Overall the trends inspiring product development and innovation indicate that consumers and food continue to move toward experimentation. There is strong evidence that consumers are moving out of the economic crisis both emotionally and behaviorally. Consumer and food and flavor research patters all indicate more extreme behaviors and activities; a sense of risk taking, playfulness, courage, and experimentation. The swings in behavior and desires are simultaneously wider, more unfocused, and extreme in nature.
This is actually a normal transition when coming out of recession and into recovery and therefore is a good sign that consumers' moods are improving. It also paints a more complex landscape to have to navigate but at the same time, more freedom to focus in areas of interest or expertise for the industry.
However, consumers are cautiously moving toward recovery and are still demanding authenticity and so this is not the time to "Americanize" global foods. Bring foods in from abroad in their truest form and represent them accurately on the plate. While consumers are letting go of their blanket of fear created by the economic crisis and war overseas, be aware that they still have a few fingers touching the blanket or at least have it in their line of sight. This is not the year to plunge ahead with molecular gastronomy or create foods without reference to anything in their ken.
But it is not enough to be in tune with your own category of products. Without understanding the other categories, your product may be out of step on the plate. So become familiar with other categories. Beverages right now for instance, lead with cocktails as the recovery unfolds. Historic drinks seemed to dominate here. Seasonings are showing ginger, citrus, pickling, salts, smoke and vanilla on the familiar side, for example. But the more extreme face for seasonings include Nordic flavors, flowers, sour, fermented, flavored heat, ashes, miso, spice rubs, zip code honey and truffles.
Fruits track in with familiar items including grapefruit, coconut, citrus, berries, and anything heirloom. On the exotic side are finger limes, hibiscus, arctic berries, and dragon fruit. Vegetables showcase extreme versions of common foods such as purple corn, wild mushrooms, garlic scapes, fiddlehead ferns, okra, seaweed, and stinging nettles. Proteins are extreme with trash fish, bison, barnacles, goat, duck, rabbit, and insects appearing. There is no comfort in the protein category except for beans, which play in both protein and vegetable categories.
Cooking methods remained focused on open flame and smoke for the most part – all high heat methods. Dairy remains historic but with global influences such as French cheeses, ricotta, and artisan soft serve on the familiar side and Lebanese yogurt, paneer, plant-based dairy, burrata, savory ice cream on the experimental side. Grains act as the interpreters with the familiars being steel cut oats, quinoa, lentils, multi grain tortillas, and waffles whereas the experimental side contains flatbreads, chia, global noodles, teff, faro, grits, and barley. Desserts are swinging from historic options such as sonkers, grunts, and slumps, to regional specialties such as stack pies from the Deep South.
Now is also not the time for "comfort food." As fusion creeps back into the picture the newest pattern to emerge during this slow recovery is "comfort fusion." Instead of fusing two unfamiliar or global cuisines, comfort fusion takes two common or familiar items and puts them together. It was the birth pattern of the cronut – croissant and donut, wookie – waffle and cookie, and other items appearing. It is a baby step toward fusion but the right pace during a fearful time. Grains are the poster child for comfort fusion with savory pancakes as another example.
Factions, or families, included food trucks, foraged foods, and invasive species but also have a newer birth with filled foods moving forward. Filled foods, such as filled pastries, are both comforting but also complex in their construction so they are also a type of comfort fusion due to their form.
*To be continued in "Inspiring Product Development and Innovation as Recovery Unfolds Part II"
Suzy Badaracco is a toxicologist, chef, and registered dietitian. She holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Criminalistics, an Associates degree in Culinary Arts, and a Masters of Science degree in Human Nutrition.