Food fads: how they differ from meaningful shifts in food culture

Reprinted with permission of The Hartman Group.

This article was originally published in December 2014

As ethnographers with a deep understanding of food culture and what consumers are putting in their grocery carts and bellies, we’ve seen a lot: Cronut™ madness, burgers sandwiched between ramen noodles, special diets of almost every stripe. They’re fun to talk about, but they also tend to be fleeting and fairly one-dimensional. It’s more fun to delve into the reasons behind these food fads, to figure out where people might be headed next.

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Maturing food culture

Take bacon. There’s a fad that keeps on giving: bacon doughnuts, bacon dust on fries, bacon deodorant. The joke ended years ago, but people keep telling it because it taps a rich cultural vein that goes beyond a love of salt and fat. It involves experimentation and exploration and a fascination with discovering unique ways to combine food (and apparently hygiene products).

Next came the craze for kale, a vegetable that so obsessed some people that they become sick of it, or sick from eating too much of it. Kale appeared on t-shirts, in late-night TV jokes, in chip and cocktail form, and as a Levi’s jeans color.

People moved on — to quinoa, to kombucha, to such a wide range of ingredients and dishes that they now are becoming immersed in cuisines rather than infatuated with single products. They’re also less likely to post photos of baby pigs with careless captions such as “future bacon.” American consumers appear to be moving beyond their food culture adolescence and gaining a sophisticated and complicated food repertoire. Rather than getting hung up on certain fads, people are experiencing the whole enchilada — and they love it.

This new maturity about food does not stem from more people learning to cook. Although consumers have strong opinions about how ingredients are sourced and prepared, mostly they are not cooking in the traditional sense. Instead, they watch cooking shows on television, peruse photos and reviews on social media sites, talk to farmers and chefs, and take cooking classes for the fun and knowledge of it — not because they plan to use those skills at home regularly.

Food for health and well-being

As people’s ideas about food expand, they merge with other aspects of culture — including health and wellness, which no longer is relegated to a corner of the local health-food store. It’s everywhere, and it’s about staying fit, strong and well in the broadest sense.

Consumers are giving up on simply counting calories or cholesterol or sodium intake and are embracing holistic approaches to health and eating that naturally encompass those elements. They want fresh, whole foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients — including full fats, sugar and other sweeteners in the right proportions.
Much of consumers’ current thinking about health revolves around digestion as the root of wellness and choosing foods that help their bodies absorb nutrients most efficiently. Many people are not even aware they’re concerned about digestion, but the signs are clear: They talk about how certain foods “sit” with them, how they feel an hour or more after they’ve eaten — and they increasingly are interested in digestive aids, from ginger to fermented foods and beverages such as sauerkraut and kombucha.

There even has been a fresh bread revival, with people such as Washington State University’s Stephen Jones forwarding the idea that perhaps what some people think of as gluten sensitivity might be alleviated by old-fashioned bread-making techniques, including a longer rising method that allows for natural fermentation and boosts digestibility. A crop scientist, he’s encouraging people to try heirloom wheat and artisanal breads made with fresh, whole-grain flour — a culinary treat and, many nutritionists say, important for minerals, fiber and other nutrients. (Ed. note: See the November Sound Consumer article “Going with the grain” for more about Jones’ work.)

New outlook on protein

At the same time people are showing more interest in how food affects their health and well-being, they’re also peering more deeply into how food choices affect local farmers, the environment and, especially, farm animals. There’s been a marked increase in consumer concerns about how animals are treated.

Despite a widespread interest in buying local, people are more willing to pay extra for products that come from animals that have been treated well than they are for local products. That’s because, for consumers, animal welfare is associated more clearly with human health and safety. People believe food from content, naturally raised animals is more nutritious. As one consumer put it: “Grass-fed products are healthier because the toxins are not transferred into the human body.”

There’s also a growing belief that such animal products taste better, which chefs such as David Chang have said for years. “There’s a right way and a wrong way to raise animals, that’s all,” Chang told Salon.com back in 2008. He encouraged people to buy local pork and warned that large companies are using family farmers as fronts. Peter Kaminsky, a chef who’s written a book on the subject, concurred: “Any rustic hog that can live in the woods, forage for food, take care of their kids, be free range, eat acorns and grasses and be allowed to get big and fat is going to make good meat.”

As people turn away from factory-farmed animal products — and in some cases away from beef, pork and chicken altogether — they are exploring new forms of protein that they see as cleaner and healthier. Nuts, seeds, legumes and cultured dairy are common alternatives — but more adventurous eaters have discovered insects as well (cricket energy bars, cricket broth, cricket flour). There’s definitely an “ew” factor to eating insects in the United States, but there’s also intrigue and curiosity about why it’s a staple of some other countries’ cuisines.

Trust and the organic label

People also wish they could afford to buy more organic dairy and meat products, despite having trust issues around the organic label. A whopping 73 percent of consumers now buy organics as the label is becoming both easier to find and easier to doubt.

The rising number of highly processed organic foods may undermine confidence in the label as consumers question whether it’s possible to trace and verify the organic origins of products with long ingredient lists. Lacking the personal resources to trace such products and ingredients — and to visit the farms and mills and slaughterhouses — consumers lean heavily on retailers and, in some cases, particular brands and manufacturers, to share details about where their food is coming from. Over time, people build trust in particular products and vendors.

Despite doubts, shoppers still look to the organic label for products that do not contain chemical pesticides, herbicides or growth hormones. They see the term “natural” as similar, a sort of shorthand for products free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives, but the word “natural” on product packages raises immediate red flags for consumers, and recent lawsuits also have called such claims into question.

Local ascends, creates confusion

At the same time consumers wonder about the reliability of organic, they are embracing locally produced food and beverages. Local has become shorthand for a food system with integrity. For consumers, it carries connotations of community as well as economic and environmental stewardship. Local products also tend to come with compelling narratives that include small-scale production and closer relationships with food producers.

People believe in the integrity of local producers and small farmers, seeing them as deeply invested in the quality of their products. They also like eating what’s in season and fresh from the farm, and keeping their money in the community.

“Local is more important to me than organic,” one consumer said. “It’s about building a relationship. Asking local farmers about their practices is better than what the government can tell me.” Still, there are anecdotal reports of some shoppers mistakenly assuming that local products inherently have some of the same benefits as organics, for example being free of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and growth hormones. People sometimes get that idea from talking to farmers market vendors who say they do not spray or use other synthetic chemicals, yet are not certified organic.

While buying locally grown food certainly helps build local economies and enhance food security, it does not automatically equal organic or good stewardship.

Movement of the future

Beyond organic, natural and even local is a budding interest in seed preservation. Stephen Jones and a host of microbakers are doing it for wheat varieties, brewers are bringing back heirloom crops, and chefs such as Dan Barber are featuring vegetables that are bred for better flavor and nutritional value.
The movement to celebrate heritage seeds and create new varietals is a powerful example of how consumer culture has evolved. In contrast to the 1950s, when people saw uniformity as a marker of quality, today they’re more likely to regard it as a plague of sameness.

Just as consumers want meat and dairy products from content, well-treated animals, they also like to feel good about where their plant food comes from. As celebrated Southern chef Sean Brock puts it: “The secret to delicious food is good dirt and plant varieties.”

The Hartman Group, a leading authority on consumer culture, has a reputation among its Fortune 500 clients for translating shifts in shoppers’ behavior into solutions for overcoming growth and innovation challenges. For more information, visit The Hartman Group online.

Also in this issue

Community impact award

On October 22, PCC was honored by Seattle Business magazine as part of the publication’s first annual Community Impact Awards Program.

PCC Board of Trustees report, December 2014

Board report, Next board meeting, 2014-2015 nominating committee report

Holistic health options for pets

Healthful choices for pets have increased exponentially in the past few decades. Raw food, grain-free kibble, joint supplements, digestive enzymes, homeopathic remedies and herbs — so many choices can make pet owners wonder where to start.