BOULDER, COLO. — From coconut sugar to cannabis cuisine, the next big culinary trends reflect wellness, authenticity and adventure. Among the list of 2015 trend predictions compiled by Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder-based consulting firm, are complex flavors, functional ingredients and a deeper exploration of food culture and community.
“An overarching theme here is the presence of millennials,” said Kara Nielsen, culinary director and trendologist at Sterling-Rice Group. “This bigger generation is influencing the deeper flavor exploration that we’re seeing, to continued exploration of wellness ingredients and foods that are better-for-you, and then we also have a few trends that reflect community connection, both to other elements of the food community as well as connections with the past and tradition.”
To compile its annual list, the group collects expertise from food industry experts, publications and trade shows to identify emerging trends in the industry. Not all trends hit the mainstream, but key drivers suggest a shift in consumer behaviors and need states that restaurant operators and food manufacturers may leverage in product development.
“We’ll have to see what large food companies start pushing this,” Ms. Nielsen said. “For example, how can ‘advanced Asian’ move into the grocery store? That could be frozen meals, sauces, prepared foods.”
Fare from the Far East has become a growing trend in fine dining, food trucks and everything in between. The newest wave of Asian flavors are spicier and more complex, driven by Northern Thai cuisine, Japanese okonomiyaki pancakes and tangy Filipino foods.
“What we’re seeing are restaurateurs and food lovers that may have come from an Asian background or are familiar with deeper level of Asian foods and bringing into marketplace currently mostly in the restaurant format,” Ms. Nielsen said. “There’s a deeper exploration of funkier, fattier, hotter flavors.”
Matcha, matcha, matcha
Antioxidant-rich Japanese green tea powder has bubbled up in convenient formats to meet demand for ready-to-drink beverages with functional benefits. Boasting nutrients with less caffeine than green tea, matcha stars in Motto Sparkling Matcha Tea from The Verto Co., Boston, featuring ground green tea leaves, honey and organic agave, apple cider vinegar and lemon juice. Matcha Love canned green tea from Ito En, New York, is available unsweetened or sweetened with cane sugar.
“The biggest driver for the matcha is wellness and health and our love affair with superfoods and super ingredients,” Ms. Nielsen said. “And green tea has been on the radar for the past 10 years as a very legitimate health ingredient, whose reputation remains unshaken.”
From candy to cold-brewed coffee, creative culinary applications for cannabis are gaining ground in states where medical and recreational marijuana is legal. Cookbooks and cooking classes also incorporate the ingredient in foods that span beyond the brownie.
“In the places where it is legal, it has become a new entrepreneurial outlet for people who are enhancing baked goods, which is a little more traditional, but also things like flavored syrups for drink making,” Ms. Nielsen said. “Hopefully people will just be safe about it.”
The pursuit of hoppiness
A countertrend to IPAs, hop-free beers are on the rise. To create a flavor balance and aroma, brewers use herbs, spices and bitter plants such as mushrooms, sassafras, rosemary, hemp and reindeer lichen. Gruit from New Belgium Brewing Co., Fort Collins, Colo., contains horehound, bog myrtle, yarrow and elderflowers.
“It explores how many people today are on the hunt for new experiences, whether it’s aromatic or texture or flavor, and these beers, when they remove that bitter hoppiness, there’s more room for these other ingredients to come through,” Ms. Nielsen said.
Charcoal on fire
Charcoal is the new black, coloring bread, lemonades and crackers, such as Fine English Charcoal Squares from The Fine Cheese Co. In restaurants, chefs are using ancient styles of charcoal to cook food at high temperatures without smoke and odor. Charcoal Restaurant in Denver uses a custom-designed Japanese-style “Bincho” grill to prepare classic European dishes.
“It’s great for little delicate items like fish or small pieces of chicken and meat on a skewer,” Ms. Nielsen said. “It also cooks incredibly fast and produces this delicious char flavor we have come to associate with some of the casual Asian dining that’s accompanied by beer or sake.”
Is milling the next juicing? With farmers selling small-scale alternative grain varieties to local bakers, brewers, chefs and consumers, expect to see a demand for countertop mills and grain-milling appliances. Community Grains, Oakland, Calif., sells flour and pasta made with “identity-preserved wheat”; each package is stamped with the breed and variety of wheat, where it was grown, when it was harvested and where and when it was milled.
“People are going to discover it’s fresher, more nutritious; these are all the hallmarks of what has pushed other local foods to the forefront,” Ms. Nielsen said. “This fits into the mindset of a lot of folks who are trying to give mainstream commodity processed wheat a break, including the Paleo folks.”
Sweet on coconut sugar
With a lower glycemic index than cane sugar and more nutrients, coconut sugar is sweetening confections, dessert spreads and granola. Purely Elizabeth baking mixes and ancient grain granola cereals from Appetite for Healthy Living, Boulder, contain organic coconut palm sugar, which is sustainably harvested in Bali and provides potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron and B vitamins.
“People are gravitating to it towards out of the Paleo trend, they’re looking for something a little less processed, to people looking for more of a traditional taste when they’re making Southeast Asian foods at home,” Ms. Nielsen said. “What was interesting to me was seeing coconut sugar as an ingredient in products coming out of the natural and specialty space.”
As Jewish millennials seek to eat in a more culturally driven and conscious way, artisan delis and bagel shops serving farm-to-table fare have emerged. Even non-Jewish customers are drawn to such products as Grow & Behold Kosher Pastured Meats, which they may perceive as cleaner and purer than the non-kosher counterparts.
“I think that keeping kosher skipped the boomer generation, and now a lot of their millennial children are sort of returning to it and are looking for more meaning and connection to their roots,” Ms. Nielsen said. “I think it’s also part of our efforts to be more mindful.”
A new restaurant concept popping up in Dallas, Denver, and Washington, D.C., combines communal dining, pop-up restaurant novelty and chef competitions. Such restaurant incubators include Kitchen LTO in Dallas, a rotating hub for aspiring chefs who vie for a spot via social media.
“It’s a very unique, of-the-moment enterprise,” Ms. Nielsen said. “I don’t see this as something lasting a long time, frankly.”
Odd or misshapen fruits and vegetables are getting a second look, supported by concerns over waste and efforts to reduce hunger.“It’s a trend that started in France at a grocery store to get people to buy the ugly fruits and vegetables,” Ms. Nielsen said. “This isn’t the garbage fruit that’s spoiled; these are just fruits that have come off the tree in a funny fashion and maybe aren’t as beautiful. Thinking how the grocery industry created the notion of beautiful fruit anyway by being so selective and creating these beautiful displays and relegating the less attractive fruit and vegetables to a different space, and I’ve already seen a few grassroots events around this type of thing here in the United States, and I think we will see more expressions and concern around consumer food waste efforts and entrepreneurs starting to address these things.”