Food Trends 2021: Staying Healthy In A Post Covid-19 World

October 20, 2020

Food Trends 2021: Staying Healthy In A Post Covid-19 World

The impact on food trends in 2021 will change the way people eat and shop due to Covid-19 forever.

Originally published on

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the frailties of the food world and its supply chain. For many people this has been the first time in their lives they went into our supermarkets and couldn’t buy toilet paper or flour or cow’s milk or their favorite brands and now, the latest shortages – frozen pizza and pepperoni!  In some stores many shelves were bare and shoppers felt scared and shocked about the possibilities of having no food to feed their families. 

We have a pandemic. We have an economic recession. We have global warming. As of October 1, 2020, we have over 44,000 wildfires in the United States that have burned at almost eight million acres and the fires are still spreading, according to the National Interagency Fire Center – and many of those acres are farmlands where our food is grown and livestock raised.

In the face of the uncertainty of just how long the pandemic will last, or if there will be a stronger second (or third) wave as is being predicted, it is imperative that the food industry – from farm to fork – prepare strategies for the new future; and understand the concerns, needs and emotions of shoppers. A survey conducted by Acosta found that if the pandemic does again force public lockdowns, 53% of Americans say they will stockpile groceries, hygienic products and school supplies, and that is an increase of 15% of respondents who said they stockpiled at the start of the pandemic.

Our supermarkets responded quickly putting in place enhanced sanitation procedures, signage, minimizing in-store traffic and especially expanding fledgling e-commerce efforts; all the while focused on building trust and confidence from their customers who remain deeply concerned about food availability amid rising prices coupled with a high unemployment rate.

And at the same time, these retailers are trying to meet the needs of adults who are faced with working at home, while tending to the needs of their school aged children - who may be attending classes on line, or have limited school days, or wondering if their schools will even open – all the while trying to balance good eating habits with satisfying their families emotional needs. Forcing a new business model on supermarkets. 

The shopping experience has changed dramatically; which is why I sat down with (over Zoom of course) Markus Stripf, Co-CEO of Spoon Guru in the UK to produce this analysis and understand how the grocery world and consumers will be shifting their priorities.

There is little doubt that Covid-19 has woken up Americans in many ways. The first is a new understanding of what and how they eat and how these foods and beverages have a significant effect on their stamina, strength and immunity to fight off viruses and other health abnormalities. Shoppers have changed how they are choosing their foods with a new yearning for reading labels, understanding what ingredients are in their foods, where there foods come from and which foods they should avoid.

The International Food Information Council’s 2020 Food & Health Survey findings echo Stripf’s COVID-era analysis and prediction that the industry must build trust and help stressed households achieve their wellness goals.

  • 54% of all consumers, and 63% of those 50+, care more about the healthfulness of their food and beverage choices in 2020 than did in 2010; healthfulness is the biggest mover, more so than taste and price.
  • Active dieting has grown this year as they look at their scales and find their jeans a little too snug as they work from home, snack more often and indulge to feel emotionally more stable – to 43% of Americans, up from 38% in 2019 and 36% in 2018.
  • 18% of Americans use an app or health monitoring device to track their physical activity, food consumption or overall health; 45% of users say it helps greatly; 66% say it led to healthy changes they otherwise wouldn’t have made.
  • 26% of U.S. consumers snack multiple times a day, and another third snack at least once daily; 38% say they replace meals with snacks (usually lunch) at least occasionally.
  • 28% of Americans eat more proteins from plant sources vs. 2019, 24% eat more plant-based dairy, and 17% eat more plant-based meat alternatives.
  • 74% of Americans try to limit sugar intake in 2020, down from 80% in 2019.

Another trend coming out of Covid-19 is that a significant amount of Americans want to go back to a pre- Covid weight (and in some cases reduce their weight) as a major health goal. But the only way they will succeed, based on Spoon Guru’s prediction, will be based on a combination of three things: CAPABILITY, OPPORTUNITY and MOTIVATION.

Capability is defined as the individual's psychological and physical capacity to engage in the activity concerned. It includes having the necessary knowledge and skills.

Opportunity is defined as all the factors that lie outside the individual that make the behavior possible or prompt it.

Motivation is defined as all those brain processes that energize and direct behavior, not just goals and conscious decision-making; which we know every January 1st are made with good intentions, and within 45 days are forgotten. It includes habitual processes, emotional responding, as well as analytical decision-making.

It is these interactions that lead to behavior change; and the food technologies that we spoke of earlier, are today’s tools and enablers that can support shoppers in achieving these goals. 

But here is the problem – the desire is there – but not the knowledge. Enter the insights shoppers can glean from retailers who fuel their search and apps across the globe using Spoon Guru. Four out of 10 millennial global consumers already say health claims on brands confuse them, according to the GlobalData research. Imagine the flood of questions that supermarket managers and their retail dietitians will be bombarded with when blends of supplements AND foods include proven immunity enhancers like Vitamins A, C, D, E and zinc appear on shelves.

Life under the cloud of COVID-19 has intensified the search for immunity-strengthening foods and supplements. A GlobalData survey in June 2020 found that 80% of global consumers are understandably concerned about COVID-19, and 23% admit they’ve stockpiled more vitamins and supplements recently. 

Immune function ties with muscle health/strength as the #5 benefit health-motivated eaters seek from food; International Food Information Council data shows from a survey of 1,011 U.S. adults fielded April 8-16, 2020. These health seekers cite immune function 40% of the time, a rate that trails only weight management (62%), energy (57%), and digestive (46%) and heart health (44%) as a food-centered objective.

The reality of what we’ve seen during the pandemic is the return to comfort foods and familiar brands that made them feel calm and comfortable – brands with a long heritage that solidified their reputations for being safe and a sure bet – shoppers knew what to expect from them - and part of it was that they just plain tasted great.  And they were on the shelves.

One sector of the food business that experienced a huge benefit from the pandemic are comfort foods; which has been a boon for those iconic food brands that have seen their sales decline over the past few years as shoppers shifted to smaller upstart brands that had more innovate recipes, more exciting flavors, healthier profiles with more sustainable and simple ingredients. People gravitated to the brands they knew, that they grew up with, those that their families bought for generations.

This is an unbelievable opportunity for these iconic brands. 

The looming question is whether these brands will take advantage of this surge in sales, and new found hipness and awareness especially from the baby boomers who grew up on these foods to latter leave them as their awareness of ingredients and health concerns grew closer as they aged - and reformulate and reimagine their products to be healthier – and save their brands from oblivion.

A survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Sensodyne toothpaste, found 74 percent of respondents said cooking has been a successful coping mechanism for them as they deal with the stress of being home. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said they have even learned a new recipe during quarantine and 32 percent have taken an online cooking class.

Pre-pandemic, the average shopper visited a food store 2.3 times a week and spent on average about 20 minutes per shopping trip. Enjoying the aromas and colors of the produce department, sampling new products, learning how to prepare a new recipe and consulting with a retail dietitian led to enhanced and satisfying shopping experiences. Today we are lucky if shoppers come to the store even once a week.

According to The Confidence Board Global Consumer Confidence Survey conducted in Q4 2019 (pre-COVID-19) 14% of consumers reported that they were worried about increasing food prices and 68% of consumers said they are cutting back on their food purchases.

What will the future hold in 2021?

Expect to see more plant based and plant forward foods. We will see a shift to more wholesome carbs from whole grains, ancient grains. Much more attention will be given to foods that contain Vitamin C and supplements to boost immunity. More blended foods – both made at home and bought ready made in sores building on the success of the Mushroom Council and James Beard Foundation’s blended burger success – the combination of mushrooms and ground beef – that is already being extended to other proteins and other vegetables. Think flexitarians versus vegans. It’s not about extremes – it will be the about balance between animal and plant protein.

Our shelves will be overrun with new innovations that are designed to meet the needs of the pandemic shopper. Higher anxiety led to new products like PepsiCo’s new drink called Driftwell that is meant to help consumers relax and unwind before bed. The enhanced water drink contains 200 milligrams of L-theanine and 10% of the daily value of magnesium. This from a brand that was built on caffeine and high fructose corn syrup.

Consumers aren’t just eating at home more but they’re also managing their health at home. Early research published in Nutrition & Dietetics in late June showed that telehealth in Australia keeps patients compliant with care regimens to improve health outcomes.

The results are impactful:

  • When compared to a traditional group weight loss program, those engaged in a telehealth program lost similar amounts of weight over six months.
  • A meta-analysis found telephone-delivered nutrition counseling is effective in improving eating patterns of individuals with chronic conditions. Half of telephone programs in published literature are with individuals with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic kidney disease and osteoarthritis.
  • A web-based study in seven European countries found that diet quality, as assessed by the Healthy Eating Index 2010, improved across the 3-month trial and was maintained for an additional 6 months – due to telemedicine.

In the US, Kroger Health launched a telenutrition service that’s free, as long as the pandemic lasts, to help customers navigate the new normal.

As part of its Food as Medicine platform, it offers: 

  • Unlimited free virtual consultations with a registered dietitian via video chat, using the code COVID
  • Personalized support and plans for individuals and families
  • Management of food-related health issues

Texas has the most uninsured adults and the third-most uninsured children in the U.S. according to Wallethub. So when grocer H-E-B launched telemedicine with the partner MDBox app in the summer of 2019, it was a welcome affordable solution. Walk-ins can have a video-chat doctor visit at the pharmacy counter within 30 minutes for less than $50.

Technology, food technology has come a long way. No, I am not talking about the foods that are being created through Silicon Valley tech – I’m talking about the information and education that we can offer shoppers through technology.

Packaging will contain more QR codes that can verify product and ingredient claims, DNA kits will continue to evolve well beyond where they are now – but the import of the shopper themselves will be paramount to their success. Viome, for example, a kit that focuses on gut health, produces two reports for a shopper one that focuses on what you should and should not eat, and the other focused on the traits in our bodies and what they mean. Each report is close to 100 pages – far to complex for the average shopper to understand or to follow. But take that kind of information and embed it within the shopping experience, easily and simply – and see what magic can happen. Viome has also just launched a new product - supplements based on your profile - personalized for your individual needs to help you ‘correct’ those gut related issues.

One thing for sure is that the pandemic has brought families together to eat together, to communicate and spend more time together.

The FMI Family Meals effort has long promoted the benefits to health and to society and the pandemic has given the effort more substance and reason to embrace. Here’s what we know:

  1. Eating together as a family helps kids have better self-esteem, more success in school, and lower risk of depression and substance-use disorders.
  2. Kids that learn to cook eat healthier as adults. If they learn by ages 18-23, they eat more vegetables, less fast food, and more family meals a decade later.
  3. Home preparation of more plant-based proteins such as dry beans and lentils, tofu, and homemade veggie burgers are helping shoppers discover that good nutrition can be delicious.
  4. People are eating more local foods in response to supply chain issues early in the pandemic.
  5. Changing mindsets about wellness now include self-compassion. Eating is one of the basic ways we care for ourselves. And disruptions in food and activity routines have people thinking about how they redefine wellness.

The supermarket world is changing, and as we look around us – around the entire globe – we need to open our eyes and imagine what it possible – and understand that everything has changed and through smart food technologies we can improve the health and wellness of every shopper!