It’s often helpful to take a step back and look at trends. As indicators of the prevailing sentiments and interests within a society, they offer a compelling snapshot of broad cultural attitudes at a given time. By analyzing them, we can gain insights into a population’s collective mindset and preferences, which businesses also use to tailor their products and services to meet current demands and predict future demand.
As we come to the end of 2023, now is the ideal time to reflect on the most significant trends that have passed this year. What might they indicate about our current relationship with nutrition and food choices in general? What might they say about the future?
The popularity of sustainable diets is not only a 2023 trend—there has been a consistent surge in enthusiasm for sustainable diets for several years now—but it deserves its place at the top of this list if for no other reason than that it’s likely to become even more popular in the coming years.
Different people mean different things when they talk about sustainable food, but generally speaking, our focus in this article is on the heightened awareness of and desire to address challenges related to climate change, biodiversity loss, the growing human population, and the depletion of natural resources. More broadly, there are at least three lenses through which we might view the sustainability trend:
1. Ecological Sustainability
This is the most obvious. As more consumers grapple with the carbon footprint of their diets, locally sourced, seasonal, and plant-based foods have become more popular. There is also a push toward reducing waste or, at least, signaling to consumers that waste reduction is a priority. Whether waste reduction is a genuine priority is another matter. It seems as if when it’s convenient for a business to offer reusable or compostable containers, we see them everywhere, whereas more egregious forms of waste—such as the inefficient use of resources needed to rear animal livestock—often fly under the radar. In any case, what’s clear is that sustainability is something increasingly on the minds of a large and diverse range of consumers. As this trend continues, options advertising sustainability will likely become commonplace.
2. Social Sustainability
The popularity of sustainable diets has also been propelled by a sense of social responsibility and a desire to support ethical and transparent food systems. Consumers have been increasingly seeking transparency in the production and sourcing of their food, favoring brands and products that adhere to ethical and sustainable practices. This shift in consumer behavior has influenced food industry practices, prompting some companies to adopt more sustainable and socially responsible approaches in their supply chains. The popularity of sustainable diets therefore reflects a broader societal shift towards conscientious and informed consumption, where individuals actively contribute to creating a more sustainable and equitable food system.
3. Personal Sustainability (Well-Being)
Many people have pointed out the critical, if obvious, realization that a diet is only sustainable for as long as we can realistically maintain it. This condition is why we must not only look at whether our food choices are socially responsible or beneficial for the environment—they must also support our health and well-being. Thankfully, it’s not difficult to achieve all of the above. It turns out the dietary Venn diagram of “what’s good for the planet” and “what’s good for you” contains a lot of overlap. Going beyond a merely vegan diet to a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) lifestyle ensures that your sustainable diet sustains not only the health around you but also the health within you. Once individuals recognize how interconnected our health is to broader sustainability goals, they better appreciate the WFPB lifestyle as a viable and optimal wholistic solution.
Personalized nutrition, interchangeably referred to as “precision nutrition,” “nutritional genomics,” “individualized nutrition,” or a label similar to these, is an approach to diet and health that intends to tailor dietary recommendations to individual characteristics, especially those observed in the genome, epigenome, and gut microbiome. The theory is that this personalized approach, relying on genetic testing and data analytics, can account for individual needs more effectively than traditional one-size-fits-all recommendations.
You might think this sounds utopian (or dystopian, depending on your point of view). But there’s no disputing that it’s mega-trendy. Forecasts estimate that the global market for personalized nutrition products will increase to $37 billion by 2030, representing a 164% increase in this decade alone. Many younger consumers in particular are interested in this approach. Whereas older generations might express reservations, nearly half of millennials have “a strong preference for products, services, or apps that leverage personal data to personalize the consumer experience [emphasis added].”
Do the benefits of personalized nutrition justify the hullabaloo? I’m not convinced. Of course, in the most general sense, there’s a wisdom to personalizing dietary recommendations. The benefits of tailoring one’s dietary lifestyle to the needs and conditions of one’s lifestyle—exercise, sleep habits, stress levels, and health goals, to name a few—are eminently clear. (You might say we’ve been personalizing nutrition since the dawn of humankind, our taste buds and nostrils the primordial instruments of this process.) It also seems plausible that individuals hoping to optimize performance at the highest level, such as professional athletes, might benefit from such a granular approach; in theory, three unique genotypes might respond differently to certain nutritional stimuli, and understanding those different effects might give sports nutritionists an edge.
But for the vast majority who don’t already analyze every food and beverage item they consume on a granular level, are we not distracting ourselves from the merits of the obvious advice? The fact is, we already struggle to get the basics right. In the face of epidemics of nutrition-related diseases and conditions, and with most people not eating a healthy diet anyway, should we maybe consider not pooh-poohing the more general advice for which there is already a strong foundation of evidence, such as increasing the intake of minimally processed plant-based foods?
I can appreciate the appeal of the technological approach. There’s an allure to its promise of extraordinary precision. It might be neat if we, like finely tuned machines, could imbibe the perfectly balanced concoction of nutrients suited to our every need. But marketing aside, how closely does that vision align with our reality?
As noted in an article published last year in Frontiers In Nutrition, the concept of functional foods is a nebulous one. Like “superfoods,” the term has not always been well defined, leading to consumer confusion. “In many cases, healthy foods are included under the term,” but in that case, why should we call them functional foods at all? Beyond which threshold must a healthy food pass before it becomes “functional”? Whom does this confusion and redundancy serve?
The answer is not dissimilar to what we saw with personalized nutrition: food manufacturers, technologists, and marketers are the ones who benefit the most from concepts like these.
To reduce confusion, it only makes sense to eliminate natural foods from the functional foods category. This is how the article above proposes we redefine the term:
“Novel foods that have been formulated so that they contain substances or live microorganisms that have a possible health-enhancing or disease-preventing value, and at a concentration that is both safe and sufficiently high to achieve the intended benefit. The added ingredients may include nutrients, dietary fiber, phytochemicals, other substances, or probiotics.”
This is not, however, a radical concept—in the United States, at least, we’ve been consuming fortified foods for a century, starting with salt, milk, and enriched flour. So again, why do we need the term functional foods? The Institute of Food Technologists emphasizes the importance of functional foods being novel, which “therefore excludes foods such as yogurt and refined cereals with added B vitamins.” Okay, fair enough. But what are these novel foods? The examples offered in the article include orange juice with added calcium, foods manufactured with anthocyanins (naturally found in berries), and foods with added prebiotics like beta-glucans (naturally found in oats). Are these such a far cry from fortified yogurts and refined cereals? My favorite example—because it so flagrantly flouts what functional foods purportedly support; i.e., better health—is margarine manufactured to contain plant sterols and stanols reported to decrease blood cholesterol.
It strikes me that the supposedly defining characteristic, novelty, is, in fact, a smoke screen. In numerous examples, we see not novelty but familiar foods reinforced with familiar nutrients or nutrient-like substances, altered just enough to be legally patented and marketed for their health benefits. Food manufacturers are only appropriating what exists in nature, commodifying it, and shamelessly claiming that it’s for the benefit of our health.
Even if it were possible to create genuinely novel foods that are healthy—as opposed to margarine that’s easier to fool consumers into buying—should we assume they hold more promise than the healthy foods already available in the produce aisle? As with personalized nutrition discussed above, I think it’s important to remember where most of us are presently at. We are not finely tuned machines. We are not achieving a decent base level. We are not a few functional foods away from conquering heart disease. Rather, we are a nation, increasingly a world, riddled with preventable diseases. From a public health perspective, we are failing to consume the healthy foods we can and should consume. Is this the best time to turn our attention toward inventing new foods?
And yet. Functional foods are all the rage. The market size for these products continues to expand. According to one report, demand for functional foods especially increased alongside consumers’ interest in boosting their immunity during the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s notable but unsurprising is which food industry segments are profiting the most: dairy, meat, eggs, bakery and cereals. Meanwhile, the food industry segments they borrow from to manufacture their products—the foods they borrow from—do not stand to benefit in the same way. That’s because fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are already the most functional foods. We have evolved for millennia to function at a high level by consuming these foods. Maybe instead of mining them for their health-promoting properties, we should just eat them.
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