By Jack Shipley
Never before have Canadians had such a wide variety of food choices. Experts say the information age is a leading force, driving consumer demand and the options presented by food makers.
This trend is reflected in the grocery aisle, where shoppers increasingly find products whose labels reflect a rising preference for tailored formulations – from low fat to gluten free. It is also reflected in food columns, titles of new cookbooks and menu items in restaurants. While some consumer trends are influenced by convenience, pleasure and value, there is a noticeable increase in focus on health and wellness that has Canadians not only watching what they eat but also asking how it’s grown and produced.
“Today’s consumers are keenly interested in what they are eating and how it affects their health and well-being,” says Derek Nighbor, senior vice president of Food & Consumer Products Canada (FCPC).
Recognizing this as more than just a passing fad, growers and producers are responding. Consumers are looking for innovative products, says Nighbor, and companies are adding “healthier for you” options that include smaller portion sizes, lower sodium or trans fat content, or added vitamins, fibre and minerals.
With the ready availability of information comes a greater awareness that food choices vary from person to person – depending for example on age, health, ethnicity and family food attitudes. “We are getting away from the ‘eat this, don’t eat that’ mentality to empowering Canadians to make the right decisions for themselves,” Nighbor explains.
Toronto-based futurist Richard Worzel believes the growing knowledge about human genetics will take that trend even further. He predicts that within 10 years, getting our full genetic profile will cost $100 and take an hour to complete. “That means we’re going to rapidly get an incredible amount of information about ourselves and how food affects us.”
New technology – scanners, smartphones and the like – will make it easier for consumers to track what food choices are the best fit for their bodies, says Worzel.
As an example of how demographics influence food trends, Worzel mentions the boomer generation. “As our bodies age, they become less resilient, and that means there’s less leeway to do [or eat] things that we shouldn’t. We’re becoming very aware of how that affects our general level of health.”
Ken Rubin, vice president of culinary training at online cooking school Rouxbe.com, has also observed a shift toward more nutritious foods. This year, Rouxbe added a plant-based professional certification course to its curriculum, aiming to “train a small army of cooks, instructors, life coaches, health advocates and healthcare professionals, who will help lead industry and wellness change.”
Food intolerance and allergies have boosted another market segment, says Rubin, who has studied food trends and food anthropology for over 18 years. “For example, there is strong, compelling data that says there is now more gluten intolerance than in the past,” he explains. Rubin sees the demand for gluten-free products as a sign of a growing awareness of how we interact with food – and how food interacts with us.