The food industry seems to be subject to new developments and ever faster changes like no other industry. Food trends are indicators of new consumer needs that should to be met with new products and services. After convenience and health, sustainability is now playing an increasingly important role – making food waste the starting point for new business models.
Industrialisation and globalisation of our food have lead to us having all kinds of food available nearly every day all year round. On the one hand, this is great news, as this has enabled us to experience diversity, curiosity and individualisation in eating. On the other hand, this is more and more pushing us into an affluent society that is increasingly becoming a society of waste. And somewhere that’s not really surprising, because if there’s a lot of something at hand, it’s automatically worth less.
As a result, around 1.3 billion tons of edible food are currently thrown away worldwide every year. This corresponds to about one third of global food production. 198 million hectares of land are cultivated with food that we ultimately do not consume – roughly the size of Mexico! In Germany, too, many foods are thrown away: Over 18 million tons and thus more than a third of current food consumption ends up in the garbage bin every year. At 44 percent, fruit and vegetables account for almost half of our food waste.
„Smooth skin, glossy appearance and perfect dimensions – sounds like a slogan from the beauty industry, but it has also become our expectation towards food.“
Smooth skin, glossy appearance and perfect dimensions – sounds like a slogan from the beauty industry, but it has also become our expectation towards food. In fact, they describe the requirements of society and the food industry regarding the appearance of fruit and vegetables – and are therefore an important cause of our food waste. Because it has to be shapely and flawless, otherwise there must be something wrong with it!
Ugly food movement
However, there are now more and more initiatives that no longer want to accept this artificial perfectionism in the food industry and associated waste. The “Ugly Food Movement” focuses on the crooked and unshapely and wants to remind society about the uniqueness of agricultural produce.
In terms of taste and nutrient content, these products don’t need to hide anyway. The EU-funded Qlif study considers 180 scientific publications and proves that organic foods (which often produce the „wonderlings“) usually contain more nutrients, because they develop their own “defences” in the fight against external influences due to less fertilization and pesticide treatment. This leads to the fact that beside lots of vitamins, these provide also more antioxidants (up to 40 per cent) for humans. Stress during plant growth makes them stronger and healthier!
More and more established retail companies are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon and sell “bulky” fruit and vegetables as a concrete measure against the throwaway culture in their supermarkets. What everyone seems to have understood: The word “ugly” is not really good for marketing and communication. Whether “Inglorious Fruits & Vegetables” (at Intermaché in France), “wonky” (at ASDA in England), “naturally imperfect” (at Loblaws in Canada), “Produce with personality” (at Giant Eagle in the USA), “Ünique” (at Coop in Switzerland), the “organic heroes” (at Penny in Germany) or even as “wonderlings” (at REWE Austria) – the wording in respective displays tries to help the much too long neglected foods with charismatic corners and edges to gain more prestige again.
And the crooked cucumbers, strangely shaped potatoes, discoloured lemons and shapeless carrots seem to go down well with customers. For example, the German discount chain Penny, after one year of selling the organic heroes, drew a surprisingly positive balance: the quantities sold rose so quickly that those responsible immediately expanded the range of crooked vegetables from 13 to 21 varieties. And this even though the crooked foods were not even cheaper than the normal fruits and vegetables.
Change of our food culture
At the end of the day, these supermarket initiatives are part of overall societal developments that are moving us – again – towards the appreciation of food. They reflect the longings and feelings of pioneers and social avant-gardes. It is precisely because we have so much choice of food that we should eventually value the food we consume.
„It is precisely because we have so much choice of food that we should value the food we consume.“
Whether Zero Waste, Nose-to-Tail and Leaf-to-Root or Local Food, we are again – at least in niches – taking our food more seriously and setting new standards in sustainability. In futurology, this is referred to as food trends, which create new products, services or business models due to new or unsatisfied needs in society. However, in order to better understand and classify these trends, one must always keep one thing in mind: These phenomena are always the result of overarching megatrends – global and epochal developments in our society. Those “slow avalanches of change” change the world slowly, but fundamentally and in the long term.
For example, the globalisation of our food has led us to observe a return to the regional and local, which is expressed, for example, in the food trends “local food” or “slow food” (see my text on slowness): Increasingly industrialised and globally harmonising eating solutions have created a longing for regionality (e.g. regional products and production methods), familiarity, authenticity and naturalness. Once again, we frequently ask where our food comes from and how it originated, who is behind the products and what story they want to tell us. So it is not so much the plate itself as the way to it that is more and more the measure of all things.
Now let’s take a look at a few selected food trends that – at least implicitly – deal with the issue of food waste by contributing to more food appreciation:
Our consumer culture has led us to produce large quantities of garbage – be it packaging or the food itself. The zero-waste approach aims to tackle this problem and avoid waste.
Example: The restaurant “Silo” in Brighton (Great Britain) is regarded as the first zero-waste restaurant in the world: no plastic packaging, recycled furniture and a 28,000 euro composting machine called “Bertha”, which converts food waste into compost for the own garden.
Leaf-to-Root & Nose-to-Tail
Abundance has led to the point of us starting to eat only the fillet and the most beautiful part of the fruit. The Nose-to-Tail (meat) and Leaf-to-Root (fruit & vegetables) trends show that the whole product can be used in many foods and that there is an enormous potential for enjoyment apart from the classic parts.
Example: The restaurant „Gußhaus“ in Vienna (Austria) shows that “Eat it all” is not only about sustainability, but also about enjoyment. Here Beuschel (upper intestines of the animal) is the absolute bestseller. And avant-garde farmer Matthias Hollenstein from Zurich sells things that are otherwise not really visible to the consumer – such as beetroot leaves or fennel roots.
Local & Seasonal Food
A lack of clarity and increasingly standardised solutions drive the desire for regionality, familiarity, authenticity and naturalness. Traditional dishes and methods of preparation with local and seasonal products promise pleasure, identification and meaning.
Example: The Michelin starred cuisine in particular is currently making use of this trend. Whether the Seven Swans in Frankfurt (Germany) or the Nobelhart & Schmutzig in Berlin (Germany) – cooking is only done with local (mostly Permian cultivated) foods that are in season.
Transparency, emancipation and self-initiative instead of standardised and non-transparent processes in the food industry – the “Do it yourself” culture calls for self-made and more appreciation.
Example: “Germany is bubbling again”, one could recently read in the news media. This refers to the rediscovered joy in old preservation techniques such as fermentation. Now the Sauerkraut is produced on one’s own, free of additives and flavour materials.
The past decades of development and progress in the food industry have brought us more and more to a point where we are fundamentally questioning the way we feed ourselves and what that means for us and the environment. The above mentioned food trends are, so to speak, social counter-impulses to the “ever higher, ever faster, ever further” of the food industry, which is exclusively geared towards profit. But if in the end they would bring us closer to our food again and increase our appreciation for the products, everyone would benefit, wouldn’t they?
This text is a slightly modified excerpt from my book “Weil wir Essen lieben – vom achtamen Umgang mit Lebensmitteln”, which I wrote with Katharina Schulenburg. More information and order at https://oekom.de/nc/buecher/fachbuch/konsum-ernaehrung/buch/weil-wir-essen-lieben.html