Food trends explained: Q&A with Christine Couvelier
Trends in the food industry, like all industries, come and go. From Jello salads and made for TV dinners, to Instagram cafes and cronuts, you could easily create a timeline from all the food crazes over the years; but what about predicting the trends of the future?
Christine Couvelier, culinary trendologist, does exactly that. Couvelier has been a chef for over 35 years. From working in restaurants, owning a catering company, directing corporate culinary strategy at major food brands, and founding Culinary Concierge, her culinary journey has taken her all over.
Most recently, Couvelier spends a lot of time in gourmet stores, grocery stores and food markets around the world to taste, learn, cook and talk with chefs to learn about taking a food item from concept to shelf or to table. I got to chat with Couvelier about food imagery, global trends, and the power of nostalgia. And yes, she says you can join her on her food adventures anytime.
What you do and what exactly is a culinary trendologist?
I can’t imagine being involved in anything except food. I’m Canada’s leading global culinary trendologist, and what that really means is that I’m very externally focused and I’m thinking about what’s going to happen in one to five years in the future of food and beverage.
I speak a lot about competitive analysis, understanding what you’re doing and what your competition is doing. My clients are around North America and they can be from the largest food manufacturers, thinking about what we should launch next, to innovative foodpreneurs who say to me “I make the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookies. How can I put that on the shelf?” And I take them through the process.
Much of it is focused on what’s happening in the future and thinking of your target consumer and your target retailer. It’s all based around taste, taste, taste. We’re not making paperclips, we’re making food, and so it’s to do with taste.
One of the things I do a lot, and I love doing, is write a trend watch report. I break it down into different categories: emerging, developing and existing trends. This is a report that I give at lots of conferences and conventions, at annual general meetings, quite often I’ll give this report before an innovation or an ideation session to really help people think outside of the box and to think about what’s coming next and how can they translate some of these ideas I’m giving them into new product ideas.
How have trends in the food industry changed over the years?
It’s interesting that some trends come around again. When I look at emerging, developing and existing trends, and there’s no crystal ball or magic answer, but generally on average, things may take six to nine years to go from emerging to developing and existing.
Emerging trends are where they’re at their inception and things are just beginning to innovate. At this stage, chefs might be really working with some new tastes and new ideas that could be specials on menus. In emerging, it either moves really fast or it falls and drops right off really fast, and that could be more of a fad than a trend.
In the developing section, things are cool and trendy, and these are new menu items and we could start to see some products in gourmet retail stores. Food magazines might have some articles about them, and that’s the sweet spot. If you’re thinking of putting out a new food product, you want it to be at the end of emerging and as it’s coming out of developing. You want it to match with your product development timeline and how long it takes to get a product from concept to shelf, because you don’t want to be the follower you want to be a leader.
If something is existing, which is still so important to track what’s existing, it’s where you can find it just about anywhere and where flavours are showing up in grocery stores, not just in gourmet retail stores. There’s also room for reinvention in existing. So, think about doughnuts for example. Doughnuts have been around, we all know what a doughnut is, but in the existing column in the reinvention doughnuts can now be savory and sweet and all kinds of new flavors we’ve never thought about before.
What kind of other trends come back around again?
Certainly a lot of trends that come around again have to do with food memories. I think that’s really important for anyone putting a food product on the shelf or thinking about a new menu item. Food memories play such an important role for customers and consumers. Food memories travel from person to person and we love to share food stories and food memories.
What is a food memory?
I could ask you “what was the best pizza you ever had?” and that’s a food memory for you. Above all other pizzas, you remember the one you love the best, and you tell people about it and you share that story. So if you go into another restaurant, or if you go into a grocery store and see a new product that says Tuscan pizza sauce, you might say “I remember the best pizza I had, maybe I should try this sauce and see if it’s the greatest pizza sauce.”
So, food developers and product developers and foodpreneurs thinking of new products always think about who their target consumer is. Or if they’re a restaurant chef, who their target dinner is. And when they identify who that person is, they’re going to pay attention to well, this is the kind of foods they typically like and these are the kind of things they like to try and they’re very adventuresome and so they think about pulling in some potentially exotic food memories and speaking to them through their food.
If we were to go through a trend watch report of today, what would that maybe look like?
It would taste great, let me tell you. We’re starting to see a lot of, I call it pucker up tastes: tangy, tart and sour. So watch for yuzu. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit, it’s a cross between a lime and a grapefruit. We’re starting to see it in dipping sauces, and you can put it over noodles or put it on dressings. I had a yuzu salt and lemon potato chip recently, that was really quite spectacular.
Another interesting trend is the world of popcorn. We talked about food memories; a lot of people have food memories of popcorn. We’re seeing popcorn that comes with collagen, popcorn that comes with tandoori turmeric, popcorn that comes with curcumin, which is the main active ingredient in turmeric. So, it’s anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and when you add black pepper to it, it helps the body absorb it, so it’s very healthy. Right now, there’s a vegan pop curcumin, turmeric and black pepper flavour. So, we’re seeing food memories of popcorn turned into new things.
The world of mocktails is never ending innovation. Either mocktails or low-alcohol drinks, we’re seeing great innovations in that category so that would be something I would watch for and see what happens.
Interesting, is a trend I’m calling good food, good mood. Certainly a holistic health and wellness approach. Products and menu items that are being innovated to improve mood or boast brain health, or if you could say to a restauranteur or a chef “I’m feeling uninspired, I want to be more creative,” well there’s a menu for that, and chefs are innovating recipes with this trend. There’s food prescriptions being given by dietitians at Kroger grocery stores in the U.S, so that’s very interesting.
Certainly the world of alternative flours is continuing to grow. I’d say it’s between emerging and developing. Flours like cauliflower flour, and watermelon flour, and banana flour, and cricket flour – I know there’s a huge yuck factor to that but it’s incredibly healthy.
I think of a dish of the year every year, and my dish of the year is sea-cuterie, a seafood twist to a charcuterie board. So, think about putting pickled or fermented or steamed or grilled or smoked things on a charcuterie board.
We’re going to see a lot more grocer-rants, which are restaurants that show up in grocery stores to make a grocery store a destination. We’re seeing retail stores have restaurants inside. The new Nordstroms flagship in NYC has six restaurants inside. It really becomes a destination.
We’re thinking of customized grab and go, so if you go into a gourmet store or a grocery store, it’s not just the roast chickens anymore, can’t do without them, but it’s not just roast chicken anymore.
You can reach Couvelier at Culinary Concierge or follow her fork through Twitter or Instagram at @tastetastetaste.
Food trend or not?
Always will be, because of new inventions and new flavors and new combinations. Avocado toast is a fascinating topic because it is still a number one menu items that continuously shows up on menus.
Yup, because there are so many new ways to have it. How many millions of ways we can make overnight oats? People are understanding the health benefits, so they’re wanting to try oats in new and different ways. It’s not just an oat-meal cookie anymore.
Overnight oats as a trend speaks to the fact that consumers are rushed, and many people eat their breakfast at their desk. Food manufacturers have recognized this, and are coming up with new overnight oat recipes that you can eat your breakfast on the go, at your desk, on the train, on your way to work or wherever you are.
Oat milk is a whole other thing, because it’s part of the plant-based world. Not a trend nor a fad, part of our industry and part of our world we’ve always had. Oat milk, being more sustainable to agriculture, being part of our increased awareness to food restrictions, fits into a great market where you might want to not be having cow dairy, but oat milk is good for you.
The gluten-free diet
It’s not going to go away. Food manufacturers have embraced and adapted many of their food products so that many people can eat them if you are celiac or gluten sensitive, it is not going away, you will always have gluten free options. What is getting better is the choices and the flavors of those options. Remember when gluten free toast first came out, you couldn’t toast it with a blow torch. It was mushy and no matter how many times you put it in your toaster, it would not toast. But now, there are some amazing gluten free bakers and gluten free toasts and gluten free products out there.