Speaker: 'The end of one-size-fits-all food'

"Never has food been so tied to someone's identity."

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people eat, and those changes are likely to stay. (Pixabay photo)

Mike Lee said a big part of his job is to "explore the future of food," to figure out "What's next? and "What's around the corner?"

His answer: "It's the end of one-size-fits-all food," with individuals increasingly focusing on health, sustainability and experience to formulate their own food choices. "Never has food been so tied to someone's identity."

Lee, with sister companies Alpha Food Labs and the Future Market, spoke July 15 during the Dairy Experience Forum, which was available online to the news media and others. The event was hosted by the American Dairy Association of the Midwest, a non-checkoff organization funded by food vending operations at state fairs and other dairy-related ventures.

The Future Market describes itself as "a futurist food lab that explores the impact of food systems change over the next 25 years." Alpha Food Labs says it "builds and launches new food and beverage products and innovation strategies."

Lee's July 15 presentation looked at how the "21st century eater is shaping the future of food systems."


Normally, Lee tracks what he called "signals of change, blips on the radar" in niche markets that eventually take on greater, broader significance But the coronavirus pandemic has had a major, immediate impact by "highlighting cracks in the food system," he said. "Maybe they were there the whole time, but the stress and impact of the pandemic really amplified them."

This should be seen as a time to shore up those cracks and to improve the food system after the pandemic ends, Lee said.

Lee identified several trends that emerged or became more evident during the pandemic. For instance, "hedonism vs. altruism" was more pronounced, with hedonism gaining ground as familiar processed "comfort" foods grew in popularity. Sales of Campbell's soup rose 59% from a year earlier, according to Lee's figures.

Another example of how altruism has become less pronounced: Before the pandemic, many people were trying to ban plastic straws which they saw as source of pollution — an altruistic goal. Now, during the pandemic, there's hardly any discussion of banning them. Lee said.

More trends

Food as medicine is another growing trend, one that's been magnified by the pandemic. "People are increasingly looking at food as the main thing to control their health," Lee said.

Food companies also will need to do a better job of promoting their products in an increasingly digitized world, Lee said. They need to answer, "What is your purpose and story? What is it that makes you stand out? What is your value system?"

"That demo in the grocery store is not coming back anytime soon. So this (digital media) is the new battleground for how we need to sell our products and find people," he said.

The pandemic also highlights the need to increase resilience in the food industry, which now is "built on monocultures" that promote efficiency, Lee said, "We need to build biodiversity back into grocery store."

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