WAUKEGAN, ILL. — Researchers at Woodland Foods, a specialty ingredient importer, can predict what will pop up on consumers’ plates.

Food forecasting helps the company decide which gourmet products to procure for use in private label, retail, restaurant, hotel and food service markets.

Food Business News asked David Moore, president, and Jeffrey Troiola, corporate chef in research and development, to explain how food trends originate and spread, plus their predictions for the year ahead. Lately, consumer preferences largely are driven by health, according to the company.

“We can talk about quinoa or flavored oils, but at the end of the day, people really want to feel good about what they’re eating,” Mr. Moore said.

Food Business News: How do food trends start?

Mr. Moore: A trend can’t happen unless certain things occur. There has to be a qualified evangelist or respected person talking about how good this is to get things rolling. Specifically, a celebrity chef or a restaurant group, somebody that makes a signature dish that’s then talked about.

Mr. Troiola: I think the consumer generally is looking for a new version of something they’re already familiar with a lot of times. That’s a key component of trends. They don’t necessarily want to recreate the wheel with something, but a trend is more likely to take hold if it’s something they’re already familiar with. Like introducing a color of quinoa – people are already familiar with the health and nutritional benefits of quinoa. Offering some variety I think significantly helps make something become a trend.

FBN: Describe a recent food trend and how it proliferated.

Mr. Troiola: The gluten-free trend started as a necessary diet restriction for (those with) celiac disease, and as people participated in a gluten-free diet, I think it became a trend because people were recognizing the perceived health benefits. That’s one trend I think is going to continue into 2013 and possibly beyond, just because a lot of people truly believe their health has improved drastically by cutting wheat out of their diet.

FBN: How do trends generally catch on?

Mr. Troiola: I think social media is huge. Thirty years ago, trends started singlehandedly by Martha Stewart or Gourmet magazine, and now with social media and apps like Yelp and Chowhound, the average consumer is pretty much an expert instantly. If something is validated by a chef and interesting in the field, it can easily be dispersed to the masses and catches on extremely rapidly.

FBN: What kind of research is involved with forecasting food trends?

Mr. Troiola: We have a variety of food experts in this company with different backgrounds, and I think we all approach it in a different manner. For myself, with a chef’s perspective, I research all the blogs, trade magazines, review menus from all over the United States and the world to see what may be the next thing on the horizon.

FBN: What trends are you seeing for 2013?

Mr. Moore: I think the trend we’re seeing right now is not really a food trend – it’s food safety. Between people wanting organic and gluten-free and between colleges across the country having complete vegan and vegetarian counters in their cafeteria, people are very careful about what’s going in their bodies, more so than they ever have been.

Mr. Troiola: Popped and puffed grains is something that we’ve seen trending as something to add texture to dishes in lieu of croutons. Puffed amaranth, quinoa, various things like that, we’ve seen an uptick in requests for.

Ancient grains is a huge one. Grains that are gluten-free – quinoa, amaranth, millet, wild rice, oats and buckwheat – are great alternatives for people on a gluten-free or meatless diet.

I think different flavor components – sour and fermented – are going to be huge in 2013. Pickling is huge right now; kimchee, sauerkraut, homemade pickles of all types. Those are all a unique flavor as opposed to the fatty and salty.

FBN: It sounds like a lot of these trends are driven by health.

Mr. Troiola: I would say that’s completely accurate. And I think a lot of the trends are a result of the economy as well. Noodles are trending huge, different types of ramen, because it’s a street food that has a great flavor profile but you can do a lot with at a low cost.

There’s an overall meatless trend. Kale was the hot vegetable in 2012, and now 2013, from what I’ve read, it seems like it’s going to be cauliflower. People are doing cauliflower steaks, roasted cauliflower. I think it’s, like I said before, taking something people are familiar with and turning it into a more unique item that could be center of the plate. I recently had a cauliflower steak as a main course at a restaurant, and I’m not a vegetarian. But I think that the meatless movement definitely boils down to the financial impact of having a protein on the dinner table every night at home, when you can substitute that with grains, beans, quinoa, that make a complete protein.

Mr. Moore: When we talk about healthy, I think it’s not only healthy for the body – I think there are a lot of trends that are healthy for the earth. Quinoa may not be local because not a lot of it is grown here, but it’s grown in areas where developing economies of relatively poor people historically outside of the economy are being brought into the economy. There’s a world health, whether it’s using less water or growing without chemicals. Quinoa is a great example because it’s grown at such altitude that pesticides aren’t required.

FBN: How often do food trends stick?

Mr. Troiola: I think it runs the gamut, from what I can tell. I think if there’s some validity behind them, such as the gluten-free trend, it’s probably here to stay more so than a South Beach Diet or something. But I would say most tend to run their course in 18 months or two years.

FBN: How does food trend spotting influence the industry?

Mr. Moore: I have always noticed that when a trend occurs, it takes on a couple of forms. It typically starts with a discovery of a particular product or technique or process. It’s then followed with a level of endorsement, all in the food service world – chefs and cooking shows, things like that. And then, if it’s felt to have economic legs, it then moves to food manufacturing. When we talk about ways in which these trends challenge the industry, I think the challenge is for food manufacturers to pick which one of the five trends they’re going to make their investment in. Lots of companies right now are investing in quinoa. You couldn’t find quinoa five years ago, and now you trip over it walking down the aisles. I think every store has limited space of what they’re going to put on the shelves, every manufacturing company has limited production facilities, and I think the challenge is really where are they going to put their money where their mouth is.

I think when more people are interested in what they’re eating, it benefits society, benefits the food trends, benefits companies like ours. When I was younger and was out with my male friends, nobody talked about cooking. And today, when a bunch of guys get together, they share guacamole recipes and pork shoulder rubs. I would say that that general awareness, as more and more people are interested in food, food is becoming more of a daily household art than just sustenance.