Feeding Generation Z's High Food IQ

Move over millennials, this up-and-coming 24/7 generation is coming of age. Growing up in a digital world, this group favors robust, sustainable, creative flavors and innovative mashups.

By Lauren R. Hartman, Product Development Editor

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Millennials get a lot of press these days, but there’s another generation that's already a force in food consumption. Generation Z (or the iGeneration) is raising the stakes on what millennials have popularized, from ethnic fusion and health-conscious eating habits to digital and social connectivity.

Now in high school and college, aged 16 to 24, the post-millennial group seems to want it all. Gen Zs love delicious food and exciting flavors, any time and anywhere. The food industry needs to prepare for these digitally savvy and diverse up-and-coming shoppers as their spending power increases. But food formulators need to understand their needs and develop ways to attract them.

Representing 12-17 percent of the total U.S. population, the Gen Z group is the product of a fast-paced world. It has nearly $250 billion in spending power so far, says Chicago-based Technomic (www.technomic.com). Further, the group is active and connected; literally with instant access to the world around the clock, because they're plugged into computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, smartwatches and other electronic devices.

Gen Zs gravitate to innovative and ethnic cuisines because they're more diverse than other groups, according to Mintel (www.mintel.com), Chicago. In fact, 66 percent of ethnic food eaters who are parents say their children enjoy eating ethnic/ international food. This trend may also be attributed to the fact the generation is the most culturally diverse, with 24 percent being of Hispanic origin.

Market research firm NPD Group (www.npd.com), Port Washington, N.Y., finds many Generation Z consumers love salad in particular, followed by sandwiches and breakfast foods that require some cooking, such as eggs and pancakes. Easy-to-assemble meals and better-for-you food consumption will increase over the next five years, explains Matt Powell, an industry analyst at NPD Group. "Brands must be completely transparent, which earns trust."

A couple of sources suggest plant-based foods -- such as the Beyond Burger plant-based meat alternative from Beyond Meat, and Impossible Foods' Impossible Burger -- are popular with this age group. So are ramen noodles, LaCroix carbonated/flavored water from National Beverage Corp., Chobani yogurts, meat snacks like Fusion Jerky and Jack Links, and frozen Asian and Indian-inspired meals.

Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight for Mintel, says Gen Zs look for meat snacks that are more sophisticated, with flavors described more expressively and the meats given a "pedigree." Mintel also points out that nearly three-quarters of teens in the group drink bottled water, while only two-thirds of adults do. Many adults weren't raised with bottled water in the home, and consider water something that should be free of charge. Young adults have never been without bottled water, either from vending machines, convenience stores or events, and therefore are not averse to paying for water.

Digital natives

More than 70 million strong and growing, Gen Z kids are often called digital natives, states investment banking firm Goldman Sachs (www.goldmansachs.com), New York City. Their digital prowess is noteworthy because they're online every day. Technology is fundamental to them.

"They're the first generation born in the post-internet world and are accustomed to shopping online and do nearly all of their research online," notes Goldman Sachs analyst Christopher Wolf. "Their backgrounds have exposed them to a variety of cuisines and cultures. They're also laser-focused on the consequences of their decisions. And they live truly 'device in hand.' "

HIPPEAS BOHEMIAN BARBECUE"Gen Z is the first generation to completely grow up in the digital age, so to them, there's no question that can't be unanswered, which is really affecting the food they eat," says Livio Bisterzo, CEO and founder of Green Park Brands (www.greenparkbrands.com), which produces fiber- and protein-rich Hippeas organic chickpea snacks.

Social media has been around for most or all of their entire lives. This cohort has grown up with companies marketing products as much through social media as any other advertising channel. They're most likely to blog live or post their food experiences online, because they often learn about food in the online social arena.

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