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2020 vision: The food trends that will impact the industry in the year ahead

In 2020, there are some big factors we’ll be keeping our eye on that could have major ramifications for the food industry well into the future.

7 min read

Consumer Insights

2020 vision: The food trends that will impact the industry in the year ahead


We’ve got a big year ahead of us.

Like many companies in the food industry, Datassential ends every year with a look at the trends that should be on the industry’s radar in the year ahead. We pull ideas from thought leaders across the company and combine them with data from surveys and our databases, plus a little help from Haiku, our machine-learning trend prediction engine.

In 2020, there are some big factors we’ll be keeping our eye on that could have major ramifications for the food industry well into the future. For one, it’s an election year, which means political issues ranging from tariffs to sustainability and global warming will be in the news. The year ahead will also be a turning point for a demographic shift in the country as Gen Z hits the workforce in a big way, bringing with them new preferences, skills and ideas. Of course, the biggest macroeconomic factor that everyone will be watching is the possibility of a recession and how it could play out in the US and around the world in 2020. There are also smaller factors that will impact what consumers want, from an interest in Japanese cuisine that will inevitably follow the Tokyo Olympics to new technologies set to be released in 2020.

So, taking these factors and more into account, what can we expect in the year ahead and beyond? Here’s a small peek at the macro, micro and flavor/dish trends that Datassential thinks should be on your radar:

Macro trends

These are the trends that have the potential to impact every company, daypart, product, and segment.

  • Digital life IRL: In the past, there were two sets of rules – one for how the online world worked, and another for how the “real” world worked. But in the years ahead, online rules will increasingly become the default rules for many parts of our everyday existence. Personalized menu boards and kiosks will increasingly mimic the browsing experience of YouTube and Netflix, with AI working behind the scenes to seamlessly customize the experience and take into account your surroundings. After a slow start, wearable technology is finally poised to hit the big time, with options like digital eyeglasses, watches and rings from companies like Apple and Amazon set to assist us in every food decision.
  • Plant-based finds its identity: With so many brands fearful that they’ll be left behind and rushing to adopt trends at an ever-faster pace, plant-based meats went from science fiction to the menu at Burger King in record time. After that initial rush, however, expect consumers and companies to grapple with what plant-based really means and how products should be positioned. Are plant-based burgers really healthier? Which categories will be disrupted next? (Look out chicken and seafood.) Meanwhile, companies and categories that are threatened by the growth of plant-based options will push back more aggressively.
  • What is a restaurant? Ghost kitchens, virtual brands, salad vending machines – are any of these restaurants? If a ghost kitchen is a restaurant, we have the potential to create a near infinite number of restaurants at the drop of a hat – a brick-and-mortar operator could create a virtual brand that only exists for a single lunch block and disappears just as quickly. Starbucks comprises seemingly every type of restaurant format one can imagine under its brand, from delivery-only stores to massive experiential Roastery concepts. New York’s Health Department recently struggled with the question of what defines a restaurant before finally deciding to treat Farmer’s Fridge salad vending machines as restaurants. In the years ahead, rethink your idea of what a restaurant can be.

Micro trends

These more focused trends have more specific applications or potential, impacting particular dayparts or segments.

  • Breakfast, brunch, brinner, blurred: As the breakfast bubble deflates and options like all-day breakfast become the new normal, reinventing breakfast options will be key to keeping the menu fresh and exciting. A number of casual chains have introduced brunch to drive traffic during slower dayparts, while multiple QSRs and c-stores have added brunch burgers. This blurring of the lines is par for the course now – chicken is becoming a new breakfast staple, while burgers, tacos and salads are some of the fastest-growing formats on breakfast menus.
  • New wave tea: The tea industry has been quietly following in the footsteps of the third wave coffee movement for a number of years, and in the next few it’s poised to reach a broader national market as consumers get more savvy about their tea and a growing number of cafes across the country introduce premium, artisan options to the menu. Dedicated tea cafes are also creating an upscale tea experience, with tea baristas who can explain origins and tastings notes, unique equipment to achieve the perfect steep, custom tea blends, and experiential options like matcha ceremonies.
  • Farms everywhere: While massive greenhouses and hydroponic and aquaponic farms continue to open around the world, there’s a different revolution happening on the other end of the spectrum: the rise of micro-farming. Small, automated growing appliances are showing up in hospitals, at colleges, in restaurants and soon at home – imagine a small grow box built into the cabinets right next to the microwave. The company Farmshelf already has units in restaurants and is working on an at-home model, while Kroger announced this year it would add hydroponic farms the size of a freezer case to some stores. These farms not only shrink food mileage down to zero, but they also allow chefs and consumers to grow exactly what they want – a hyper-personalized farm, so to speak.

Flavor & ingredient trends

These are early-stage flavors and ingredients that you should start paying attention to now.

  • Ajvar: From sriracha to gochujang to ajvar? Pepper-based condiments like this fire-roasted red pepper sauce from the Balkans can quickly trend because of their versatility as a spread or dip.
  • Karaage: This Japanese frying technique (pronounce it kah-ra-ah-geh) is becoming a trendy prep method for chefs in the US. Try it with chicken for an on-trend chicken sandwich option.
  • Grains of paradise: Native to West Africa, this intriguingly named spice has a flavor all its own, with notes of black pepper, cardamom and citrus mixed with floral flavors. Try it on seafood, drinks or desserts.
  • Unripe produce: Chefs are starting to discover and get creative with the unique flavors and textures of unripe produce – think options like unripe mango, green strawberries or unripe avocado.
  • Urfa biber: Consumers can’t get enough new varieties of peppers, so watch for this Turkish dried chili pepper, which has a smoky, almost raisinish taste, to start appearing on more menus and retail shelves.

This is just a small taste of the trends that are on our radar for 2020 – we’re also looking at how consumers will define “authentic” foods in the future, what service and hospitality means at a time when consumers increasingly want to be left alone, the evolution of eatertainment, and hyper-regionality in restaurant concepts and menus. However you look at it, the start of a new decade is sure to be momentous.

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Mike Kostyo is the resident Trendologist at Datassential, a supplier of trends, analysis and concept testing for the food industry. For more information about the 2020 Trends Report mentioned in this article, contact Kostyo at [email protected].


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