In Parts One and Two of this series, we explored six top health and nutrition trends from 2023: sustainability, personalized nutrition, functional foods, non-alcoholic beverages, gut health, and mindful eating. Click here to read Part One; Click here to read Part Two We will look ahead, in this article, to 2024 and beyond.
But first, what do these trends have in common, if anything? Do they represent a coherent shift in public views of health and nutrition, or are they only incidentally related? Might we synthesize any general observations from them?
There is a growing interest in stepping back from and re-assessing traditional consumption patterns, both what and how we consume. The rising popularity of personalized nutrition, functional foods, and non-alcoholic beverages indicates the former, with many consumers trying to take a more targeted and ostensibly healthy approach to what they eat and drink, and the emphasis on sustainability and mindfulness indicates the latter. Even individuals less interested in changing their diets have shown an increasing interest in choosing products that lessen their impact on natural resources and the living environments we rely on, as reflected by the growing availability of animal products marketed as sustainable or more humane. (Read about the future of lab-grown meat and the demand for meat substitutes.)
Of course, diet has always been a very personal thing. For many of us, food and beverage preferences are critical to cultural customs, family traditions, and individual identities. But this final element, individual experience, is becoming even more of a driving force. The rising prominence of personalized nutrition highlights this shift—it is all about what makes the individual an individual, their genetic profile, and their relationship with food. Compared to traditional dietary guidelines that focus on responding to general health needs, this shifting emphasis toward the individual is apparent in the increased funding, research, and development for products that target specific health goals, disease treatment, genetic profiles, or challenges relating to the individual’s gut microbiome. Likewise, products marketed as functional foods appeal to the purported needs and challenges of the individual as a unique entity.
There is a growing appreciation for the connections between systems formerly viewed as distinct or unrelated. For instance, we understand better than ever that what happens in our guts affects our mental health. Meanwhile, mindfulness practices are increasingly being used to improve health outcomes and our relationship with food, and the interactions between personal, social, and environmental health are increasingly at the forefront of many shoppers’ minds. If this sounds to you like a step toward wholism, you aren’t alone. But is it actually? Not so fast.
Whenever there’s an opportunity to profit from a population’s changing hopes and priorities, you can be sure that businesses will respond. And to be clear, this is not an inherently bad thing. Whereas the options for non-alcoholic beverages were scant before, consumers experimenting with partial or complete sobriety now have far more healthy alternatives to choose from, and more producers are focusing on sustainability than ever before. Surely this is a welcome development. However, with these changes, it becomes paramount that consumers discern between substantive changes and superficial marketing claims.
The need for discernment is especially relevant for sustainability claims. With such wide-ranging social and environmental impacts of food production, it’s important to remember that just because something is more sustainable in one sense does not make it genuinely sustainable. For example, marketers will tell you that livestock products from regenerative grazing practices are more sustainable due to reduced C02 emissions, but if those same practices require more than twice as much land—land unavailable to meet global demand—can those products honestly be called sustainable?
Likewise, margarine fortified with plant-derived chemicals that potentially reduce its effect on blood cholesterol levels will be marketed as a healthier choice—a more “functional” food—but only an absurd margarine mouthpiece would call this product healthy, especially compared to the natural foods from which the so-called functional ingredient was derived. A probiotic supplement taken as a capsule might have beneficial effects on gut health (also, it might not), but that does not make it a wise choice compared to eating a wide range of fiber-rich whole foods.
As always, context is everything.
Almost every list of the year’s top nutrition trends includes the growing popularity of plant-based diets. I chose not to address this very much in the previous two articles because plant-based nutrition deserves a closer look.
The whole food, plant-based (WFPB) dietary lifestyle, in particular, has the potential to supersede many of the other trends we have already discussed:
Some but not all of these benefits apply to vegetarian or vegan diets. Although more environmentally sustainable, these diets do not promote personal health benefits as profoundly as the WFPB diet. The latter, emphasizing not only that we should avoid animal foods but also that we should choose whole plant foods, has the potential to achieve what all of the above trends are striving for.
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