Many consumers discover trends in mainstream grocery stores.

CINCINNATI — Good news for grocers — research reveals many consumers discover food trends during a routine shopping trip.

“We’ve seen from research that trends typically move from fine dining to casual dining to specialty chains to mainstream retail chains, but we heard directly from consumers that that’s really not how they’re learning about trends,” said Anna Saffer, director of new product development for dunnhumbyUSA, a consumer research firm.

In its latest food trends report, dunnhumby found that a third of consumers first spot a trending food or flavor on the shelves at mainstream grocery stores. This compared with 8% of consumers who stated a restaurant was the source of initial trial.

“This gives retailers the opportunity to capitalize on these trends early and use that as an opportunity to connect with consumers,” Ms. Saffer said. “We know consumers are willing to shop elsewhere to find the product they need, so having products and articulating the benefits they bring is a great way for retailers to engage with consumers.”

The report detailed five consumer preferences driving buying behaviors in the year ahead. Shoppers are seeking responsibly produced products, small-batch goods and foods prepared in line with religious standards — signaling a shift from “how it tastes” to “how it’s made.”

“I thought it was interesting to see a movement towards having a greater recognition of the impact that the food people consume not only has on their bodies but also on the environment and the world around them,” Ms. Saffer said.

Epic bars are made with grass-fed animals.

Responsibly produced

Fair-trade, free-range, grass-fed and certified organic foods with sustainable packaging are rising to the top of shopping lists. More than half of consumers purchase these products because they are responsibly produced, the report said.

“When we think about responsibly produced, some consumers said they’d be willing to pay a little bit more for it, but they won’t pay a lot more for it,” Ms. Saffer said. “Price is definitely still important to consumers, but if they feel like it’s a small upcharge to get a better quality or more healthful ingredient, it looks like they’re willing to. But it’s not something where consumers are going to blow the bank on these items.”

Saffron Road makes halal certified frozen entrees.

Religious standards

Similarly, products prepared in line with religious standards, such as halal, are perceived as higher quality. Eighty-two per cent of respondents who consume products with religious certifications said they care about the impact of food on their health.

“Whether it’s true or not, there is definitely a halo perception that if a product is hitting these criteria, it is either ‘better for me’ or better quality,” Ms. Saffer said. “Even if the consumer doesn’t engage in the religion or doesn’t even have a reference of, for example, what halal means.”

While kosher products are more prevalent in grocery stores, halal is gaining traction, Ms. Saffer noted. Products with this certification align with a Muslim diet and are verified by third-party auditors.

Small-batch items, such as the artisan treats from Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, are growing in popularity.

Small-batch goods

Consumers also equate quality with small-batch or craft items, such as artisan cheeses, ice creams and bread.

“There isn’t one area of the store driving all of this,” Ms. Saffer said. “It seemed to be pretty evenly distributed across the store.”

Small-batch shoppers believe partaking in the trend supports personal social and ethical beliefs, as well as local businesses. Consumers also associate handmade with healthier ingredients and unique flavors, according to the report.

PepsiCo recently launched soft drinks made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.

Natural sweeteners

Consumers are gravitating to natural sweeteners, including agave, monk fruit and plain old sugar.

“Real sugar is a claim that it seems more folks are going after,” Ms. Saffer said. “We looked at how products and brands are playing on that claim of having natural sweeteners.”

PepsiCo’s Throwback line of soft drinks, for example, is formulated with beet sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup.

Kefir has enjoyed explosive growth, according to dunnhumby.

Fermented foods

Kefir, kimchi and kombucha are bubbling up in more shopping baskets as fermented foods gain favor. Though these products offer digestive health benefits, most individuals who purchase them said they are drawn to the tangy taste.

“The unique flavor was definitely the predominant driver,” Ms. Saffer said. “We did see people reference different countries and having exposure … that it wasn’t just the foods themselves, but also a lot of times these foods are associated with a particular country or culture.”

Responding to the research

An important takeaway for food manufacturers lies in what the findings reveal about consumers and the drivers behind their preferences.

“What are the things they are looking for from small batch?” Ms. Saffer said. “Maybe it’s not small batch itself, but it’s those benefits and the idea of higher quality ingredients and a more natural process. That’s something large companies can take and bring into their innovation process…

“So, we’re not necessarily telling everyone to launch a kombucha item, but what I think they can take away from that is there is a way to learn about these consumers very deeply.”