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Health, community themes to drive 2015’s culinary trends, Sterling Rice Group says

“Advanced Asian” tops Sterling Rice Group‘s list of Culinary Trends for 2015, as increasingly sophisticated American palates embrace international flavors.

Sterling Rice Group Culinary Director Kara Nielsen and her team spend their days poring over trend data, scouring the aisles of the Fancy Food Show and Natural Food Expos, and studying consumer behavior, food blogs and news sites, all with the goal of identifying the next hot culinary trends and the bigger underlying trends that drive them.

“We look at how consumer behavior has changed in the last four or five years and where we think it’s going,” Nielsen said. “Global foods have changed from being an outsider to being a given in our diet and in our world.”

A desire to reconnect with family traditions and unplug from the busy world for a while is driving another trend, that of a return to farm-to-table kosher foods, she said, while innovative artisans are expanding beer beyond the basic hops to other grains and herbs.

We talked with Nielsen recently to learn more about the trends and what’s driving them.

Is there one big trend you see for 2015?

Each one happens in a different space, a different quadrant. Restaurant incubators, for example, are pointing to an expanded food service selection that I think will impact in a big way. These are turning up in markets all across the U.S., it’s part of the zeitgeist that there’s this notion of crowdsourcing and entrepreneurialism that exists right now. A lot of it’s the millennials taking advantage of these tools that have become popular.

We will see this explosion of places we can go and try things out and restaurateurs and chefs will have less fear of failure because they don’t have to start a whole new business. It will be really interesting, it combines with today’s trends of food halls and food markets, that continue to be developed. That goes to another big trend –having a place in the crowd and the continued interest in being part of a community, whether it’s in a food hall, or incubating spaces, it’s the continued growth of where the food truck scene has gone. Little businesses united in one location. That will continue to grow, as diners know to go to these places to try and discover new foods.

Then there’s the matcha, which is a continued exploration of Japanese culture with a health angle that I think will appeal to today’s consumer most. There’s a big cry for stimulation and energy, for caffeine. People are wary about overdoing, but a little bit is good for you. It has all of the good nutrients in green tea that consumers are aware of, plus a more mellow caffeine hit, so it gives something new to explore. We will see more premium matcha, we will continue looking for specialty matcha. We’ll see interesting cafes opening up and focusing on matcha, with people who love the back-story becoming connoisseurs. We’ll also see some convenience matcha products coming out, that take the good elements to make them more convenient and appealing.

There are different drivers. When we try to get a sense of whether a trend will grow, when we try to get a sense of what will drive a trend to popularity, the more drivers, the more likely it will grow. For something to really grow, it has to be pushed in multiple ways. I can see someone get excited about matcha in a traditional way, then find convenience product used for different occasions. Pastry chefs will start using in different ways – we’ve already seen that with green tea ice cream.

As people grow to understand it more, that will drive people’s interest.

What are the consumers’ motivations?

There are many of them, I don’t think there is a single biggest one. There always a health driver here in the U.S., that we’re preoccupied with and busy ignoring at the same time. Fifty percent of products have a health claim on them, it’s the biggest thing people think about. But when you look at what’s driving trends…I think stepping back, there’s a continued push for more natural foods and transparency, cleaner labels. The biggest things that are preoccupying people are is my food good for me? And is it tasting good? People are demanding food that tastes great, and it has to be interesting. They want something they haven’t had before or something they’ve seen in their travels. Look at the advanced Asian or incendiary charcoal trend. How food is prepared with flavor first and foremost is going to become an absolute given. People’s palates are growing more sophisticated, we’re seeing a greater interest in bitter food. It used to be we liked sweet and salty, it was very simplistic. Now, with Indian and other cuisines we’re demanding new flavors…

There’s a bigger demand for deeper umami, fishier flavors and fattier foods. People are learning they don’t have to be so afraid of fat. The notions of dietary fat and health issues are evolving and changing.

How important are health concerns? Are they more important than they used to be?

I think they are changing. We’re always learning more, and people are getting a lot of information from the media. You can’t go online without seeing an ad for a fat-reducing miracle pill or a warning about something, and that adds to the confusion. The growth of the natural foods retail channel means consumers can find many of these products anywhere now, including the mainstream grocery store, so consciousness has been raised about these natural choices.

Look at eggs. There are so many choices now that you can’t ignore it. Do I need eggs with Omega 3s? People care about these things and food companies react and create all these new choices. That makes people have to think about them and look for more information. At the same time, we’re conscious of obesity and the diabetes crises, and boomers want to live forever.

The boomers’ children, the millennials, came to the marketplace with a sophisticated understanding of nutrition. Whether they’re eating that way is another question, but we see businesses reacting accordingly. Restaurant chains are reacting, we’re seeing the rise of better burger chains, Lyfe Kitchen continues to grow.

There’s the local milling trend, the local grain economy. I do think we’ll see more of that, people will start milling the grains at home, and we’ll start having more choices in the grocery store as well. They’ll be able to ground grains like they do their coffee beans. We know freshness is important, and that there are a lot of problems with the grain supply. We’ve got gluten-free people looking for more ancient grains, and these companies are very much on top of this.

The industry is trying to answer consumers’ needs, trying to create things that will fulfill a need and offer a benefit. If they can make pizzas more healthful with ancient grains, for example, it makes sense to do that. It can be tough, but it’s part of our culture. Food is a lot more than just calories. It has bigger meaning. It’s like birthday cake at a party – there are cultural reasons why you have to have a bite. It’s a very complex thing.

By the time these trends make the list, are they becoming mainstream?

Yes, and I think what they represent will become more mainstream. They’re the poster children for bigger trends. Take coconut sugar. We know sugar is tricky, there’s a lot of information on how it affects our metabolism. Coconut sugar has a nice flavor, it’s easy to substitute and it’s sustainably grown at this point. It represents the fact at this point, it’s not just that 5-lb bag of white sugar anymore, there are lots of choices. Food producers are using it as an ingredient. We had talked about it a few years ago as a new option. It’s appealing to people who are starting to think about these questions. Also, it’s organic.

When manufacturers use it and put it on the front of package as a benefit, it appeals to consumers, like the Purely Elizabeth granola brand that’s selling well at Target now. We’ve been looking at coconut sugar for a while, and we see more companies using it now as a step up.

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