Food Trends: A Healthy Dozen

by Alexandra Williams, MA on Nov 10, 2016

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Go beyond organic to tap a dozen of the fastest-growing diet trends in the United States.

Have you tried chips made from cricket flour yet? Yes, those crickets. Insects. Perhaps you’ve sipped a smoothie made with macadamia milk or eaten Grainful® oatmeal-based jambalaya at dinner. Was your postworkout snack maple-flavored seaweed, or did you reach for Tiger Nuts (which aren’t actually nuts at all, but a tuber)?

These and many other foods are finding their way into our shopping carts and tummies. We are spending billions of dollars on so-called “out-there” foods as we expand our horizons—and palates—with an eye to improving our health.

Organic Facts Show Where Our Money Goes

One style of food that used to be “out there” is more “in” than ever as we pursue more nutritious diets. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic food posted a new record of $39.7 billion in 2015, up 11% from 2014 and far outstripping the overall food market’s growth rate of 3%. That sounds like a huge amount of money, but bear in mind that organic food accounts for a mere 5% of all the food sold in the United States. The top organic categories? Fruits and vegetables retain their long-standing top spot, constituting almost 13% of U.S. organic produce sales. Dairy is the second-biggest category, while fresh juices and drinks are the fastest-growing, with sales up 33.5% in 2015.

Whether the food is organic or natural, consumers want products that make it easier to live healthfully, according to Mintel, a market research firm. One Mintel study revealed that 43% of Americans believe modern lifestyles make it difficult to be healthy, while 80% believe we must make sacrifices in order to be healthy. So products that consumers believe lead to an easier, healthier life obviously hold more appeal.

Mintel research has also found that Americans are “taking proactive measures to achieve better health,” with 52% saying they eat a healthy diet. Interestingly, looks are no longer a main motivator for consumers who are working on healthier lifestyles—pinstead, 70% want to “feel better,” and 58% want to “be happier.”

“Consumers connect their health with overall happiness and are taking a variety of steps to improve their well-being, including eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly,” says Lauren Bonetto, lifestyles and leisure analyst at Mintel. “[As a result], brands using messaging that emphasizes feeling better and being happier could succeed in reaching consumers on a more personal and emotional level.”

Organic isn’t the whole story, of course. These 12 trends give a good idea of what’s driving the healthy-food industry these days:

1. Avoiding Gluten

Gluten-sensitive and gluten-free foods are mainstream and trendy: mainstream in the sense of a billion-dollar industry that Statista reports is predicted to top $23.9 billion in sales by 2020 (up from $12.18 billion in 2014), and trendy in that people who identify as “health conscious”—not those “suffering from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity”—are driving this market growth. A 2015 survey, according to Statista, showed that of the respondents who chose a gluten-free diet, 12% did so based on their desire to feel healthier, 9% because they have celiac disease and 7% because they wanted to lose weight. The most popular categories? Bread products, cookies and snacks.

Maybe you’re a baker and you want to combine about six of the listed trend categories into one delicious recipe. Then put on your apron, and get to work on a gluten-free cashew cream cheesecake with mango sauce. Ingredients include pistachios, curry powder, coconut oil, coconut milk and lime zest.

Parents can give their children delicious gluten-free alternatives to their favorite mac-and-cheese and granola bars through Annie’s Special Diet options.

Want some artisanal jerky? Krave® has Cabernet rosemary beef jerky and Chardonnay thyme turkey jerky. Nowadays, if you can imagine it, there’s probably a gluten-free version of it.

2. Going Paleo

There’s more to a Paleo diet than meat and caveman-centric meals. And companies are springing up everywhere to offer that little bit more. Simple Squares® has a nutrition bar with six organic ingredients—cashews, almonds, honey, coconut, vanilla and sea salt—that qualify it as a Paleo choice.

If you want a bit more while keeping the focus on meat, add bison and lamb and leave out the “extras” that cavemen didn’t have to deal with (e.g., antibiotics and hormones). Shepherd’s Pride calls its lamb the “only third-party, source-verified American lamb never ever administered antibiotics, hormones or artificial ingredients.”

Maybe you prefer a snack you can tuck into your gym bag. Lorissa’s Kitchen® has Szechuan peppercorn 100% grassfed beef strips or ginger teriyaki chicken cuts in a bag, while Crunchies® has non-GMO, gluten-free freeze-dried beets with nothing added—not even sugar.

While nutrition experts are debating and researching the efficacy of a Paleo diet, consumers are voting with their wallets. In 2013, Paleo was the most-Googled diet search. In 2015, sales of Paleo-positioned products in U.S. naturalfoods channels grew by 78%, which definitely indicates strong consumer interest.

3. Plant-Based Diets

The plant-based food trend is getting hotter and hotter, as Danone®’s $12.5 billion purchase of WhiteWave in July 2016 made clear. Makers of the Silk® brand, WhiteWave also own So Delicious®, Earthbound Farm®, Horizon® Organic milk and Vega, which means Danone (famed for Dannon® yogurts) now has frozen dairy-free desserts, soymilks, almond milks, coconut milks and organic produce.

Need some ideas for tapping the plant-based trend? Try making your sustainably fished salmon sandwich with avocado mayonnaise, or snack on kale chips dipped in RawFoodz™ organic, vegan chipotle cheese-alternative CheeSauce. Are you scouting for delicious recipes using plant-based mayo? Visit the Hampton Creek website and check out their full line of recipes, including “Just Chocolate Cake” using Just Mayo.

Or how about pledging to try all 3,500 types of seaweed by the end of 2017? A super-versatile food, seaweed is high in iodine, which is good news for your thyroid. Sprinkle some kelp powder on your popcorn, or mix it with butter to season your fish dinner. According to a 2014 study by scientists at Newcastle University, seaweed can reduce the rate of fat absorption by 75%. That fact could explain seaweed’s 147% sales spike in Europe and 76% growth in the United States since 2011.

Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, CHE, instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, California, applauds the seaweed trend. “I’m seeing traditional dried seaweed in all kinds of flavors these days, and fresh seaweed is taking off with chefs. I’m hopeful about the trends that get us away from processed food and back to basic, nutritious ingredients that we can cook ourselves.”

4. Healthy Oils

Whether you need oil for a stir-fry or for a low-calorie salad, you have a lot more vegetable oils to choose from these days.

“I just started using avocado oil, and I love its nutty flavor,” says Debbie Woodruff, a vegan personal trainer from La Quinta, California, who blogs about her food experiences at CoachDebbieRuns. “It’s also great for cooking, with a really high smoke point. Delicious on salads too. I use coconut oil as well, especially if I’m cooking Asian food or baking. I’ve heard great things about grapeseed oil and hemp oil, so they are next on my list to try.”

Companies like Chosen Foods® and Ellyndale® are offering flavors to suit palates like Woodruff’s. Some oils are even available in spray containers. For smoke points above 500 (barbecue, stir-fry, sear, fry), you can get refined avocado or safflower. For points above 400 (baking, light sauté), try almond, macadamia nut, rice bran, sesame seed, sunflower, peanut, hazelnut, grapeseed or olive oil. If you are doing low-temperature cooking (sauces) or you want something to splash on a salad, then coconut, virgin avocado or virgin pumpkin seed oil might be just the thing.

The food industry is noting (and nurturing) the preferences of consumers like Woodruff. For example, in April 2016, Grocery Headquarters magazine reported that “consumers looking to improve their health and wellness through their diets are seeking cooking oil options that align with these goals. Those that provide health benefits give consumers a reason to reach into their wallets.”

The article says the “other” oils category (everything except olive, vegetable, canola, corn or peanut) has a 14% market share and is growing at an 11.5% clip. Driving the strong growth is a desire for organic, healthy, non-GMO, locally sourced (or traceable) ingredients and environmentally safe packaging®combined with curiosity, increased interest in baking and cooking, a desire for versatility of uses, and a wish to replicate recipes seen on TV cooking shows. It’s interesting what isn’t listed: cost.

5. Healthy Snacks

Snacks like kale chips, caffeinated jerky and roasted chickpeas are trendy now, “largely in part due to consumer preference, but also because snacking accounts for over 50% of eating occasions,” says Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, owner of Shaw’s Simple Swaps, a nutrition communications and consulting company in San Diego. “For my clients, I like to focus on the basic, healthy snacks available to all budgets, such as nuts and fruits.

“Many of my clients struggle with sweets and moderation, which I attribute to the vending machine habits they may have,” she adds. “I usually recommend KIND® snack bars as a way to curb their hunger.” Shaw feels that bars combining ingredients such as chocolate, nuts and fruit offer consumers flavors and textures that satisfy their sweet tooth. She is also a fan of KIND’s new Pressed™ allergen-friendly bars, which are 100% fruit and vegetable.

“Short term, I feel the continual emphasis on whole-food snack products will increase the health of society overall,” says Shaw. “I believe we’ll see a decline in the rise of obesity. Just take a look at the checkout line next time you’re in the grocery store. I’m willing to bet there are a few more whole-food products than ever before.”

One snack that reflects the desire for whole foods is a cheese-free Swiss chard and guacamole quesadilla on a whole-wheat tortilla. Another is grilled watermelon seasoned with honey, mint and cayenne pepper. And millions of kids remember scooping out pumpkin seeds and roasting them for a snack around Halloween. Now you can get them year-round, from the standard sea salt to Italian tomato or maple sugar. If you really want to live it up, try a pumpkin-seed, kale and tamari snack pack. And of course, popcorn is ever-popular; you can eat it as a sweet, savory, spicy or even yeasty snack.

6. The Changing Face Of Breakfast

Americans’ shifting tastes extend to that breakfast mainstay: a basic bowl of cereal. Breakfast giants like Kellogg’s®, General Mills and Quaker® Foods are paying heed.

Sarah Ludmer, RD, director of nutrition marketing for Kellogg’s in Battle Creek, Michigan, suggests that folks check out her company’s Kashi® brand. “For consumers looking for non-GMO project-verified and/or organic alternatives, Kashi produces many nutritious plant-based foods, including cereals,” Ludmer says. “People are looking for new things all the time, which is another positive for foods like cereal, since it’s so versatile. Today’s consumers have a desire for wholesome foods with recognizable ingredients—convenient options [that are also] fun and delicious. Foods like smoothies, breakfast sandwiches and yogurt have become more popular.” She reminds shoppers that milk and cereal together provide key nutrients such as protein, iron, calcium and vitamin D.

General Mills, meanwhile, notes in its 2016 Global Responsibility Report that up to 31% of whole-grain consumption by children and 23% by adults comes from ready-to-eat cereals.

Overnight oats are a hit too. How does that work? Basically, you take oats from the pantry in the evening; mix dry oats with milk, yogurt or a dairy alternative; add your favorite toppings; and soak them in the fridge till morning. According to a news release that quoted Joe Silverman, senior marketing director of Quaker Foods, the company noticed a surge in Pinterest searches for overnight oat recipes, which gave them the impetus to create recipes and videos that focused on this cold way to eat oats.

A Google search report for 2016 food trends shows a 35% increase over 2015 in queries for oatmeal recipes®and identifies this as a “seasonal riser,” which is a “trend that is likely to come back even stronger.”

Shaw mentions the increasing popularity of yogurts, based on her experience working on a college campus. “A majority of [students] were looking for grab-and-go items. The number-one best-seller at [the campus] was Greek yogurt with an added topping. Students loved these, not only for their unique flavor, but also their portability.”

Research backs up Ludmer’s and Shaw’s comments. According to the Lempert Report®/Consumer Insight, Millennials’ desire for protein and portability are market drivers, along with a rising interest in ethnic foods.

Finally, typical breakfast fare continues to have a slight “twist,” with items such as protein-packed, gluten-free muffins that can be microwaved and ready in 35 seconds, or protein pancakes in flavors like carrot spice or banana hazelnut, both from FlapJacked®.

7. Nondairy Milk

It’s not just almond milk. Dairy substitutes are coming from all sorts of sources, which has pros and cons for consumers, according to Los Angeles–based Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of Plant-Powered for Life (The Experiment 2014).

“Nowadays, you have a whole variety of plant milks made out of just about every nut, grain and seed,” Palmer says. “These are a great option for reducing animal products and for people sensitive to dairy. Many of these milks are more environmentally friendly too. However, many plant milks offer little in the way of nutrients. The one that is most nutritious is soymilk.” And did you know that camel’s milk is a hot commodity? It even has its own professional association. Easier to digest than cow’s milk, camel’s milk is popular with Bedouins and could become more popular in the United States once we have more than the current 3,000 milk-producing camels. Desert Farms® provides a freeze-dried camel’s milk powder for an extra calcium and protein boost in your next smoothie.

Speaking of protein, did you know that cow’s milk has a1 and a2 proteins? The a2 Milk® Company now carries a full line of easy-to-digest milk products from cows that produce only the a2 protein.

If macadamia nuts are easier to find than camels, you can make your own milk out of nuts and water. Or if you just want a bit of excitement in your morning coffee, try Silk’s hazelnut soy creamer. And a walk down any grocery store milk aisle will prove that almond milk and coconut milk are hotter than ever, with double-digit growth predicted for 2015–2020.

8. Protein Options

Now’s the time to think about bugs. Yes, eating them. After all, they can be packed with protein. And even if you’re not that brave, there’s a host of high-protein foods you may not have thought about.

“My relatives from Oaxaca, Mexico, eat crunchy, salty, sometimes spicy roasted grasshoppers as snacks the way people in the U.S. eat pretzels or nuts,” says Delmonico, the Culinary Institute of America instructor. “And ancient grains may be trendy, but they are also so delicious and nutritious and easy to cook. I’m seeing chefs do amazing dishes with farro and spelt, both savory and as pastries.”

While we might not see grasshoppers in a snack bag soon, we are seeing a wealth of protein choices popping (and hopping) up. One vendor at the 2016 Natural Products Expo West® touted the benefits of cricket flour by giving out samples of chips made with it. “I saw a billboard in Manhattan last summer that said, ‘Crickets are the new kale,’” says Delmonico. “Since then I have tried cricket cookies and cricket crackers. Even though they are easy to raise and sustainable, I think the cricket protein trend will be short-lived if we focus on turning them into chips and cookies. But people have been eating insects for millennia.”

Maybe you want to snack on an unexpected source of protein: watermelon seeds. According to Go Raw, the seeds are an “excellent source of protein, magnesium and zinc.” Or perhaps you want to really maximize your energy with a shot of protein coffee. BuzzFit™ Nutrition has come up with a powdered coffee that has 10 grams of whey protein and 75 milligrams of caffeine.

Maybe you’d prefer something that evokes childhood dinnertime memories. If so, Stouffer’s® is now embracing the “fit” life with its Fit Kitchen line, which promises over 25 g of protein and complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes, green beans and broccoli in every dish.

Did you think protein-rich cottage cheese was just for breakfast? Think again, and try Good Culture®’s Kalamata Olive Cottage Cheese—with 18 g of protein—as a burrata substitute in your next caprese salad.

9. The Energy Bar Evolution

From food co-ops to the gas station convenience store, energy bars are here, there and everywhere. And judging from a quick snapshot of what’s on the market, the choices just keep expanding:

  • Organic Prairie®’s grass-fed, organic beef, bacon and apple Mighty Bar
  • Vega’s plant-based chocolate peanut butter cup bar
  • Go Raw’s sweet spirulina sprouted bar
  • Kellogg’s Special K Protein Trail Mix bar
  • Rise™’s five-ingredient snickerdoodle bar
  • Perfect Bar®’s refrigerated almond açai superfood bar, using many of the oils mentioned above, plus flax oil

Whether the bars are vegan, Paleo, low-calorie, low-fat, sweet, salty, raw, athlete-oriented, dessert-oriented, kosher, grain-based, gluten-free, sugar-free, mass-produced or made by hand by one person living in a rented kitchen, there truly is one for everybody®no matter how peculiar or picky a person’s tastes may be.

10. The Power Of Seeds And Nuts

Shaw, the San Diego nutrition communicator, is a big fan of peanuts and pistachios. “Looking at the long term, it takes significantly fewer resources to produce and transport plant-based snacks such as peanuts than animal-based products. Also, a recent study in Nutrition Research demonstrated the power of the peanut and its role in improving weight status in adolescents. This included peanuts in all forms, from single-serve cups of peanut butter to a 1-ounce packet of peanuts.” As for pistachios, Shaw is a fan of Wonderful® Pistachios. “A June 2016 article identified them as a top-rated snack choice among all age groups.” She says pistachios (especially Wonderful’s sweet chili flavor) paired with a banana or as a topping on Greek yogurt are a perfect pre- or postworkout snack.

Chia and hemp seeds are still going strong, too. From chia-based bars made by values-based company Health Warrior® to hemp seeds (production of which is strictly controlled by the U.S. government), people seek out these seeds for their health benefits. While a report by the Congressional Research Service, Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity, indicated that it’s difficult to accurately report the import value of hemp seeds, the agency estimated that “the value of imported hemp products for use as inputs and ingredients has increased more than sixfold [since 2005].”

11. Natural Beverages

To some extent, coffee and black tea have been go-to beverages for caffeine lovers for eons, and their popularity continues. Consider the excitement around Bulletproof Coffee® and cold brew. But other sources, some just as ancient as tea, are now mainstream and are vying to be the more “natural” caffeine choice. Yerba maté is a South American stimulant from rainforest trees. Amazonian tribes have long consumed guayasa, whose leaves are gathered from rainforest trees. Guayasa has less caffeine than coffee, yet more than yerba maté or green tea. Add matcha to the list as well. High in antioxidants, matcha came to us from Japan and China as part of a tea ceremony. Now it’s so mainstream you can order a green tea latte made with matcha at Starbucks®. Maca is an ancient superfood from Peru that is popular roasted. And for those who want the flavor but not the caffeine, Teeccino® has carved out a niche with its chicory-root and dandelion-root coffee alternatives.

If you prefer fermented yeast to caffeine, you’ll be glad to know that kombucha now comes in more flavors than ever, with a predicted growth of 25% per year through 2020. According to a February 2016 report from the research firm MarketsandMarkets, “The kombucha market is the fastest-growing market in the functional beverages category.” As recently as 10 years ago, kombucha was an acquired taste (to put it politely), yet it now comes in flavors such as coconut, mango, berry, mint and Townsend’s Brew Dr. Kombucha’s White Rose.

Curious about the single largest change in the American diet over the past decade? It’s the decline in soda sales. In just the past 3 years, sales volume has dropped by 6%. That may not sound like a lot, but it equates to 12.8 billion gallons of soda. If you still want soda, you’ll find some unique flavors, such as Diabolo®’s tangerine pomegranate French soda. Even as soda sales have dropped, we still want our fizzy drinks, so into the breach comes sparkling water. In the year ending July 2016, sales of sparkling water increased 16.2%—to more than $1.4 billion. One enticing example is cactus water with starfruit and green tea from Steaz®.

If sparkling beverages aren’t for you, a whole range of unique drinks is calling your name. How about a vegan hot drink made of coconut milk, coconut nectar, cacao beans, cocoa powder and vanilla beans? Or a 5-calorie ARYA Curcumin Radiance beverage (curcumin is an active ingredient of turmeric)? Is prickly pear cactus water with berry purée just the ticket? Or perhaps a Blue Buddha® raspberry hibiscus with ashwagandha tea? Coconut water kefir with fermented berries? How about organic coconut water from Coco Libre®? Not only are the options nearly endless now, but many of these drinks come in compostable (and definitely recyclable) packaging, which should also appeal to consumers who are thinking about holistic health.

12. Greek Yogurts/Probiotics/Quark

Bulgarians, Greeks and Icelanders share a common passion for creating great yogurt. It’s hard to believe that Greek (strained and more protein-rich) yogurt was a specialty item as recently as 2008, considering how ubiquitous it is now. With less sugar and about double the protein of its competitors, Greek yogurt now tends to take up more space on the grocery shelf than standard yogurt does.

Icelandic yogurt is even more strained than Greek, leading to an even thicker taste treat. Actually, siggi’s® doesn’t call itself a yogurt. True to its roots, it’s an “Icelandic-style skyr” with low sugar, real fruit and grass-fed cow’s milk.

Bulgarian yogurt is not strained, so yogurt’s natural probiotics are retained. Why is that a big deal? Because probiotics help our bodies digest lactose, which is good news for folks with lactose intolerance. And because it’s fermented for 24 hours, it has a higher concentration of live, active cultures, making it more tart than other styles.

And then there’s quark. While it sounds like something physicists discovered in a hidden lab, quark actually originates in the Germanic countries. More of a “spoonable” cheese than a yogurt, quark has a texture that can range from yogurt-smooth to cottage cheese–curdish. In some cases, rennet is added as well.

American consumers have embraced quark and the lower-sugar, higher-protein European yogurts with gusto, with sales of Greek yogurt going from less than 1% of the U.S. yogurt market in 2007 to more than 50% today. Need proof that Greek yogurt has gone mainstream? You can now find it in over 800 McDonald’s restaurants in Southern California.

No matter what kind of eater you are, it’s never been easier to find healthy choices wherever you eat and shop. Your clients and students can be on trend and in good health if they keep these trends in mind.

IDEA Food and Nutrition Tips, Volume 5, Issue 6

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About the Author

Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Alexandra Williams, MA, is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal and co-owner of the Fun & Fit blog, column and radio show with her twin sister. Certified since 1986, Alexandra currently teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and for Spectrum Clubs. She loves to write, emcee and edit, especially in a humorous fashion. She can be reached at fundandfitka@gmail.com.