By Kim Severson
No one can predict with certainty what we will eat and drink in the new year, but multitudes try.
As my own end-of-the-year ritual, I sift through an avalanche of predictions from big food companies, public relations firms, restaurant groups and market researchers. And then I get on the phone, interviewing the best prognosticators in the business.
I’m not interested in the next viral chickle or what will replace almond moms and girl dinners. Instead, I study small cultural, media and economic data points and watch the trends emerge.
So what’s up for 2024? “I’d call it hi-lo,” said Andrew Freeman, president of AF & Co., a San Francisco consulting firm that for 16 years has published a popular food and hospitality trend report in conjunction with the brand and marketing firm Carbonate. “There is this desire for boldness and maximalism and collaboration, but with this sense that whatever I spend, I need to feel real value for my money.”
People want high-quality ingredients, but they also want value — especially members of Generation Z, who are emerging as sensible and skeptical cooks and diners who want safe rewards wrapped in adventure.
Luxury will be found less in the cost or rarity of an ingredient but rather in the quality of a product that makes life easier, interesting and more fun.
“A lot of it is, ‘I just want this fantastic experience to take us away from what’s happening on the news,’” said Jennifer Zhou, who helps lead the flavor and color team at global food processor ADM.
But there has to be a value proposition, said Sally Lyons Wyatt, who analyzes shopping and consumption trends for the market research firm Circana. “There are absolutely levers people will be pulling next year in order to manage the wallet,” she said.
Here is what to watch for.
Meals are so 2023. Next year will be all about snacks. Small, delicious bites are a low-stakes way to explore new cuisines. They’re a canvas for cultural hybrids like shawarma crunch wraps. And snack collaborations will continue to drop like sneakers. (French’s mustard and Skittles? Milk Bar and Taco Bell?) “Snacks can be the ultimate lowbrow cool,” said Claire Lancaster, who forecasts food and drink trends for the consumer trend forecaster WGSN.
Hydration never takes a vacation
Water is going to be bigger than ever. #WaterTok — essentially millions of people watching other people add syrups and powders to giant tumblers of water — doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Look for an uptick in water sommeliers, the “premium hydration” category, and wearable hydration sensors. New ways to use waste to make water will pop up, like cacao water from what’s left after the cocoa bean is harvested. Water stewardship will matter more, with consumers looking for food and drinks that require less water to grow or produce, like dry-farmed beans, snacks made with nopales, and beer from companies that use a pond filtration system.
Against the grain
“It’s gonna be buckwheat’s year,” said Cathy Strange, the Whole Foods Market ambassador of food culture. During a recent trip to Norway, she had a foie gras terrine with a crunchy layer of buckwheat. In New York City, buckwheat is starring in hot chocolate and coating monkfish dressed in curry vinaigrette. It’s being spiced with chai or vanilla and turned into drinks. For the climate- and health-minded, buckwheat is a great cover crop and rich in protein and fiber. Of course, fans of soba and blinis aren’t surprised.
Sipping your supper
Thought espresso martinis were special? Meal-flavored cocktails would like a word. Through the magic of fat-washing, clarification and infusions, umami-heavy drinks that taste like specific dishes will proliferate as our collective palate shifts from super sweet to savory. Already, in New York, you can order a cocktail that tastes of Waldorf salad at Double Chicken Please in New York or a Caprese martini at Jac’s on Bond. Or would you prefer a Thai beef salad drink from the Savory Project, in Hong Kong, or an Everything Everywhere cocktail with smoked salmon-infused gin, vermouth and caper brine accented with everything bagel spice from the Anvil Pub and Grill, in Birmingham, Alabama?
Got to be real
Concern over what it takes to create food from elaborate processing methods will explode. “Ultra-processed” will continue its rise as a toxic food phrase, according to a Mintel’s 2024 global food and drink trends report. Natural fermentation, cold-pressed oils, burgers from nuts and legumes and good, old-fashioned ingredients like butter and cream will have cachet. Corollary: Ingredient descriptions will become more transparent and detailed (instead of “spicy citrus,” you may see “pomelo and habanero”) and include more biodiversity bona fides, but not in the precious farm-to-table way. “It doesn’t always have to be so worthy,” Lancaster said.
Heat will move from brain-exploding to nuanced and multidimensional, getting paired with sweet and sour flavors or being coaxed from layering flavors from different peppers from different parts of the world. “It’s not just ghost pepper coming at you,” Strange said. “It’s more about the complexity and what you can create with it.”
Technology of the year (maybe)
Artificial intelligence will be a big part of the conversation, although many in the food business have NFT-level skepticism about the hype. Some of the changes AI might bring won’t be obvious to consumers, like tighter supply chains, food waste reduction in large kitchens and precision farming techniques. But others might, like new ways to save time in the kitchen or make dining out more enjoyable. One AI-driven system, for example, allows a server to simply converse with a guest and send the order enhanced with information about the customer’s preferences to the kitchen with voice AI and an earbud, said Simon de Montfort Walker, executive vice president and general manager of Oracle Food and Beverage & Central Industry Solutions.
Color expert Pantone declared peach fuzz the color of the year, and several food prognosticators followed and endorsed peach as flavor of the year. Others say flavors like cherry blossom and violet will dominate. Wildflowers will abound. It’s all about lightness, femininity and new metrics that include kindness, altruism and cooperation. Consider the viral appeal of hwachae, with fresh fruit, strawberry milk and Sprite over ice.
Dish of the year: Soup
Soup is bone broth’s more interesting younger sibling and the perfect vehicle for cross-cultural mashups, like menudo tonkotsu ramen. It’s also an easy way to dip into the rising popularity of food from Cambodia, Singapore and Indonesia. For cooks, it’s a low-risk, forgiving way to experiment with new flavors and ingredients. Soup uses up vegetables that might otherwise get tossed. The Specialty Food Association’s trend spotters predict more soup and soup starter mixes on grocery shelves. And soup is yet one more way to soothe ourselves. “Honestly,” said Jenny Zegler, director of Mintel Food and Drink, “I wouldn’t be mad if 2024 was the year of soup.”
Philadelphia as a food town. The continued reign of pickled things. Desserts using sweetened condensed milk and meringue (but not necessarily at the same time). Pistachio everywhere, both the color and the nut. Products that embrace menopause and women’s health. Breadfruit. Shrimp toast in new and creative forms. The sour taste of tamarind and calamansi. Chilled red wine.