The ‘mobile global food table’ is a phrase I use to capture the constant shift in consumer trends and food demand.
I picture it as a round table without edges that can be placed indoors or out. Sometimes there are chairs and sometimes there are chopsticks. Always there is change.
I’ve taken notes over the last decade in regards to the moving target of meeting consumer demands and the task of creating value-added foods for our domestic and export supply. At one point, the primary concern of the consumer was the environment. During that period, for example, we did things to show our resolve like shifting from plastic grocery bags to cloth reusable ones.
Then the environment sifted to the bottom of the concerns — animal welfare took over followed by antibiotic resistance, overall food safety, and food additives.
Everyone wants safe food. I know I do and being a farmer, I am especially conscious of the product I produce or create. Like farmers everywhere we pay attention to what our buyers want to eat. Just when we thought they were satisfied with the level of food safety regulations, our hungry crowd began to rethink food. Trends developed, morphing into things like food trucks which shifted away from bricks and mortar commercial kitchens. The tastes changed from chocolate to olives and from new takes on North American heritage meals to exotic textures and flavours. Ground beef became the cut of choice and chicken wings flew off the shelf. Beverages became the new fashion and a lot of people walk with their coffee or fashion drinks as an accessory.
Later, children’s nutrition started taking the spotlight along with smartphone apps so one could find food and food service. Online ordering of food and groceries exploded. Food eaters also decided that the reality of food miles did not make sense and neither did supporting a farmer 15,000 kilometres away. So the local movement took hold. The idea of shopping for local is lucrative as sales from farmers’ markets in Canada last year topped $1 billion with a total economic generator of $3 billion (the equivalent of the value of the beef industry). At this point in history, folks are committed to local and to organic, with 58 per cent of consumers now buying organic goods.
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Our consumers are committed to information. In the past, they were reluctant to pay for items that had a healthy ingredient list. The new generation demands transparency when it comes to food ingredients. They will also pay for foods they deem healthy and walk away from those foods they deem to put them at long-term risk.
Sugar was the first soldier to fall with many processors now pledging not to use high fructose and refined sugars. A constant on the list is GMO product. The industry may not win this one as powerful as the Monsantos of the world are. This issue has had amazing staying power despite the fading of other concerns.
As most households in Canada are single households, single-serving meals are popular. Low-glycemic demand is rising as diabetes becomes a national problem. Gluten-free offerings are trending upward. I was at a catered event this winter where the entire offering was gluten free — and delicious. Fat is now a good thing and the panic on cholesterol is a quiet rumble. Organic and natural foods continue to be in the five fastest-growing areas.
Our multicultural demographic has a strong influence on food and shelves today carry an assortment of vegetables and fruits for the growing population. It also means the meat counter has changed as well as the spice rack. I’ve noticed in my travels that the hot meals in places such as travel lounges are diverse and almost always are curry based with meat as part of the meal but not the principle ingredient. A new U.S. study found consumers are doing just that — putting meat in with the rest of the meal as a source of protein as they shift from building a meal around meat. This suggests the demand for veggies will continue to increase and young innovators are flocking to this type of farming in Canada.
Food service, even fast food, is trying to keep pace with consumers’ needs. When you are too slow on the creation of a menu that consumers want, you fall hard. As an example, burger outlets are desperately trying to outsmart initiatives like A&W’s brilliant hormone-free campaign. But that ship has left the port and those clients will be difficult to recapture. So the competition is trying to tie in sustainable and local in the same sentence to reassure customers.
Sustainability is a word so worn down that it has become meaningless. To think in terms of sustaining is yesterday’s news. Science and technology will fight to keep food on our plates and balance the needs of consumers. So while they create and grow drought-resistant and salt-resistant plants on our drying planet, they also are compelled to do it without striking the fire on the GMO debate.
Looking to the future and way ahead in the discussion is the regenerative model of nutrient-dense foods. The consumer is not there yet — but I am because we cannot ask the world’s farmers to produce more. The cost to the future is too high. But we can solve a lot of competitive and consumer demand problems with this food differentiation in Canada. Bringing our commitment to high-quality Canadian food to the mobile global food table reserves our place.