There’s a little science to predicting food trends — and a lot of guesswork

What will we eat in 2019? If some prognosticators have their say, we’ll be crunching on salads of celtuce, a lesser-known green, mixed with either high-end bespoke vegetables personally designed by chefs, or virtuous ugly produce destined for the trash. Maybe they’ll be topped with a crunch of chulpe corn or watermelon seeds.

We’ll tear into interesting forms of bread — bing, from China, and manaeesh, from the Levant. There will be CBD in everything, smokeless smoke in everything, and real milk in nothing — not in our milkshake IPAs, which are not what they sound like (they’re brewed with lactose) — because pea milk and oat milk are taking over.

“Regional flavours” will be important, specifically those from India, the Pacific Rim and “the ‘stans” — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Plant-based eating will continue to grow. Some products that were formerly shelf-stable, such as granola bars and olive oil, are going to need to be refrigerated. It will be a good year for dietitians, who are poised to become the new celebrity chefs. We’ll pay for our sandwiches with cryptocurrency, as if that’s no big deal.

Then again, it’s not like 2018 panned out exactly how the prediction-makers thought it would. Yes, we ate artisan pickles and drank Cristalino tequila and had ghee and plenty of veggie-forward dishes. It’s true that Jewish delis are on the upswing, and Israeli cuisine hit its stride. And tsukemen, or brothless ramen, got more popular. But why didn’t we get really into deep-frying, or Tanzanian barbecue seasoning? Chain restaurants never picked up on “trash fish.” Norwegian and Icelandic “Arctic cuisine” has yet to hit the mainstream. Other predictions — locally sourced produce, Instagrammable foods, “authentic ethnic cuisine” and street food — were already in, some for more than a decade.

What is a trend, anyway? There’s no set way to measure one, no threshold of sales or number of products on the market past which a food becomes Certifiably Trendy, especially because food trends, like fashion, trickle down into mainstream ubiquity. There’s just a bunch of market researchers and food industry consultants and publicists and journalists, a little bit of data, a looming Dec. 31 deadline and an intangible notion of what feels cool and new.

“The science to predicting a trend is to figure out, what is actually happening here? Is it just now, is there some sort of immediacy to it or does this actually have a longevity?” said Jenny Zegler, associate director of food and drink for consumer research company Mintel. “And, what does that mean, and what is that reflective of, in terms of what consumers want?”

Some trend lists come from huge teams of professional trendspotters and industry-watchers, and some come from just one person with a finger on the pulse. But all of the predictions tend to fall into one of four categories. In the first category are the vague, evergreen, massive buzzword trends — like “plant-based foods” and “specialized diets” — that will both always and never be trends, because they’re so all-encompassing. But don’t count them out, says Zegler, whose report for Mintel pinpoints three trends: sustainability, foods for healthy aging and enhanced convenience foods. A list should be measured by its goals, Zegler says: theirs is global in scope, and based on the work of 91 analysts in 13 countries, backed by actual consumer research data, and geared toward large brands for whom a menu change is a major supply-chain overhaul and a big gamble.

“I think a lot of what we’re trying to do is identify things that are already happening,” Zegler said. It’s “not necessarily that companies that we work with are astounded by this prediction. It’s more of, you know, this is where we should be going, and this is what we should be looking at.”

What many of us think of as trends, such as Thai rolled ice cream or “souping” or cake pops, are actually fads.

“A fad is something that kind of comes quick and goes and maybe makes a viral sensation,” said Zegler, but a trend has staying power. “That is really impactful, especially in a business sense, that you know if you’re going to switch to make everything this new cool flavour, you want to make sure that it’s the flavour that’s going to last.”