America’s changing palate

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by Sally Colby

Chris DuBois said 2020 was one of the biggest science experiments of modern times.

“What happens if we put an entire population back at home, people aren’t going into the office, and what happens when you work from home?” he asked. “Can we force people to cook?”

DuBois, senior VP of Protein Practice, posed those questions at the recent Animal Agriculture Alliance Summit. DuBois said people stayed home and some learned to cook, but added that something fascinating happened – it was the biggest year in decades to see major growth in the food industry.

He said trends that accelerated during 2020 will remain for at least three or five years and have long-lasting impacts. “If you focus on these as a marketer you will outperform your competition and grow faster than your competition because these are four major changes that all happened in the course of a year,” he said.

The first trend is in cooking behavior. Nearly everyone cooked more, but some people changed their cooking in ways that will be long-lasting. DuBois classified cooks as either cooking enthusiasts or confident cooks.

An important factor regarding cooking behavior and how people buy meat is that most households purchase about 10 cuts of meat on average per year. “Confident cooks moved from 10 to 18 cuts,” said DuBois. “They love to try new cuts … and used recipes to do it.” The same group increased their use of less common types and cuts, including lamb, veal, pork roast and pork ribs.

Cooking enthusiasts moved from 10 to 14 cuts. Enthusiasts reported trying new recipes, grilling more and cooking at home more often. DuBois said once people try more innovative cuts and dishes, they tend to continue the trend.

Another trend is consumers purchasing higher priced products. Consumers surveyed reported that they often purchased new or different cuts or more expensive cuts to create at home.

“People have learned to bring the restaurant experience home, and they likely won’t go back over time,” said DuBois. “That doesn’t mean they won’t go to a restaurant, but they will continue to look for premium items.” Premium cuts outperformed total meat sales in 2020, and those who carried premium cuts saw sales grow faster.

An interesting trend is the shift of meal occasions, due to working at home. DuBois said this offers an opportunity for new innovations and products.

The next significant trend is in appliances. The popularity of air fryers grew substantially, which became a factor in driving food trends. “Chicken wings and Brussels sprouts have been huge favorites, and air fryers are the reason those have grown,” said DuBois. “Shoppable recipes are one of the biggest drivers – the idea of taking a recipe that goes right into an e-commerce basket.”

How will things pan out for those who sell meat? DuBois suggested focusing marketing efforts on confident cooks and cooking enthusiasts. “Premium cuts and premiumization across categories is a trend that’s been in place, and we see a broad adoption across all income groups,” he said. “E-commerce and social media will continue to be major platforms – that’s where I would put a lot of my marketing dollars. Innovation around new platforms and needs and new occasions is probably going to be one of the big changes.”

Meat alternatives have grown quickly but are still just a small part of the meat case. Growth of actual meat sales is more significant. His prediction for the restaurant industry is based on when 54% of dollars went to foodservice and 46% to retail in 2019. Last year those figures flipped, and in the next two years, it should be around 50/50, and DuBois said the split should remain around 50/50.

“The biggest thing is telling the meat story,” said DuBois. “There are so many positive aspects overlooked because there are so many voices. Plant-based hits hard for perceived health, whether it’s true or not. Tell the story from farmers’ and ranchers’ viewpoints. Plant-based are not going away, but we can influence by understanding how to position meat in a positive light.”

Some consumers experienced food insecurity last year, and DuBois said the issue was related to supply chain trends. Food insecurity influenced how much was purchased. In some areas that lacked sufficient resources, food banks addressed those shortages, and continue to do so.

“It isn’t because we don’t have enough,” said DuBois. “We didn’t forecast a change in cooking, but it happened, and that’s a big deal. There’s a group of people who are excited to cook and experiment, and you can market to those people – they want to buy your products.”

Registered dietician Kim Kirchherr explained the principles of three key dietary guidelines: meet nutritional needs primarily from food groups and beverages; choose a variety of options from each food group; and pay attention to portion size. Consumers want to know what they’re getting. Kirchherr said 75% of people are not getting enough vegetables, fruit and dairy and that 90% are getting too much sodium. The question becomes “How can we tell our story of protein and help people meet their goals to match up with science?”

Kirchherr said the standard nutrition label required was recently overhauled. “Vitamin C is no longer on the label, but potassium is. Most people don’t realize that meat is a source of potassium,” she said. “What is your nutrition story from a value perspective – what are people getting for the calories and dollars they’re spending?”

The goal for those who produce and sell food is relevant in both communication and consumption. Kirchherr said it’s essential to maintain a two-way conversation with consumers.

She concluded, “Help them get the food they’ve chosen from the package to the plate deliciously, safely and in a very smart way that honors what they’re trying to do from a flavor and culture perspective.”

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