Datassential’s Culinary Trends to Watch in 2021

As we head into a new year, while there remains some uncertainty around what upcoming food trends might look like, third-party research firm Datassential, which has a constant finger on the pulse of the changing culinary industry here and abroad, offers a more generalized look at what’s in store. Take a look.

Each Generation Redefines “Comfort Food”

In the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, consumers turned to familiar foods that not only work well for delivery but also are among the most-loved foods, especially pizza, burgers and sandwiches and barbecue or chicken wings. Eventually, however, the foods people started to crave and miss most from restaurants changed. People indicated that once a level of boredom with traditional comfort foods set in, they began turning toward Mexican food, seafood and Asian cuisine. Younger generations really drove the notion of comfort foods evolving to include more global tastes — for instance, 71% of Gen Z consumers say they love ramen. While you won’t ever really go wrong serving pizzas and hearty pastas, pay attention to what younger consumers go for when they need a meal to make them feel good, and start imagining how street tacos, sushi rolls or noodle bowls might work for your operation.

Healthful Eating Beyond “Eating Our Vegetables”

A once-in-a-lifetime public-health crisis dominated 2020, so healthful eating of course gained more salience for many consumers. Previous eras’ diet fads dealt with weight management, and more recent trends dealt with functional benefits sought in specific foods. In 2021, menu makers will have the chance to take emerging trends in health foods and innovate more around visual appeal, bold global flavors, and simple ingredient lists and labels. It just so happens that some of the immunity-boosting ingredients people are after also add a fun splash of color to any dish. Think of turmeric’s golden color, the vibrant pink of pickled onion, and the deep red hues of beets. Plant-forward dishes don’t have to look or taste bland, and one way to spice up those dishes can be with flavors and formats popular in Mexican food. For example, cilantro-lime and cotija cheese have more than double their penetration on healthy menus in the past four years.

Get More Mileage Out of Regional American Cuisine

When people were mostly stuck in place in 2020, they still managed to stoke their wanderlust through food, and this was reflected in the rapid growth on American menus of global flavors and the hero ingredients of many regional cuisines that consumers and the media might have discovered for the first time. More chefs and food manufacturers have begun experimenting with Sonoran, Cal-Mex, Gullah, Indigenous and Appalachian cuisines. Opportunities abound, because while significant numbers of consumers are willing to try regional dishes like Sonoran chimichangas or Appalachian pepperoni rolls, those items are still not very common on restaurant menus nationwide.

Fusion Gets an Update, Too

One of Datassential’s prevailing macro trends is “Fusebiquity,” where creative chefs introduce brand new flavors and ingredients to their guests through familiar formats. What began decades ago with fusing Korean barbecue flavors with the ubiquitous taco still has momentum today, but in the coming years, Fusebiquity will evolve to bring in flavors from even farther abroad. The cuisine to watch here likely will be Middle Eastern, as its flavors pair quite well with snack and comfort food formats consumers already love. Some of Datassential staffers’ favorites include French fries seasoned with sumac, Middle Eastern-inspired “nachos” made from pita chips and hummus or an Indian butter chicken pizza on a naan crust. But the possibilities are too numerous to count.

What are consumers most looking forward to from restaurant food that they haven’t been able to get from home since the pandemic began?

  • 33% Craving specific dish from certain restaurant
  • 32% Variety: more options than I have at home
  • 30% Craving dishes that are hard to make at home
  • 21% Global foods and flavors
  • 20% Craving indulgent foods

Source: Datassential (December 2020)