Natural product trends: Revealing the future

Jackfruit is trending as a meat substitute in natural food products. (Image via DepositPhotos)

Jackfruit is trending as a meat substitute in natural food products. (Image via DepositPhotos)

By Kara Nielsen, Food Trendologist

My spring ritual is to release a set of food trends from the natural products space with Sterling-Rice Group. After two Natural Products Expos in six months, my trend-tracking head is awash in super-herb elixirs, protein-fortified nut butters and the latest cricket snack. I consider all the natural, organic, gluten-free, vegan, raw, soy-free, and superfood-enhanced products I’ve sampled and connect the dots into shapes that reveal where producers— and the consumers they love—are headed in the year to come.

This practice allows me an insider point-of-view into what food producers are thinking about, what new ingredients are available, and what innovative technologies are influencing packaged goods product development. My findings are shared with the industry via a colorful poster that aims to stimulate thinking, inspire brands, and inform marketing strategies.

This poster shows nine trends in natural foods for 2016. (Source: SRG)

This poster shows nine trends in natural foods for 2016. (Source: SRG)

I build my trend forecasts on a foundation of consumer insights that reveal the motivations driving consumer demands. In the natural channel, consumers are typically driven to purchase by health and wellness concerns, of course. But other drivers include considering the health of the planet, accommodating busy lifestyles, desiring exotic flavors, or feeling good about baking a birthday cake.

So, what’s new this year? Lots of cool stuff! New plant-based meals feature exciting ingredients like jackfruit transformed into meat-alternative fillings from Upton’s Naturals and The Jackfruit Company. Green chickpeas are the fresher-feeling protein star of Indian meals from Vana Life Foods and vibrant Fresh Natural Green Chickpea Hummus. Quinoa and cheffed-up rice and beans come in portable cups ready whenever you are, joining a host of breakfast-centric cups brimming with ancient grains.

On the innovation front, nothing was more eye-opening than the aquafaba in Sir Kensington’s Fabanaise. Aqua-what, you say? Aquafaba, the name a vegan engineer tinkering at home bestowed upon his discovery that chickpea cooking liquid can be used like egg whites. The subsequent internet buzz caught the eye of someone at Sir Kensington, better known for its awesome ketchup, and the company connected with a hummus manufacturer to repurpose leftover chickpea cooking liquid for a vegan spread. (I’m reminded that Hampton Creek’s vegan mayo made waves last year; clearly reducing our reliance on eggs is on innovators’ minds.)

The unabated demand for our favorite ingredients and foods, like avocados, potato chips, and tortilla wrappers, spurs natural producers to create products to meet these needs. Now we can get an avocado fix in snack packs and vinaigrettes while feeling better about noshing on antioxidant-rich purple potato chips. And don’t let a gluten-free or paleo diet get in the way of a tasty burrito—new coconut, almond flour, cassava flour, and even raw kale wraps are reporting for duty.

What I love about the natural product world is how creative products can be and still find a ready audience. I loved discovering Gourmet Bazaar Snacks Crispy Coated Olives: chewy olives coated in a flavored rice crust for a sort of Asian, sort of Mediterranean crunchy snack. And I truly hope Tin Star Foods Cultured Brown Butter finds its way to both cultured-product- and animal-fat-loving households.

Yet another welcome aspect of this space is how it offers cleaned-up versions of beloved foods. Parents and bakers will be delighted with new organic baking mixes and canned frostings as well as natural food colorings. Feel-good birthday cakes coming up!