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Streamlined menus, clean-label food, and umami top the food prediction list for 2021

There are plenty of shifts awaiting foodies as COVID-19 continues to reshape our world

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The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the relationship between food producers and consumers on its head. Shortages of products like meat pushed more plant-based products into grocery carts, and sit-down restaurants took it on the chin because of mandated closings while their drive-thru competitors and food delivery services prospered.

Will 2021 be more of the same or a whole new narrative? That’s a tough question, but it’s safe to bet that COVID-19 concerns and restrictions will play a hand in the world’s new normal as we enter the new year. 

Better, cleaner, and more streamlined for the consumer

Food industry consulting firm Technomic and food processor ADM predict several game-changing -- if not eye-opening -- food industry shifts for 2021. They include: 

Streamlining of menus. No matter where they’re located, Technomic says that restaurants are expected to focus on core menu items while, in some cases, revamping them as “new and improved” with higher-quality ingredients. Eateries may also launch “safer” limited time offers with ingredients they already have on hand. 

Better-for you, local, and clean-label items. Technomic also sees a shift toward better-for-you, local, and clean-label menu items. “Clean-label,” you ask? It basically means making a product with as few ingredients as possible, with the goal of making sure those ingredients are things that consumers are familiar with and consider to be wholesome. 

The whole wellness trend plays into that by creating new opportunities for nutrient-dense products with real health benefits. In its take on the subject, ADM went as far as saying that sensory factors like flavor and color -- such as colors that indicate a vitamin C-like citrus flavor -- will also play a key role. 

“The global health crisis has changed consumer preferences in new and unexpected ways,” says Vince Macciocchi, president, Nutrition, at ADM. “We are seeing a heightened demand for foods and beverages that support immune systems, enhance our mood and reduce our environmental impact, driven in part by emerging human tensions. This has provided a unique opportunity for brands to develop disruptive new products that will forever change the way we eat and drink. It’s going to be a year of innovation, marked by significant breakthroughs in nutrition.”

Socially aware. With social unrest paralleling the pandemic in 2020’s news cycle, greater emphasis on social justice issues can be expected of restaurants in 2021, says Technomic. That means consumers will be making sure that a restaurant is talking the talk and walking the walk when it says it’s actually making an effort regarding fairness and inclusion and not throwing out a bunch of buzzwords and hashtags.

Improved sanitation. Technomic says to look for more investments in contactless technology for sanitation and ease of use on the consumer side.

Foreign foodie delights. Due to travel restrictions, Technomic says to expect a renewed interest in Italian, Mexican, and Chinese menu items.

Enter Umami. While Umami isn’t exactly a household name, Technomic predicts that it will start showing up in foodie circle discussions. Umami is not a “thing,” but rather a Japanese term for “savory.” In Japanese food culture, it is one of the five basic tastes and is characteristic of broths and cooked meats. Technomic’s take is that umami will start showing up in fruit vinegars, new mushrooms, protein swaps, and tomato jam. The company also thinks that chefs will jump on board because umami gives them a new way to plate recognizable umami ingredients.

More plant-based foods. Whether you’re ready for it or not, plant-based food production isn’t stopping at veggie burgers and tofu turkey. ADM predicts that the plant-based shelves will add alternatives to products like steak and chicken breast, lunch meat, and bacon. However, they’re not stopping there. Food producers are also planning to go as far beyond the bun as possible to create more novel alternatives like shellfish and shrimp, plant-based cheeses, and ready-to-eat protein snacks.

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