A desire for transparency, a return to simpler times and a strong interest in both stories and wellness – these are some of the elements the world is going to be looking for in food and drink this year, according to Kate Waddell.
Waddell is uniquely positioned to look at global food and drink trends: she is the group insight and innovation director for global design and innovation consultancy Dragon Rouge and has over 20 years experience in brand consulting.
“Trends run first through the urban, alpha cities, like Sao Paolo, New York, Bangkok,” she says. “We look at what the millennials are buying and talking about, and what Gen X is buying more of.”
Waddell was speaking at an Innovation Café event on the future of food and drinks, held at Bobo KL, Bangsar, late last year. Innovation Café is a platform across industries that was created by Dragon Rouge Asia, which brings together marketers interested in innovation. The KL event was held in partnership with Strategic Public Relations Group, Malaysian Advertisers Association, and the Institute of Advertising Singapore.
At an interview after the event, the Britain-based Waddell maps six trends that she feels will be strongly continuing in 2017 and beyond.
“This is one of the few times I’m seeing all these trends hooking so strongly into one another,” says Waddell, adding that they can often be quite contradictory.
“There’s a return to a sort of ‘old wisdom’ that we are seeing, a desire for simplicity and simplification, and a belief that you can enjoy more of life by enjoying food,” she says. It’s a romantic notion, but one that needs to coexist with the cynicism of scrutiny.
What’s the secret of a trend with staying power?
“When there is a simplicity to the understanding, when it is hooked in to a very fundamental, human benefit – ie, do a lot of people feel tired? Do a lot of people have to deal with sensitive guts? If you address that, then it has staying power – because these issues are not going away.”
The sugar wars
“This is the number one,” says Waddell. “The biggest trend of all. Everyone is thinking about sugar!”
With rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity spiking all over the developed world, lifestyles and health habits are changing drastically, and sugar is often portrayed as the Big Bad.
“Between 2000 and 2015, the rise of Type 2 diabetes in South-East Asia alone has been 150%” says Waddell. “And between 2006 and 2013, diabetes rates in Malaysia alone doubled.”
So many people are making significant cuts in sugar consumption, if not cutting it out altogether. “And looking for sugar alternatives that aren’t artificial, chemical sweeteners, such as honey, coconut, palm and date sugars.”
Issues of control are also coming up – many sugars are hidden in food, so it takes a lot of detective work to find them in the first place in order to regulate them.
Enter products like Valiber and The Right Cup.
“Valiber is a smart spoon that measures the sugar in your drink and tells you how sweet it is,” says Waddell. It will soon also be able to measure sour, salty and bitter tastes as well, using “val” units – so you are not just able to evaluate sugar content but can also learn and communicate your preferences.
The Right Cup is made from plastic infused with fruit flavours like mixed berries, orange and apple to trick your brain into thinking plain water is flavoured!
Carbohydrates, too, are a part of the sugar wars, as carbs turn into sugar in the digestive process. So diners and consumers are looking at healthy alternatives to carbs – usually of the low-glycemic index sort – such as quinoa, chickpeas, lentils, spelt and barley.
“We are seeing more vegetable spiralisers on the market now, which allow you to turn vegetables like zucchini and carrot into ‘pasta’ and a lot more vegetable-based snacks as well,” says Waddell.
“People are moving away from sugary drinks,” says Waddell, and interest in premium, power waters and hydration options has never been higher.
“The market is seeing lots of super-functional water – hydrogenated or oxygenated water, water with natural caffeine or electrolytes added,” she says.
There are also new hydration options on the market, tapped from various new sources. These include birch water, the low-calorie liquid that promises to do everything from dealing with cellulite to curing bronchitis, made from the sap of the silver birch and North American sweet birch; it contains saponin, which is said to help with blood cholesterol levels. Then there is palm juice, made from the flower sap of the coconut palm; and bamboo leaf tea, rich in silica and said to be good for hair, skin and nails as well as healthy bone density.
Instead of energy drinks alone, there is also water enhanced to be energy-giving, such as HyDrive Energy Water which is caffeinated, or POW Energy water with guarana.
This interest in wellness and function is spilling over into the alcohol industry as well. Lovo is a case in point, a vodka drink based on coconut water which touts itself as having only 128 calories, no refined sugar, colours or flavours; Saint is another, a sugar-free, lo-cal craft lager from Britain with just 99 calories a bottle.
“And Asian consumers in particular will pay for bottled water,” Waddell adds. “This trend is about celebrating and growing water’s essential purpose.”
And it’s not just about what you’re drinking, but how you drink it, she says. She cites MyHydrate, a patented smart hydration system that traces your water intake – and taps into the mainstream interest in the digital and cutting-edge.
This trend is about having your cake and eating it too – because otherwise, really, what is the point of cake? “The trick is to make something enjoyable, but also functional and permissible,” says Waddell.
“Have a bit of everything in moderation,” she explains, saying that a debit-credit approach is closer to what nature intended, rather than all-out splurging or complete denial of self.
So an indulgence is balanced with a trip to the gym, or the day begins with a green shake and ends with a bowlful of creamy pasta.
And healthier ingredients will be substituted. There’s always room for dessert, but perhaps it will be made with organic cacao? And who doesn’t love pizza – but maybe with a cauliflower crust for gluten- and carb-free gnoshing. The same goes for brownies made with sweet potatoes rather than wheat flour, or zucchini spaghetti.
Craft and provenance
This is not a new trend, and looks set to continue for a good chunk of time – definitely a good thing.
Driven by an interest in wellness and spurred on by various food scares – fake eggs, anyone? – knowing where your food is coming from is becoming terribly important to the consumer.
Take the story of the Dark Aloha Rocky Road from Lula’s Chocolates in the United States: Hand-crafted in California, it’s made with artisan marshmallows, house-roasted Hawaiian macadamia nuts and premium dark chocolate. That gives it an identity, a back story, a home – and allows it to stand out from the chocolate crowd.
“At the same time, there is attraction to a personal, less mass-produced aspect,” says Waddell.
It’s about provenance and story – consumers want both, although they don’t necessarily want to be overwhelmed by either.
Waddell is seeing a bit of a cynical kickback against the large organisations, and the perception of truth that they sell.
“But the truth is, a lot of people believe that some companies are small and independent, when the fact is that they are owned by big business,” she says.
“I think it’s more about being accountable than just small – consumers can see through the marketing spiel by looking at the visual codes, at ingredient labels on food packs, even clear icons in brands like Kelloggs.
“The other health issues we hear a lot more about nowadays are gut-related, like irritable bowel syndrome and lactose and gluten intolerance,” says Waddell, explaining that this is also changing the way people eat.
Pro- and the pre-biotics that love them are bywords nowadays, and intestinal and stomach health has been getting a whole lot more credit in terms of overall physical, mental and emotional health nowadays. There is also even more interest in the enzymes that come from fermentation, and catalyse various bodily processes, especially digestive.
This means a growing number of people interested in all things fermented, from yoghurt to kimchi to kefir. This includes a large number of chefs, from Britain’s Nurdin Topham to Benjamin Cross who heads Ku De Ta and Mejekawi in Bali.
“People are also interested in the provenance of food because of gut health issues, because they want to know that there is a certain level of purity to their food,” adds Waddell. “To this end, a lot of people want minimally-processed ingredients in their food.”
And again, new gadgets on the market are purported to help people take control of their food.
“Things like the SCiO Pocket Molecular Sensor, a small spectrometer that identifies the chemical make-up of food,” says Wadell – or indeed, anything around you. It then relays the info to your smartphone.
Finally, Waddell sees people turning to gut-friendly mushrooms and algae as new food heroes, along with dairy alternatives like sweet corn and quinoa milks.
New ingredients trending
While some of the ingredients that are finding themselves in a sudden spotlight aren’t new to Asia – yuzu and cashews among them – others are set to carry both the nutritional draw of superfoods and the added allure of exoticism.
Black raspberries provide a punch of tangy, berry-rich flavour but are also packed with antioxidants – three times the amount of the red variant or blackberries; these luscious berries are being used in various ways including in wine and ice cream.
Baobab fruit – from Madagascar and Africa – is rich in vitamin C and minerals, and said to be a powerful detox component; it can already be found in powdered form, or as the dried seeds of the fruit, in health stores in Britain.
Also on Waddell’s list of ingredients to look out for: bitter, caffeinated kola nuts from Africa; gochujang, the pungent, deeply-savoury Korean condiment made from red chillies, glutinous rice, fermented soybeans and salt; taste-enhancing, protein-rich hemp juice, which is drug-free and non-psychoactive; and Incan golden berries (aguaymanto or physalis) from Peru, which is already used as a garnish for desserts in Malaysia quite often.
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