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Fancy Food 24/7: How the pandemic has flavored food trends

This year’s Summer Fancy Food Show may have been converted from a three-day in-person event in June to a two-week virtual show that started this week, but the focus is still the same -- giving specialty food brands and retail and foodservice buyers a place to meet up and offering a glimpse at the latest culinary trends.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has been a top driver of many food trends over the past 18 months, said Denise Purcell, the Specialty Food Association’s vice president of content and education, during a session on trends that kicked off the show on Monday. Purcell presented trend forecasts from the association’s Trendspotter Panel, which includes a roster of representatives from a variety of different areas of the food world. 

Cooking and eating at home became the norm after March 2020 and consumers have developed new cooking skills and preferences they’re expected to carry into the future even as they once again opt for restaurant meals more often.

“Consumers are eager to get back out there, but we aren’t expecting that they’re necessarily going to abandon even some of the skills that they’ve picked up over the past year and a half, we’re expecting to see a mix of cooking and dining out,” Purcell said. 

That prediction bodes well for certain categories of ingredients, including seasonings, sales of which grew eight times faster last year than in 2019, and the category is on track to grow by 7.6% annually over the next five years, up from 3.6% annual growth pre-pandemic.

Ethnic spices including Asian, Mexican and Middle Eastern are expected to continue growing, along with flavored salts, spice rubs and blends containing wild-foraged ingredients. 

The home-cooking trend also revved up growth in categories that had been mature before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including oils and vinegars. Home cooks are now embracing more exotic examples in this category, including saffron-infused and flavored oils and coconut vinegars, Purcell said. 

Shelf-stable pasta was another mature category that got a boost. Pre-COVID-19, the category was stalled as more consumers adopted low-carb and keto diets, but the pandemic put pasta back on the list of pantry staples for many -- sales grew 90 times faster last year than in 2019. 

Sales of refrigerated pasta and pasta sauces also grew during the pandemic, and sales in all three categories are expected to continue growing as consumers explore more options like gluten-free pasta and heirloom tomato sauces.

Additionally, cooks stocked their pantries with beans, grains and rice, reviving the category and spurring demand for innovative products including ancient and regional grains, products from family farms and ready-to-eat seasoned products, all areas expected to drive future growth in the category. 

The pandemic also ushered in a return to home baking, fueling sales of baking mixes, yeast and other ingredients. The category grew 35% last year from 2019 and is expected to generate 6.4% in annual growth through 2025. 

As in other growing categories, innovative baking products to meet different dietary needs and preferences are proving particularly popular, including reduced-sugar mixes and grain-free and alternative flours made from ingredients like fava beans and chickpeas. 

Innovation has also been a factor in another pandemic-era trend -- the embrace of comfort food. Many consumers opted for traditional comfort favorites like ice cream sandwiches and French onion soup, Purcell said, but others sought out new versions of old favorites like plant-based chicken nuggets and popcorn topped with oat butter.

Not every food trend has to do with the pandemic.

Nineteen percent of consumers surveyed said they enjoy shopping at stores that stock products from diverse companies including brands owned and operated by women, people of color and LGBTQ people, and the percentage rises among specialty food fans and Gen-Z.

“In addition to helping support these diverse companies, carrying these products can be a gateway to attract these young consumers,” Purcell said.

Retailers can get an additional boost among younger shoppers with brands that extend their focus on social issues and demonstrate commitments to sustainability, the environment and giving back to the communities that support them. 

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