What was hot — and not — in 2015

by Monica Watrous
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Matcha, meal kits and misshapen produce made the list of food trends in 2015.

BOULDER, COLO. — Matcha, meal kits and misshapen produce made the list of food trends in 2015, said Kara Nielsen, culinary director and trendologist at Sterling-Rice Group. The Boulder-based firm compiles an annual forecast of food and beverage trends for the year ahead. In an interview with Food Business News, Ms. Nielsen reviewed how her year-ago predictions panned out. Spoiler alert: There were some hits — but a few misses, too.

Kara Nielsen, culinary director and trendologist at Sterling-Rice Group

“I think it’s essential to look at where we’ve been so we can understand underlying drivers and consumer values,” Ms. Nielsen said. “When you’re talking about innovating for new product development, creating new food service concepts and growth, you can’t grow if you’re not in line with where consumers are going, and you can’t really understand where consumers are going if you don’t know where they’ve been or what they’re rejecting or what they’re trading in for something better.”

Trends tend to evolve over time, but many of the drivers remain the same. Consumers still seek health, convenience and experience in what they eat.

“Continuing to look at history and the landscape of what was discarded and analyzing what was left behind and what is it about those products that aren’t meeting consumers’ needs anymore, it’s only then that you can get an understanding of what consumers want going forward,” Ms. Nielsen said.

Hot: Matcha

Boasting nutrients with less caffeine than green tea, antioxidant-rich matcha has bubbled up in convenient formats to meet demand for ready-to-drink beverages with functional benefits. The flavor also has emerged in new snacks and confectionery products.

Matcha was a hot ingredient in 2015.

“Looking back on the year when I think about the predictions we made, I was very satisfied to see that matcha really did make a big splash in the marketplace and in headlines,” Ms. Nielsen said. “In the absence of hardcore sales data, and thinking of things I have observed over the course of the year, I do know that matcha continued to be a theme and it points to me to consumers looking for energy support in a new way.”

Hot: Advanced Asian

Fare from the Far East has become a growing trend in fine dining, food trucks and everything in between. Ms. Nielsen’s year-ago prediction called for a “deeper exploration of funkier, fattier, hotter flavors” driven by the next generation of Asian cuisines, namely Northern Thai dishes, tangy Filipino foods and savory Japanese pancakes.

“Asia has stayed a big focus and passion for people,” Ms. Nielsen said. “I’m seeing more Korean flavors turn up on food service menus as a continued sign that these flavors are now moving up that trend spectrum from fine dining and independent dining into casual dining, and I think by next year we’ll start to see these flavors in more C.P.G. products.”

Not so much: Communal dining

Food halls, pop-up dining concepts and restaurant incubators were expected to gain traction this year, but meal delivery services proved more popular.

“I think consumers wanted to have their own hands-on experience,” Ms. Nielsen said. “I think they’ve been thrilled by what they’re seeing in the food halls and marketplace, and … it’s having a little more parity of creating restaurant-style meals or culinary flavors and trying to get those more often at home.”

Hot: Less-than-pretty produce

Odd or misshapen fruits and vegetables are getting a second look, supported by concerns over waste and efforts to reduce hunger. What began as a grassroots movement in a French grocery store has more recently spread to North America, Ms. Nielsen said.

Odd or misshapen fruits and vegetables are getting a second look, supported by concerns over waste and efforts to reduce hunger.

“There’s a lot of activism around this on the local level,” Ms. Nielsen said. “This overarching trend of grappling with food waste is going to keep growing… Are there other ways retailers, produce manufacturers, grocery stores can help consumers not waste their food?”

Not so much: Hop-free beers

A countertrend to IPAs, beers without that hoppy bitterness were pegged as the next big thing in the bar scene. Consumers, however, showed more favor for sour brews.

“We talked about hop-free suds, but we probably should have talked about sour beers,” Ms. Nielsen said. “What we ended up seeing was a real uptick in sour beers coming from the craft beer space…

“What I took away from the fact this trend didn’t pan out was that we’re still working our way into exploring these more adventurous tastes, and the good news is it gives manufacturers an opportunity to continue to play with our mass products and make them have bigger, bolder flavors or more potent flavors in a new way.

“I think it’s also a sign that consumers are really ready for less sugar and less salt and more of other ingredients that offer a rounder taste profile.”

Not so much: Local grains

While it was predicted small-scale heirloom wheat varieties would be all the rage in 2015, alternative grains such as amaranth, millet, barley and rye figured more prominently into American diets. Still, both trends point to “an expanded understanding of an ingredient that used to seem very basic,” Ms. Nielsen said.

“It used to be wheat, whatever wheat was. Now it’s a whole bunch of things. I think we’ll see more teff coming up…. I think we’ll see more of these heritage grains, ancient grains…

“At the same time, we have an interest in non-wheat alternative grains, the nut-into-grain trend, with coconut flour and almond flour being used in baked goods to recreate the mouthfeel and texture of wheat but with so much more flavor.”

Bottom line?

“Both sides of that grain story are going to continue to grow in interesting ways that give consumers a broad alternative to generic wheat flour and grain as a part of our diet,” Ms. Nielsen said.
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