Criminalist Finds Patterns in Food Industry Chaos

Criminalist finds patterns and direction out of chaos for the food industry. Click to read more of this exclusive on Suzy Badaracco, CEO and President of Tualatin, Ore.-based Culinary Tides, a criminalist specializing in forensic toxicology.

By Diane Toops, News and Trends Editor

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Three things that will typically kill a trend are research running counter to it (one of the things that killed low-carb), a powerful adversary like the American Dietetic Association (ADA) or American Medical Association (AMA) coming in against it, or a more powerful competing trend that kicks it out of the public consciousness, according to Badaracco. "When it morphs, it's a trend that just changes its spots, like Tapas moving to Meze to Izakaya, which has lately shown up in New York City, Scottsdale and Los Angeles, and getting a lot of press. Tapas is still here, but it's been joined by other cousins that are taking center stage now."

Most forecasters believe trends start at the high-end restaurant, move to chains, and are incorporated last in food processing, so we asked Badaracco if she agrees. "Very few trends ever start within the food industry, so to say they follow any particular birth pattern is ridiculous," she responds.  "For example, low-carb was birthed by the AMA with Dr. Atkins and hit retail food manufacturers long before restaurants got into the game. In fact, restaurants were the last player to enter the trend. Tapas is thought to be born in the restaurant industry, but was born two years earlier in the wine industry. And dark chocolate's success is in part due to the research started in universities with UC Davis and Mars. Yes, it is now in restaurants, which tagged onto the health benefits, along with some other linked trends supporting it.  If you are only watching restaurant happenings, you are touching only one part of the elephant."

Chasing shadows

Asked to check her crystal ball about upcoming developments in health and wellness, Badaracco begins by saying the question is essentially unanswerable due to the vast pool of possible answers, but recommends a few areas to watch. "Cocoa and superfruits are now being backed by research, along with whole grains, a new phenomenon which will alter all three lifecycles," she says. "Any age related research including dementia, memory, depression, macular degeneration linked to baby boomers, and beauty foods. People don't want to age. And the obesity epidemic is manifesting as government legislation globally against marketing to children, so watch for that. The FDA is behind and getting flack internationally for it, especially from Europe."

On the flavor front, Badaracco points to a new superfruit on the horizon. "Miracle Berry, or Synsepalum dulcificum, is coming in due to its ability to make sour things appear sweet," she says. "Eat it, followed by something sour like a lemon, and you taste sweet for extended time. It's not coming in just because of its flavor, but also for its other attributes. Japan has had this in dried form for a while now, and it's appearing in Hawaii. What about a secondary purpose beyond flavor? Could it be converted to a sugar replacer? Flavors in general are being tied regionally due to consumers' desire for local and sustainable, so flavors are getting more sophisticated. An apple is no longer an apple on menus, but a fuji or winesap."

Other shadows to watch are whole grains morphing into single grains like barley. "Barley now has an FDA health claim so it is linked nicely," she says. "Smoke is crossing from meats to salt; I bet someone figures out how to smoke chocolate -- companies are already adding salt to it, so the sky's the limit. A few years ago, the beef industry promoted "new cuts," including the club steak and flat iron. Now new pork cuts -- pork breast, cap steak, and pocket roast -- are coming out. Oh yes, in 2006, cupcakes morphed to brownies (not very successfully) and are now morphing to high-end donuts (check out Frittelli's Doughtnuts and Coffee in Beverly hills). I think one reason donuts will be more successful is that brownies are one-dimensional; they tend to be chocolate, but donuts can be made in gazillion flavors. And don't forget the morphing of Tapas to Izakaya."

Demographics play a role in future trends as well, according to Badaracco. Baby boomers and echo boomers are driving the green and sustainability movement. "Two terms coming from oversees I expect to hit are "carbon footprint," meaning the smaller the carbon footprint a company leaves the more attractive for consumers, and "food miles" basically the amount of travel a food takes to get to market," she says. "Organic is not enough now, farms are beginning to be "biodynamic" it is like organic farming on steroids. There are some 32 certified biodynamic farms in the U.S. They use solar power, conservation, recycling systems and sustainability. But I'm really worried about the beehive colony collapse syndrome. Canada lost 90 percent of all hives. No one is certain of the cause, but the dead immunocomprised bees are riddled with parasites. Organic farming relies heavily on bees and butterflies, so this could have a devastating effect on that category."

There are opportunities for the food industry to connect with mom, according to Badaracco. "There is a return to home cooking that is being tied to celebrity chefs sharing their home recipes with consumers, who want to be celebrity chefs in their own home," she says, "Personalized and professional level kitchen design this year is also tied with celebrity chefs." For non-cooks, there is now Dinner by Design, Dinner's Ready and similar companies to make them rock stars."

Surprising findings

Badaracco says the trend among food companies to have "consumer insights" groups, which are only loosely tied or not tied at all to any other part of the organization, but makes the decisions on what products to launch has been surprising. "To focus on consumers is starting hours into the race," she says.

"Consumers are almost always the last to act on a trend, so the company has fully missed the birth. By the time the company rolls out a product, the consumer has moved onto something else. You must look at consumer behavior, yes, but if you want to be offensive what you should be looking at is what is influencing the behavior -- consumers don't act as a mass consciousness, they are responding to external forces -- find the forces and you are now in an offensive position with the consumer."

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