Early in 2016, a cauliflower shortage left many shoppers staring at prices in bewilderment: Wholesale rates had reached $4 per head, which meant even higher prices for the consumer. The reason was twofold: An increased demand for the cruciferous vegetable, combined with poor growing conditions, dramatically reduced the supply. Cauliflower has become a popular substitute for carbohydrates like rice and pizza dough. It’s a trendy appetizer on restaurant menus, which means more creative home chefs are reaching for it in the supermarket. Heirloom orange, purple and green varieties boost the interest.
Yet, cauliflower is just one in a long line of trendy foods in recent years: kale, quinoa, brussels sprouts, locally sourced and natural foods. Some old favorites, like butter and bacon, have made a comeback, thanks to the farm-to-table movement.
Trendy foods can be fun to try, but they can also affect your shopping experience. To dig deeper into food trends and how you can navigate them, we talked with experts and looked at food business and agricultural research. Here’s what we found.
What Makes a Food Trendy?
“There seems to be two driving factors in food trends—haute chefs and food manufacturers,” says Hilary Anderson, owner of a consulting firm that analyzes food trends and provides price analytics for top restaurants.
“Haute chefs are the top chefs who are constantly trying to differentiate themselves by creating original, and sometimes slightly eccentric, dishes,” she says. In turn, those dishes trickle down to the consumer. “They often get picked up on a cooking show, and then your local mom-and-pop restaurant will feature it, and finally home cooks create an easier version.” In other words, she says, “pork belly ice cream with candied pecans” on a fancy New York restaurant menu may eventually become vanilla ice cream with crumbled bacon and maple syrup at your next dinner party.
The other source of trends is food manufacturers, which may introduce new items that are more budget-friendly or those that use a portion of an ingredient that hasn’t been used before. For example, Tater Tots shredded potatoes were born when Ore-Ida founders were trying to figure out what to do with leftover slivers of cut-up potatoes.
The Center for Culinary Development (CCD), an industry leader in mapping food popularity, tracks food trends through five distinct stages: The ingredient, dish or cooking technique begins with creative chefs and adventurous palates. From there, it’s introduced to the public via television or gourmet magazines. Then, it’s on to popular chain restaurants and mainstream consumer magazines, and finally it appears on grocery store shelves.
Hitting the Supermarket
The length of time it takes for a particular food trend to trickle down from the pros to the supermarket varies, Anderson says. The kale trend took hold quickly because the supply chain was already there. Kale existed as a garnish first to “green up” your plate; eventually chefs realized kale leaves could be seasoned and roasted or mixed into unique salads. Other ingredients, like Sriracha hot sauce (a.k.a. rooster sauce), have been on the market for decades but only recently became popular because they have been featured on well-known cooking shows, such as Chopped.
“If the supply chain is not well-established or robust, it could be a very short-lived trend,” Anderson says. Buffalo wings almost didn’t survive as a trend because, by nature, each chicken only has two wings. Eventually, farmers caught up with demand by offering boneless wings and drumsticks, too. If a trend becomes mainstream, prices tend to stabilize.
Enjoy Trends Without Straining Your Wallet
By the time a new food item appears on grocery store shelves, it’s usually well vetted, Anderson notes. If you’re unsure about spending the money on something new that you haven’t had a chance to try, look for product samples—or ask a store employee if you can have a sample. Also, keep your eyes peeled for coupons. If it’s a fruit or vegetable trend, buy it in season for the best flavor and price.
For inspiration on what foods are trendy and how best to prepare them, watch cooking shows like Chopped or Top Chef, which challenge participants to use uncommon ingredients. A number of food blogs such as Eater.com or TheKitchn.com often stay ahead of new food trends with recipes, interviews with celebrity chefs, product reviews and more.
If you want to see other home cooks try trends (and sometimes fail), check out blogs such as BonAppetempt.com or Food52.com. Or, host a dinner party or potluck where everyone brings a new, trendy dish—you’ll have an opportunity to sample several trends at once and decide which ones deserve your time and money in the future.
Trends to Watch
What food trends can you expect to see in the coming year? Our experts all pointed to a few likely winners.
Sea vegetables: Getting your greens from the ocean is a growing trend, according to the CCD and Food Business News. Kelp, nori, sea palm and other seaweeds deliver protein and omega-3s, plus various vitamins and minerals. Look for them in the form of dried seaweed snacks, wraps or salad toppers.
Less food waste: Sustainability is on everyone’s mind, and so many food companies and chefs are looking for ways to cut down on waste, whether it’s by offering imperfect produce or recipes that use every part of an ingredient to reduce waste.
Savory treats: Have you noticed savory yogurt flavors in the dairy section? What about spicy chocolate or bacon-maple doughnuts? Chefs and consumers are experimenting with dishes that combine opposing flavors like sweet and savory or salty.
Local and organic: It’s fair to say that the organic trend is here to stay, Anderson says. As consumers seek transparency and authenticity in their food, the food industry has responded by providing easier access to locally sourced and organic foods.
New twists on old favorites: Pickled and fermented products are resurgent on store shelves. And companies are challenging our notion of old favorites like coffee, offering cold brews and coffee-tea blends. At the butcher counter, you may find new cuts of meat or artisan varieties of sausage, too.