the mayo and replace it with cottage cheese, some lemon zest and a bit of celery, and you can “increase your protein, drastically reduce fat, and still get that wet texture and flavor—you don’t notice the curd texture,” Trzeciak says.

Chef Jessica Foust, vice president of culinary innovation & nutrition at Creative Food Solutions, says customers looking for wellness through their food choices will be an accelerating trend driving the work of CPG manufacturers and R&D chefs in 2021. Expect probiotics and “superfoods” to keep growing in popularity and momentum toward plant-based eating to keep gaining steam, she says. 

Kostyo agrees: “We already see a number of manufacturers and R&D chefs getting back to work on plant-based platforms.” 

But now more than ever, consumers expect healthy to taste good. “The battle for customer taste buds is heating up” as manufacturers work to design plant-based meal options that still pack lots of flavor, Foust says.

A World of New Flavors

After months of extra home cooking in 2020, many consumers are ready to expand their flavor palates. From a cuisine perspective, Foust expects Latin and Middle Eastern flavors to gain ground. Adds Trzeciak: “People are feeling a little bit more adventurous and interested in playing around with new flavors.” Za’atar, for example, is a spice most people aren’t familiar with, but Trzeciak says she wouldn’t be surprised to see it in flatbreads and chicken dishes in 2021.

Kostyo suggests introducing consumers to new flavors in familiar ways: gochujang on a fried chicken sandwich or a tajin-crusted taco pizza, for example. He expects to see more of these global cuisine mashups on menus and in retail spaces—things like Indian-inspired burgers or Middle Eastern-inspired “nachos.”

At the same time, with international travel way down due to the pandemic, Kostyo expects an uptick in interest in American regional cuisines. “We’re seeing both chefs and consumers take an interest in cuisines like Appalachian, Sonoran, Cal-Mex and Gullah,” he says. This is driven by “an interest in celebrating the authentic cuisines of the U.S. and the people and cultures that are behind them.”

Tips for 2021

The pandemic is likely to persist well into the new year. But that reality won’t short-circuit real trends afoot in the food industry that R&D chefs and CPG food manufacturers alike should keep top of mind.

Functional foods on the rise. It’s about dialing down fat content and incorporating healthy ingredients into familiar dishes—think quinoa or wheat flour in a brownie recipe, for example. Chickpeas, in particular, are “moving beyond the hummus counter,” Trzeciak adds. Packed with nutrients but flavor-neutral, chickpea flour can be incorporated into pasta or tortillas. And it’s gluten-free.

Rethink familiar foods. Ricotta cheese, for example, is often associated with indulgent dishes like lasagna—but there’s actually plenty of healthy product potential in it. Its high protein level and relatively low fat level makes ricotta a viable option for health-conscious consumers. “We’re looking at our cheese products [Frigo® ricotta, for example] and seeing more function” in how they can be used in CPG and prepared foods, Trzeciak explains.

Beyond the “healthy” aisle. Big picture, expect the “food for function” trend to remake the grocery store experience. Instead of one organic products aisle, healthy eating will spread to the entire store. “Food for function isn’t just a few aisles; it’s part of the broader experience—no longer segregated,” Trzeciak says.

Finally, a bit of optimism: With COVID-19 vaccines now in sight, expect next summer to be full of barbecues and in-person events—and 2021’s holiday season to be crowded with family gatherings. “Manufacturers should start planning for that now,” Kostyo says.

Looking for functional ingredients that also deliver some comfort to consumers during trying times? Saputo’s got you covered.

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