Trends forecasting, if done well, is neither opinion nor guesswork. That's the mantra of Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides Inc. (www.culinarytides.com), Portland, Ore. Done correctly, it is based on predictive analysis and allows forecasting to move from art to science.
Her latest report, "Top 10 Trends Analysis — Shifting Sands 2012," is a cross-analysis of 143 trend reports across government, technology, health, consumer, travel, beverage and food & flavor trends — all relating to or influencing the food industry. It offers a three dimensional look at not only which trends have the best chance to move forward in 2012 through early 2013, but it examines their origins and why they are standouts against the fabric of what Badaracco calls chaos in white space.
Multiply those 143 trend reports by a top 10 each and she starts with 1,430 predictions published by respected prognosticators in those seven categories. Then she looks for repetition and common threads. Ultimately this is a quantitative assessment of trends agreed upon unknowingly by different observers in different markets.
Some are short lived, others exhibit a longer lifecycle. Many are holdovers from previous years but remain strong in 2012, while some are new to the food world. Trends are broken down by macro and micro categories, establishing their strengths and links to other trends. Gap analysis identifies missing trends from the lists considered critical by Badaracco.
"Forecasters this year were braver, more confident and bold, and that's where consumers are too," she says. "But some predicted that everything was going backwards, more conservative, back to comfort food. Last year was kind of a free-for-all, compared to this year when a good number of them said, 'Let's put the brakes on and hold back a bit.'
"More predictions were incorporated in the report, but there was a wilder swing, presenting more opportunities for manufacturers," she says. "It's not American comfort food; there's no macaroni and cheese. What's coming is more global comfort food, say from a particular island in Thailand. A wider swing gives a manufacturer more room to play. If your company makes family-oriented comfort food, you play at one end of the spectrum. If more at the edge, you can play at the opposite end of the report."
The government and technology lists tend to focus on health, which encompasses health issues important to aging baby boomers and performance issues for younger generations, as well as food safety issues. The travel trends remain extreme, indicating continued confidence.
Food and Flavors cuts a wider path with more extreme offerings. Overall trends indicate consumers and food continue to move toward experimentation. There is strong evidence we are moving out of the economic crisis both emotionally and behaviorally.
Food and Flavors, Consumer, Travel and Beverage sections all note more extreme behaviors and activities: risk taking, playfulness, courage and vulnerability. Swings in behavior and desire in all sections are simultaneously wider, more unfocused, actually a normal transition when coming out of recession and into recovery, and therefore a good sign that the consumer's mood is improving.
This paints a more complex landscape to navigate but at the same time means more freedom for the industry to focus in areas of interest or expertise. "In a recession, companies are in a tight focus. Everyone is clamped down, they don't want to experiment, and are scared, so this is a better place to be," she says emphatically.
Consumers cautiously moving toward recovery still demand authenticity, so this is not the time to "Americanize" global foods. Bring in foods from abroad in their truest form and represent them accurately on the plate.
"While consumers are letting go of their blanket of fear created by the economic crisis and war overseas, be aware they still have a few fingers touching the blanket or at least have it in their line of sight," she says. "This is not the year to plunge ahead with molecular gastronomy or to create foods without reference to anything in their ken."
Some predictions are consumer-focused and some are focused on research; thus a duality or mix of both. Macro predictions in Health include: prevention, control, simplify and trust. Badaracco notes the two conditions that stood out were cognitive function and obesity.
Under Prevention, holdovers are digestive health, eye health, senior health and a rise in flexitarianism (a more flexible form of vegetarianism). And a host of single foods were called out this year – grains, dairy, omega-3 and fiber.
What's missing? "None of the prognosticators mentioned joint and bone health, eye health, cardiovascular disease, weight gain, muscle health or mood (sleep, stress, anxiety, depression), even though health research is very focused on mood," she says.
Control (what consumers are trying to control) included free-from labels, farmer's markets and allergy awareness. Family meals is a new focus. "Another interesting thing in this category is apps, or online information," she points out. "Those include seasonal/local, salt, fat and sugar, and smaller portions. Not mentioned by prognosticators was controlling calories, menu labeling, kids nutrition, acrylamide and bisphenol A."
Under Simplify, unprocessed and natural were notable. "We added convenience, emphasizing the benefit of simplifying labels, and whole foods," she says. "Instead of apple juice, you eat the whole apple; instead of refined grains, you eat whole grains."
Farmers markets show up again in Trust, as does food safety. "What wasn't mentioned was free-from, organic and natural," she says, adding,
"Consumers don't trust organic, natural or sustainable claims, although sustainability is key for them. Consumers mistakenly pick companies they think are green, but aren't, and don't choose companies with very good green records. Trust is actually mistrust; it's a red flag, so companies need to be aware of that and gain their trust."