Food and drink trends 2024 – the pressure is on to save the environment, improve our health, and arm ourselves against false information

One overarching generalisation can be made about trends for the forthcoming year, and that is that most are escalating.

In terms both of the environment and of our health (and the two are, of course, connected) what was mere concern for some a decade ago has morphed into passionately, widely-held opinion. Increased public focus on the environment, on society, and on governance (ESG) has resulted from seismic developments over the last decade never before experienced on such a scale – we’re talking climate change, pandemics, wars, AI, to name just a few.

With regard to the environment, raging fires, landfalls, deluges, and the boiling temperatures of this year, have provided proof, if we needed any, that we have a huge problem and not much time in which to solve it.

We are looking to science and technology for solutions and there are some striking innovations in the making. A revolution is happening in agriculture, with traditional methods increasingly sidelined and some truly eye-opening replacements – food out of air for example (more on that later) – becoming a reality.

For society as a whole the big scourge is stress, not helped by global environmental, economic and political crises. Stress is fuelling our addiction to comforting carbs, which is resulting in a worldwide epidemic of obesity and a whole raft of associated conditions. The result is an anxious preoccupation with health…. and more stress. This vicious circle is not only affecting our bodies, but our mental health as well.

On the governance side of things pervasive fake news has resulted in consumers becoming very distrustful. They are looking to governments to protect them against misinformation and give them the facts to enable them to make educated decisions. But they are also looking for long-term government policies – investment in food education, or in school food for example – that will tackle the problem. It will be interesting to see how our short-term, democratically-elected leaders respond.

The environment – the changing face of agriculture; a backlash against greenwashing; continued war on waste

Vertical farming

Agriculture is changing radically in many ways. As the planet begins to run out of water and space, vertical farming is moving towards the mainstream. Fischer Farms is a particularly successful example. Its founder, Tristan Fischer, thinks vertical farming could displace a large portion of conventional farming in the same way that renewable energy has grown to become the mainstay of Europe’s grid. Already Iceland is buying salad from GrowUp Farms, appropriately housed in an 18m tall facility in Kent while Ocado is buying 2,000 kg of basil a week from The Jones Food Company which designs, builds and operates vertical farms. In a world where the security of supply chains is increasingly an issue, vertical farms can provide a reliable consistency of stock throughout the year. This is a special benefit in Britain which has Brexit import restrictions to contend with and is also at the mercy of its notoriously inconsistent weather. Earlier this year there were tomato and mustard crises. An olive oil crisis is already in the making… and potentially also a banana crisis. Diversity is key to trying to prevent these crises but it comes at a cost.

The ability provided by vertical farming to harvest year round protects against unreliable supply due to drought, flood, pests, fire or war elsewhere. But it can only ever be part of the answer.

Vertical and indoor farming will become more mainstream.

Vertical farming can also provide a solution to local sourcing challenges. Austrian researcher, Hanni Rützler, reports in the latest Food Report 2024, published by the Zukunftsinstitut, that ‘regional beats organic’ is a frequent cry currently. Certainly the pressure to source locally remains, but transport is increasingly more environmentally friendly (think wind-powered cargo ships) and less expensive.

Vertical farming can also offer benefits where water is especially scarce (the middle east and Africa). A lot of irrigation water disappears into the atmosphere, whereas vertical farms can capture this water and recycle it.

Fishing

Great strides are also being made on the sea. Take Ava Ocean for example. This is a Norwegian company which is pioneering a technology which could help reduce devastation to the seabed caused by harvesting scallops. Currently dragging with a metal cage dredges up shrimps and crabs, sponges and corals, and all kinds of vegetation. Ava Ocean’s harvesting unit hovers a meter above the seabed and gently sucks up individual scallops through pipes. Then underwater cameras and AI work together to identify any unwanted catch and return it immediately to the seabed. The method could be adapted to other types of aquatic harvesting.

He’s going to have to use some new technology for his produce to be welcomed by diners.

Other technical solutions… but organic is reaching its limits

Genetic engineering, precision fermentation, and in-vitro all continue to offer alternative solutions to traditional agriculture. Solar Foods, a Finnish start-up, is making Solein, a type of protein, from thin air – or maybe it’s not quite so thin. They are using microbes, water, and CO2. This neutral tasting powder can be added to all kinds of food – it’s already on menus in Singapore. Ultra-processed….maybe…but certainly nutritious.

Overall, technology is seen as providing many solutions, and Rützler reports that in the future we will look to a combination of technological innovation and ecological production to supply answers rather than traditional organic methods.

War on waste continues with renewed vigour

In the meantime individuals and chefs continue to find creative uses for leftovers and parts of plants and animals not traditionally used vis the continued success of Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal Cookbook: Leftovers A-Z. We still have a way to go on this. According to the climate action group, Wrap, the average UK household throws away 3.2kg a week, most of it fresh vegetables.

Large companies are also making efforts in this respect, especially with regard to packaging. Waitrose, for example, is part of a consortium of retailers replacing small wine bottles with aluminium cans; and their large glass wine bottles are getting lighter. Boxed wine (see Terre di Faiano) is beginning look acceptably smart. The lighter the vessel the less fuel required to transport it.

A lot of investment and innovation is going into the development of more environmentally -friendly packaging.

Social – stress is propelling us into a downward health spiral

Stress

Governments (see also ‘Governance’, below) and media are combining to extend awareness of the relationship between food and health to parts of the population where it hasn’t traditionally been seen as important.

There’s been a lot in the press regarding, for example, the addictive dangers of ultra-processed food. But this is only half the story. As Professor William Bird, in a recent letter to The Times points out

“I agree that the food industry is feeding an addiction to ultra-processed food, contributing to obesity, and that this needs to be urgently addressed. However, research is uncovering a much greater influence. Obesity is a symptom of a stressed society….. like all animals, humans prioritise calories when under stress, resulting in greater calorie intake, fat storage and reduced desire to exercise.”

Stress and anxiety is subjective, but to a certain extent it can be measured. In the UK the Office of National Statistics has been doing this since 2012. Wellbeing scores rose, and anxiety levels decreased, steadily until 2019. Wellbeing then took a hit, recovering cautiously in 2021, but the latest 22-23 figures are down… a decade of slowly increasing happiness wiped out. Conversely, anxiety levels increased with 27% of British women now saying they have high levels of anxiety, and 20% of men. We see further evidence of serious mental health problems in the increasing levels of self-harm by female teens; levels of long-term sick leave taken due to mental health issues; suicide rates, especially men in their early 50s…. and much else.

Bird concludes that the solution to addictive eating is to deal with the main causes of stress. This is complex. One major cause, for example, is loneliness…. not helped by our increased tendency to snack (see below) rather than meeting around a table for a meal… but a very challenging, long-term problem to tackle.

Overeating is a symptom, but it can also be a cure. There is increasing evidence that one way to medicate for mental illness is through diet. Expect to hear more from Drew Ramsey, and other psychotherapists on this. Ramsey’s mantra is ‘seafood, greens, nuts, beans…and a little dark chocolate’. He’s also keen on a Mediterranean diet, and ‘brainbow’ colours on a plate. In the future we’ll be needing to proactively manage our mental health; and we’ll need science to help us.

27% of British women say they have high levels of anxiety…. and 20% of men.

Post-Covid flexible working practices are affecting our eating habits: more snacking; more quick cooking

Those in the post-covid working population are now working from home more than ever before.

This means that they, and their families, are snacking more than ever – not always such a healthy habit although a number of surveys report an increased interest in protein snacks, whether the traditional nuts, or more innovative protein bars. The Waitrose Food and Drink Report 2024 reveals a 39% increase on high-protein drinks and yoghurts. Still on the plus side, because they are at home, Rützler posits, people are increasingly cooking quick and uncomplicated dishes. And they are wanting more conveniently frozen stocks of quality food. Waitrose reports that ‘dining in is driving sales of comfort food classics’, we’re talking here of shepherds pie and macaroni cheese, often bought for the freezer. The same report also reveals a 28% rise in sales of big bags of frozen peas. Convenience is everything.

Shepherd’s pie… classic comfort food

The fact that we are cooking more has resulted in greater attention being put into the selection of ingredients to purchase. Consumers, according to Mintel (2024 Global Consumer Trends), are scouring labels for vocabulary such as ‘stone-ground’, ‘cold-pressed’, and ‘fermented’. And they are acting on what they learn. Waitrose, for example, reports total kimchi sales up by 44%. On the other hand, according to Craft Media’s 2024 Real New Food Report, discerning consumers really hate fancy jargon…. Words like ‘adaptogenics’ and ‘nootropics’ act as a real turn-off. Descriptors which can’t be easily understood are distrusted. Consumers hate being misled or lied to.

Staff canteens will aim to strengthen social relationships and improve nutrition

Increased time spent working from home also has implications for corporate catering. There’s more emphasis on the importance of the staff canteen as a place to cement social relationships. Moreover, employee health is taking centre stage, sick employees are not very productive. And employers keen to recruit from a quality pool, and to retain their best employees, know they have to demonstrate high ethical standards to be successful. As a result of all these trends employers need to up their game – dingy rooms serving greasy, cage-reared chicken are a thing of the past. Employers need to serve nutritious, wholesome food and clearly demonstrate support of ethical standards of animal husbandry.

We’re stressed, so we are wanting to treat ourselves

As Professor Bird comments, when we’re stressed we seek the comfort of carbs. And, in spite of knowing they aren’t healthy in any great quantity we can’t resist. Hence the increase in consumption in comfort food, but also out and out sugary or fatty foods. In Grace Dent’s highly successful book, Comfort Eating: What We Eat When Nobody’s Looking (based on her equally successful podcast of the same name) she explains that comfort food’s

“main nutritional value is carbohydrate and fat. Protein comes last, and vitamins must be a mere suggestion and come in the form of ketchup”.

Five out of the six recipes featured in her book focus on cheese, butter, pasta, bread and potatoes – all traditional north European staples…nothing too ultra-processed about that…. but then she goes on to further define comfort foods, saying:

“Perishable ingredients are allowed, but frowned upon. Almost everything in your recipe could survive a nuclear incident. Just cockroaches, acid rain and a jar of Dorito dip.”

And yes, last but not least, the sixth chapter looks at ‘sweet treats’…. involving Dairy Milk chocolate.

Ah, yes, chocolate! Drew Ramsey’s ‘little dark chocolate’ might be good for us. But in the year to come, condensed milk and white chocolate will both be consumed more enthusiastically than ever before, fuelling the obesity problem. Technavio foretells that the white chocolate market in the US will have grown by $9.05 billion in the five years to 2027. Datassential’s 2024 Food Trends Report says comforting creamy dressings (Caesar salad type dressings) will anoint green leaves everywhere. Even salads themselves are morphing into comfort foods. Here’s what Emily Nunn, who writes The Department of Salad on Substack, has to say:

“I love chopped salads. And their rise is all about our tender feelings. They’re so soothing! We’re all traumatised and exhausted and this is a salad style that doesn’t fight you. You barely have to chew! And every element gets completely coated in dressing. They’re the baby foods of salad.”

Of course, not all treats are bad for you. Some (it helps if you are rich) have already found healthier ways to treat themselves – hence the recent increased demand for caviar, and, as reported in Craft Media’s research, posh biscuits, and in Food Network’s analysis, chic French pastries.

Posh biscuits are a thing…

As Datassential notes, this trend to treat oneself is particularly the case for Gen X (now in their 40s) who are:

“more likely to seek out premium experiences, travel often, and regularly enjoy an alcoholic beverage than any other generation.”. But it’s not just Gen X, overall Datassential reports, “34% of consumers say they treat themselves to an indulgent food treat a few times a week.”

Looking at the general geographic, political, and economic forecasts for 2024 we see no reason to think that stress will be reduced. Saucy Dressings sees ‘indulgent food treats’ as an escalating trend for the forthcoming year.

We are suffering from more digestive conditions – again, stress is a factor – specially developed foods will help

According to Instacart over the last year there have been significantly increased searches for ‘probiotics’, and for snacks which help people with gut conditions. The obesity epidemic is contributing to increased levels of diabetes. In India 51 million people suffered from it in 2020, in 2030 the number is projected to be 87 million, not far off double. In response to this, Navrelia Foods, a startup in India, has recently launched a diabetic-friendly roti mix – not only does it have significantly lower GI and GL, but initial research indicates that the diabetic-friendly rotis can also reduce the calorific effect of other foods eaten with them.

The spotlight will be on this sort of solution, and on other foods…ginger…turmeric…kefir….. which help self-medicate. In May Elsa Richardson will enlighten us further, adding to the already considerable body of publications and research on the subject of our guts and how they affect our physical and mental health, with the publication of Rumbles: A Curious History of the Gut, and Uma Naidoo will do well with her forthcoming, Calm Your Mind with Food.

Our drinking habits – it’s not going well for wine producers; but for consumers it’s a rosy outlook

Wine is suffering from a surfeit of competition. Teetotalism; interesting craft beers; sake; are just a few alternatives. And within the wine market it’s the rosés and orange wines which are no longer ‘also rans’. Hannah Staab at VinePair, predicts they will increase yet further in popularity:

“Rosé, orange, amber, light red—it feels like we’ve encountered a dazzling spectrum of wine over the past few years. But in 2024, expect to see a lot more wines eschewing colour-categorization altogether. We bet that innovative producers will continue to push the boundaries of winemaking by experimenting with co-ferments and varying levels of skin contact, resulting in vibrant wines that are somewhat pink or kind of orange (or both, or neither!).”

Waitrose’ sales of orange wine are up 85%, while, incredibly, more rosé is now drunk in France than red wine. What’s behind the success of rosé? It’s largely thanks to climate change. When it was cooler producers found it hard to get enough colour and maturity into their red wines, so they’d bleed off early wine in order to make the remaining wine more concentrated. The bled-off biproduct was sold as rosé. Now rosé is grown and produced as a serious wine in its own right.

In the case of orange wine, consumers today positively glory in the luminous colour of the wine (it’s highly Instagramable) whereas previously they didn’t have that confidence – they thought it was white wine that had got oxidised. Also, orange wine didn’t originate in countries famed for wine growing, instead it came from unknown areas…. A lot of orange wine came, for example, from Slovenia. Producers in Friuli (in Italy, on the border with Slovenia) pushed on with the method, not using temperature control for the fermentation; not using sulphur dioxide; using overall a very natural approach. Orange wine became acceptable…. then fashionable. However, it has a very distinctive taste and texture, so successful pairings are limited and the chances are, according to Jancis Robinson, writing in The Financial Times, that the trend will plateau.

Orange wine…. eminently Instagramable

Numbers of people adopting vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian diets have grown…but has the vegan bubble burst?

We’ve reported on the rise of vegetarianism in almost every Saucy Dressings food trends report over the last decade. Rützler’s latest analysis states baldly that now meat has lost its pole position on the plate. And, she says, the result is that more meat substitutes are now being produced and they are improving in terms of flavour, while chefs are putting together ever more creative plant-based menus.

But earlier this year The Guardian published an article exploring the potential bursting of the vegan bubble, at least in the UK. The subtitle to the article read, “Oatly, Nestlé and Innocent Drinks are among those pulling products from shelves as figures show even Veganuary backfired”. Earlier in the year, the broadcaster and adventurer, Bear Grylls, very publicly renounced veganism, explaining, “I thought that was good for the environment and I thought it was good for my health. And through time and experience and knowledge and study, I realised I was wrong on both counts.”. Last year in the UK more than a million fewer households bought meat-free products compared with 2022.

Strong trends often result in other trends to counter balance. We now have ‘carneficionados’ – people who are interested in the conscious enjoyment of meat from ethically and sustainably raised animals. This can support the continuation of rare breeds; or help retain an environment in balance by controlling animals without natural predators such as deer or wild boar. It’s quality and not quantity when it comes to meat: one clear fact is that in the UK the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs reports that in 2023 meat consumption fell to its lowest level since records began in the 70s.

If we want people to eat more plant-based food the power is in the labelling. According to research carried out at the University of Southern California consumers (especially meat eaters) are more likely to eat food labelled ‘healthy’ and ‘sustainable’ (40%) than food labelled ‘vegan’ (20%).

Expect a lot more debate on this.

Longhorn cattle on Huntsham Farm
Longhorn cattle… saved from extinction?

Inflation continues to bite

Many consumers are feeling the pinch and, as delivery costs rise, they are ordering delivered food less. Brand loyalty has been whittled away by price considerations, with an uptake on own-brands in supermarkets. And consumers are more likely to cook what they buy using energy-efficient air-fryers and microwaves than conventional ovens. Multi-use counter top appliances are increasingly popular – searches on FoodNetwork for ‘countertop ovens’ are up 22% over last year. Consumers want quality not quantity when it comes to appliances. Beko, a major manufacturer, carried out a survey which revealed that 54% said they prefer durable designs to ‘passing kitchen trends’.

In the meantime, while private dining clubs for the super-rich are continuing to flourish, traditional fine dining restaurants are, in general, not.
The round-the-corner, walkable distance restaurant is becoming a reality for many thanks to smaller machinery and ventless hooding. This kind of technology makes it easier for pop-ups as well. The hope is that diners will form relationships with their local, independent bistro. This would put the squeeze on the big chains.

However, the hospitality sector as a whole continues to struggle against residual post-covid public opinion. According to a poll carried out by More In Common 20% of the UK population want restaurants to close altogether!

The convenient restaurant around the corner may do well thanks to smaller equipment.

And inflation is proving the death knell to the iconic British dish of fish and chips. Almost all the main constituents of that meal are affected by rising costs due to the war in Ukraine coupled with the bureaucracy of Brexit. This includes not just the basic fish and potatoes etc, but also the cooking oil and salt and the packaging. Even more of a problem are rising energy costs which go with deep fat frying. The National Federation of Fish Friers warns that as many as a third of the UK’s 10,500 shops may have to close.

Fish and chips…. end of a British icon?

Governance – reliable information is key; and how much can governments influence happiness?

Action on obesity

An election in the UK seems inevitable in 2024 but whichever party is in power in the UK, as well as other governments throughout the world, will be under intense pressure to take legislative action on obesity. In the UK hospital admissions linked to obesity have doubled in six years to more than 3,000 people per day. This is three times more than the number of admissions linked to smoking. There’ll be more debate about a sugar tax.

How to ensure that the population has access to the truth

In addition to this the population is becoming increasingly distrustful of the information available to them. Fake news abounds. The press is not seen as reliable. Social media is notoriously subjective. Consumers distrust marketing information. As Bee Wilson comments in her review of Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn’t Food … and Why Can’t We Stop? (by Chris Van Tulleken):

“any food that is marketed as ‘better for you’ is almost certainly not.”

Voters will be looking to the government to pass legislation to protect them against misinformation. The sort of measures that a government can take in this respect is to focus on advertising and to focus on labelling. Similar measures can be applied to unhealthy food as have been applied to smoking. Cigarette packets carry government health warnings – junk food could too. Advertising can also be controlled. A recent poll undertaken by The Times showed a big majority of its readers favoured a 9.00 pm watershed on junk food advertising. Alternatively, advertising for junk food could be banned altogether.

One of the most effective and useful measures that a government could impose would be legislation ensuring that suppliers were not misleading the public with vague promises regarding healthiness or sustainability. Information given by suppliers needs to be easily accessible; provable; clear and easy to understand. Already, in the UK, there is some legislation requiring large companies to do this, but this legislation needs to be extended to cover all suppliers. This would enable the population to make informed decisions about what food and drink they eat and drink.

How much should…. or can….governments influence happiness?

It was David Cameron who, back in 2010, instructed the Office of National Statistics to start measuring wellbeing and anxiety levels. He wanted to make sure that:

“decisions on policy and spending are made in a balanced way, taking account of what matters”.

Worth pursuing, but happiness is immensely complex. Since then the government has also been using What Works Wellbeing as a source of information for making better-informed, all-round, budgetary decisions. Decisions regarding initiatives to teach children to cook; the provisions of free school meals; legislation regarding the nutrition of school meals; or ways to pre-empt diabetes; or tackle obesity; or contain alcoholism….In 2018 the British government decided to initiate, for example, a Loneliness Strategy.

But now, just at a time when anxiety levels are measurably on the rise, What Works Wellbeing has announced it is closing due to lack of funding.

There will inevitably be pressure to reverse this decision, and to consider how governments can contribute to reducing stress, and reverse the negative eating habits associated with it.

There will also be pressure on the government to support charities such as Chefs in Schools which encourages food education – drinking water, growing herbs, cooking fresh ingredients, trying new foods, and much more. The onus will not just be on central government. Some councils, for example, are banning fast-food outlets from positioning themselves outside schools.

In democracies most governments’ main focus is on the next election. This doesn’t sit well with wellbeing strategies which are often long-term and expensive.

Additionally, some sections of the population are resistant to the concept of the ‘nanny state’.

And, finally and in any case, it is not within the gift of governments to solve most of the causes of the current epidemic of anxiety, stress, loneliness, and despair.

The Saucy Dressings crystal ball is cloudy on any likely action or its outcome.

Some sources in the compilation of this analysis include:

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