Sometimes the difference between how farmers and consumers think about food is most glaring when someone tries to cross the divide. Interviewer Helen Lammers-Helps wanted to put the question into the hands of David Sax, a Toronto-based business writer who is becoming a lead voice on food and on who decides what we eat. Sax recently published Tastemakers, and in addition to other books, he also writes regularly for publications including New York Times and Bloomberg Business Week.
CG: What are the drivers that produce a food trend? What role do farmers and agricultural scientists play in these trends, if any?
David Sax: There are several forces that drive food trends. First of all, there are health and wellness drivers that are the result of research studies. For example, for almost three decades we were told not to eat saturated fat, but that fear has now been proven wrong. We’re all going to be eating butter again.
Social and cultural forces also affect our food tastes. For example, where are people travelling to and where are immigrants coming from? Those foods and flavours will influence what we eat.
Finally, economics will impact our food choices. When times are good, people are more open to trying new flavours and ideas. Conversely, when the economy is bad, we tend to stick to known foods, comfort foods. That’s when we’ll see Mac & Cheese coming back, it’s almost like an edible security blanket.
CG: I didn’t really hear farmers in that list. What role does media play?
Sax: The media is the mouthpiece for these trends. Media includes not just newspapers but also food blogs, The Food Network, Yelp, Twitter, and Instagram. These media inform what it is we reach for in the grocery store or point at on the menu.
Farmers and agriculture are very much tied into the world of food and the world of food trends but usually in a way that is a lot less obvious than chefs. Before kale became a superfood, there were farmers in California who were growing many varieties of kale who were trying to get it into restaurants, who were creating a market for it.
I’ve written about a farm family (Irma and Marius Botden) in Thornbury, Ont. who came from the Netherlands and saw that the Ontario apple market was saturated with low-price apples and not a lot of variety. In the Netherlands there were many more types of apples, boutique apples. So they developed the Red Prince apple. They invested a lot of time and money to develop the apple and the market for it. They have established that there is a market for a greater variety of apples here in Ontario — sales of interesting apples are growing.
Inevitably, all food trends feedback to the farm. Agriculture plays a crucial role.
CG: What are some examples of emerging food trends?
Sax: I was just at a food trade show in California. Single-origin honey and single-crop honey is gaining popularity. In the past, honey was essentially a commodity, but with all of the attention on bees and with concerns about colony collapse disorder people are becoming more aware. It’s copying the wine world — I had coriander and jalapeno honey because those are the crops the bees were pollinating. We’re going to have honey sommeliers.
Sometimes things are cyclical. I saw a lot of products around granola. Not granola bars but classic granola. We see this often where a food will become trendier and trendier, and it will be added to all kinds of different products and then it almost loses sight of what it started as until someone decides to do a reset.
CG: What causes a food trend to die? Is it oversaturation?
Sax: There is an element of that. Take the balsamic vinegar and olive oil trend of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s no longer what it was. Sometimes things like that get so big it becomes the de facto. Olive oil is now the de facto oil that you use for salad dressing and cooking.
In the same way that Starbucks and the specialty coffee trend have permanently changed the way we drink coffee. People aren’t talking about cappuccino anymore but coffee everywhere is better now with more options than when the trend began. Sometimes a trend may seem dead but it’s not.
CG: Is sustainability a flash in the pan?
Sax: I don’t think sustainability is a passing fad. It’s not a new trend. The organic agriculture movement began 70 years ago in the United Kingdom and the local food trend dates back 40 years, maybe longer, in California.
These are not new things but they are finally entering main street consciousness. They will only grow bigger (barring some kind of catastrophic recession or depression). The mass market is more aware of this. This is why Walmart has organic food now and why chains like Chipotle’s are sourcing local meat. This is not going to suddenly disappear overnight. Farmers who can figure out how to do this economically will reap the rewards because they will be able to add value and differentiate their products.
CG: It seems that more food trends are coming from “heritage” foods and “heirloom” crops lately. Is this something you think will continue?
Sax: Yes, I do. This is part of the search for variety, diversity and quality in what we’re eating. We are continuously searching for new and better food and a fun experience. Growing heirloom varieties is one way smaller growers can differentiate themselves. People will pay a premium for something different and unique. It’s all about the taste.
CG: How might demographic trends such as an aging population and high immigration rates be affecting food trends and markets?
Sax: We have a great appetite for more variety and as we’re exposed to a range of cultures, different from the Western European ones that established Canada, there will be demand for these foods. There are one million Chinese-speaking Canadians. Lots of other people enjoy this cuisine too. Chinese food is the most successful ethnic food in the world. We’re moving away from a meat and potatoes food culture, but this is good news for farmers. There are more diverse markets for farmers.
CG: How big is the role of media, such as recipe websites, health magazines, TV talk shows, newspaper coverage, etc. in producing and fuelling food trends?
Sax: Media is a reflection of what people want. It reports on these trends and amplifies the message.
CG: What is the best way for farmers to increase the market for foods they are producing?
Sax: Be genuine. Try to connect with a small but influential food service or market. Word of mouth gets the word out for a very little bit of effort. Approach a few restaurants to try it out. Go to an upscale farmers’ market. This will go further than any advertising.
Get it into the hands of people who will have an influence on people who really care about food. That will create a demand.
It’s good news for farmers, says Sax. Our Helen Lammers-Helps isn’t quite so convinced