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These people know what you're going to want to eat before you do

A year and a half ago, I drove up through the pouring rain of San Francisco to meet Barb Stuckey for lunch at French Blue, a lovely whitewashed restaurant in the Napa Valley. A fit, fast-talking woman with a background in food science who first gained experience at Kraft, Chili's, and Whole Foods, she has been developing foods for the food and drink innovation firm Mattson (which brought us the Frappuccino, among other trendy eats) for well over a decade. Stuckey is an expert on the physiology of taste and wrote a fascinating book several years back simply called Taste, which is the best explanation I have ever read on how our body responds when we eat something.

"We see our role as translating trends," she told me after ordering a kale salad. "We are putting ideas in front of consumers that are both appropriate and challenging. We're here to test that line." When a company comes to Mattson with a need — "We want a drink for the urban market" or "we need a new sandwich that'll appeal to teenagers" — Stuckey will compile the market research and begin looking into related trends in that space. Five times a month she will organize on-the-ground eating tours for her clients so they can experience those trends "the way they're meant to be experienced."

Recently, she led clients on a barbecue-eating tour of Austin, Texas, and a food truck tour in Portland, Oregon. One restaurant chain spent eight hours in Los Angeles on a breakneck ethnic food tour that covered nearly every neighborhood and culture of the vast city in order to experience tastes as diverse as prepared foods in a Japanese supermarket, tamales in a Mexican community-funded restaurant, and pastrami in a Jewish delicatessen. Each of these tours is carefully planned by Stuckey and her team of scouts, who hit the ground up to two months ahead of time to curate the essential trend safari. The Mattson company also puts on an annual trend lunch for all their clients, an eight-course meal that's a sit-down version of a national trend tour, where clients might be served something like a hot drink brewed from coffee leaves, instead of beans, to cite a recent example.


"It's never a straight line between a trend and what ends up in the market," Stuckey said, admiring the kale salad when it finally arrived and then using it to illustrate her point. "There's so many twists and turns along the way. The value, though, is that someday your restaurant will just have to have a kale salad. You need to have it in the pipeline for when that day comes." The kale salad, in her opinion, was the twenty-first century's Caesar salad, an international staple that began in the 1920s in a Tijuana hotel and snowballed into the most popular salad trend the world has ever known. "Slowly but surely, the kale salad will make its way to TGI Friday's menu, then McDonald's, Kraft, and, eventually, as a Doritos flavor."

If you haven't already noticed, America is in the throes of food-trend fever.  What was once the preoccupation of epicures and gourmands has now become everyday popular culture, as cupcake bakeries continue to pop up in the heartland, and once-obscure flavors, like Thailand's Sriracha hot sauce, become as familiar as Heinz ketchup in our pantries. New food trends are popping up quicker, spreading more widely, and flaming out faster than ever before, which makes the food industry's job of appropriating them much more difficult.  By the time a fast food chain has test marketed its line of Cronut knockoffs, the wave of public interest has already passed.  Figuring out what the next food trends will be, and strategizing how to capitalize on them, has become that much more important. This has been a boon for the world of food trend predictions and forecasting, a small, highly influential subset of the food industry that has grown alongside the prominence of food trends.

Whereas independent restaurant chefs and small food companies can quickly release products based on their own taste and instinct, the large, publicly traded corporations who operate restaurant chains and manufacture potato chips are much slower-moving creatures. Los Angeles chef Ricardo Zarate can have an idea at lunch, and it will be on his restaurant Picca's menu by dinner. Lucas Farrell and Louisa Conrad, goat farmers in Vermont, can cook up a batch of coffee caramels on a Monday, tweak the recipe over the course of the week, and start selling them to customers by Friday. But for companies like Pepsico or Denny's, the innovation cycle takes years.

Ideas are brainstormed, prototyped, kitchen tested, debated within dozens of boardrooms, tested in select markets, subjected to refinements and focus groups, prepared for a launch, advertised to the public, and slowly rolled out store by store, state by state, and country by country. The time line from the initial idea for a food to a consumer's first bite can be months in the quickest-moving companies and years for the largest ones, with the whole process costing many millions of dollars.

Furthermore, the product development teams and executives in these companies often aren't on the cutting edge of culinary tastes. Most big food companies are located far from trendy culinary centers in New York, Paris, or Tokyo. More often they are found in suburban office parks in the American Midwest. Though the executives in these companies are skilled in data analysis, marketing skills, and business development, most in the mainstream food world do not know their buffalo milk mozzarella from their fior di latte.

"Slowly but surely, the kale salad will make its way to TGI Friday's menu, then McDonald's, Kraft, and, eventually, as a Doritos flavor"

Those in the mainstream food industry tend to find out about food trends at the same time as the rest of us — when it's already too late. This creates a problem because these same companies need to take advantage of the potential sales and interest food trends can generate, and the sooner they can release products that tap into those trends, the better. If they wait to find out about the trends by themselves, their products will hit the market years after the trend has already passed.

The ill-fated cupcake chain Crumbs, which recently shuttered all its stores, had just debuted its "Crumbnut", a Cronut facsimile that hit the market a year after Cronut fever, and landed with the dull thud of a pastry left on the counter for too long. Large food companies are driven by a need to innovate and stay current, but paradoxically, the scale of their development process and its costs tend to make them extremely risk-averse. On the one hand, they want to be cutting edge, but on the other, they need to stay safe enough that they won't squander millions of dollars on what turns out to be a quickly passing fad. They don't jump into food trends lightly.

This is where food trend forecasting comes in. It happens behind the scenes, in detailed reports and presentations that the public rarely sees. It is a discipline that combines culinary obsession and food knowledge with economics, data aggregation, sociology, and anthropological field research. This is the intelligence wing of the food industry, its field agents and quants gathering info about what we are eating and what we'd like to be eating, and then pulling trends from that data. For the companies in the food industry, from the publicly traded behemoths like Dole to medium-sized firms such as POM, the forecasters are the equivalent of their CIA and Wall Street analysts, armed with 20-page reports on the long-term viability of chia seeds as a food additive. They are the ones who shepherd food trends from the niche world of foodies to the mass-market consumer.

Many in the field credit the modern business of trend forecasting to a woman named Faith Popcorn. Born in New York to the less delicious name of Faith Plotkin, Popcorn initially worked as a creative director in Madison Avenue advertising firms but noticed that what her clients really needed was someone to tell them where the market was moving in the future. In 1974 she opened her own strategic marketing company called Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, which quickly became a success despite sounding like a snack food for chess players. Popcorn gathered data by interviewing people from around the world, reading widely about culture in different languages, and collecting standard consumer research surveys. She organized these into 17 overarching behavioral trends that were present in society, including cocooning (the need to protect yourself from the outside world), down-aging (Baby Boomers find comfort in pursuits and products from their youth), and small indulgences (stressed-out consumers treat themselves in moderate ways). Popcorn characterized the specific foods that came out of these greater trends as "fads." In the case of cupcakes, for instance, down-aging baby boomers sought small indulgences that reminded them of their youth. "None of those foods were the trend," Popcorn told me. "They were manifestations of the trend."

Popcorn is a masterful self-promoter and unashamedly boastful. She claims a 95 percent success rate in predicting trends, and though the robotic hugging booths and food replacement nutrition pills she forecast years back have yet to emerge (they eventually will, she believes), her firm has identified several key food trends ahead of time.

Cocooning was Popcorn's first big theory in the late 1970s, based around a growing fear of the polluted environment and safety in urban areas as well as the hangover effect of the late-night disco era, when people basically curled up in bed the next day nursing physical and emotional hangovers. In moments like these people gravitated toward comforting foods, available at home but without the need for preparation, and Popcorn forecast this would give rise to ready-to-eat meals, which became one of the fastest growing segments of the supermarket business. Cocooning's safety driver led the way to Popcorn's recommendation to Coca-Cola in 1981 that they needed to get into bottled water, which has since proven to be one of their most profitable divisions.

Currently Popcorn believes that the trend "99 lives," in which one has too much to do and too little time, causing a sort of schizophrenia, would lead to the rise of "clean energy" foods that will deliver sustained boosts of energy without the adverse health effects of caffeine, sugar, or products like Red Bull. "I think the future of food tells you how society's going to be shaped," Popcorn said. "Is it going to be a healthy society, a single society? If you want to understand a household, go and look through their garbage. That's what we're doing. We are analyzing future garbage."

Since Popcorn's start, the business of food trend forecasting has grown increasingly sophisticated, and the field falls into a number of different categories, separated by their goals and methodology. The most straightforward are the data-driven market research shops, which use publicly available sales figures, consumer surveys, and their own quantitative research to identify trends and advise their clients on how to best capitalize on them. These include companies such as Chicago's Technomic, whose foodservice research is headed up by Darren Tristano, a native of the city who met me in Toronto one winter day dressed in a Bears baseball hat and sweatshirt. Tristano's focus is the restaurant world, which includes everything from regional sandwich chains to catering companies like Sodexo that operate cafeterias and household names like McDonald's. Technomic's research covers nearly 20 markets around the world, and Tristano, who has a background in accounting, is constantly mining data to track food trends and divine where they are heading.

"I think the future of food tells you how society's going to be shaped. Is it going to be a healthy society, a single society?"

"It's easier to define what a trend isn't," Tristano said as we sat down for a coffee in a hip new restaurant where he commented on how the Edison-style filament lightbulbs they used were now starting to pop up in upscale fast casual chains (such as Chipotle or Panera Bread) around the United States. "A trend is an area where there's growth and use. . . . You have to start with a food [or] flavor's life cycle," he said. "There's a ground zero for it, where you can see where it is happening."

The core of Tristano's methodology lies in the company's menu-tracking database, which monitors over two thousand menus and LTOs (a.k.a., limited time offers or "specials," to you and me). The database covers a wide range of the dining world, from independent fine dining restaurants in major cities like Chicago and Miami to pizza chains in Calgary, providing a representative sample of what the market is eating right now. That data is backed up with consumer research and sales figures to provide an accurate look at what food is being ordered and what isn't. Then Tristano and his team hit the road and complement their data with hundreds of field visits a year.


Although being a restaurant tester sounds like a dream job, it's an incredibly arduous task. "Every experience at a restaurant is a laboratory experiment," said Tristano. "I'm ruined. I can't go out and have a meal without thinking about what's around me." In a typical visit Tristano will look at a concept's service format, decor, ambiance, price point, music, menu, service quality, presentation, taste, and many more factors. "We get really deep into the specific concept to see if it hits on a list of winning restaurant attributes. Within a study I'll go to sixty restaurants, dine at twenty-five, and you've got to go through with that meal whether it's a winner or not." Some days he'll check out 20 small chains, back to back to back.

For Tristano, trends can emerge out of several different areas. There are global-flavor trends, like chipotle peppers or harissa hot sauce that start in specialized markets and immigrant communities and then organically grow into the mainstream appetite over the course of decades. Forward-thinking restaurant brands, such as the Cheesecake Factory, will send scouts around the world to look for dishes and flavors that they can eventually adapt and sell back in North America.

There are supplier-originated trends, backed by branding campaigns, like the POM-driven pomegranate craze, and the recent upswing in avocado use, pushed by the Avocado Board, which has helped chains such as Subway develop a popular avocado sub for their menu. Fine dining trends continue to hold sway and trickle down from chefs to the mainstream market, though Tristano also acknowledges that the cycle is happening faster today, with chef-driven trends emerging quicker and dying sooner.

Then there are the trends that come out of left field. One of Tristano's favorite examples came around 2010 from a San Francisco McDonald's, which was drawing a large crowd at 10:35 in the morning, when the restaurant switched over from their breakfast menu to the lunch menu. At that time there were still leftover breakfast sandwiches, and customers began ordering an Egg McMuffin along with a McDouble hamburger, combining the two of them to create a frankenburger McBrunch mashup that doesn't appear on any menus, but online the chain's fans have nicknamed it the Mc10:35, and discerning McDonald's fans coast to coast are now ordering it. One day soon it will probably migrate to the official menu.

Nancy Kruse, a former colleague of Tristano's who now tracks trends for Nation's Restaurant News, also relies heavily on menu data from the industry, and she does not consider herself a futurist or trend predictor. She has been successful in calling some trends, but she fell short with others she believed were around the corner, such as the mainstream crossover of Indian food in America. Predicting trends is hardly an exact science, and it is getting trickier. Twenty years ago the path that trends followed from the niche to the mainstream flowed down vertically, from high-end kitchens to restaurant chains and eventually to supermarket products. Today trends are flying in from all directions, emerging from sideways influences, bottom-up tastemakers, and landing without warning from way out beyond the periphery.

"I could say I take a look at all these factors and lay out an algorithm," said Kruse, "but yes, to me, what it frequently comes down to is gut instinct. It's very risky to set yourself up as the sort of last word on what's going to be happening on menus because there's so much room for surprise. The best any of us can do is take a commonsense approach, one would hope rooted by history in experience with trends, and then have some expectations. I can't point you to one single reliable tool. We're like Wall Street analysts with less data and money."

Several food companies produce their own trend predictions that they either use as internal research or as a sales and marketing tool. One of the most high-profile is put out each year by McCormick, the Baltimore corporation that is the largest spice dealer in the world. In 2000, led by a recently appointed executive chef named Kevan Vetter, McCormick put together its first Flavor Forecast. The idea was to leverage the company's advanced product knowledge, both from what McCormick's divisions were working on and also what they were observing in the food world, and then use that knowledge to drive demand into new product categories by making their customers, particularly in the food industry, think about the possibilities around these trending flavors. Vetter's team solicited information and opinions from across the company and emerged with the prediction that bold flavors would rule in the coming years. This was distilled down into a top-ten list of flavors, which included cinnamon, cumin, dill, and fennel as hot flavors to watch. "What was big was using sweet spices in main dishes, and savory spices in desserts," Vetter told me, in an interview a few years back. "[We were] supporting trends with flavors we felt make sense."

The Flavor Forecast became a tremendous hit with McCormick's clients, and it grew from there. Each spring Vetter assembles his internal team, which includes members from McCormick's kitchens, their sensory science group, marketing and customer research, and an outside panel of culinary influencers and tastemakers ranging from well-known chefs and bakers to food bloggers and cocktail mixologists. Similar reports in Europe and China are prepared with local chefs, with the flavors reflecting the tastes of those markets. The whole process begins five to six months before the report is released, with the team brainstorming flavor ideas on a big white board at McCormick headquarters. Along with input on culinary trends, economic indicators factor into the list. One year a statistical increase in sales of ball jars, which are used for home preserving, was interpreted as a sign that America was ready for more exposure to pickling spices. Hundreds of possible flavor combinations are suggested and then whittled down over the course of a week to twenty or so final contenders.


Because of its association with Thanksgiving, pumpkin spice mix entered the 2010 holiday forecast early on. The team quickly thought beyond pie, breaking down the ingredients of the mix (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice) to reveal flavors that often appear in Latin American and Caribbean dishes, such as jerk chicken. Often those same dishes require coconut milk, inspiring a potential pairing. Next, Vetter's team headed to the test kitchen to develop and test recipes based on pumpkin pie spices and coconut. In order to be successful, a forecasted flavor needs to be versatile. It has to hit multiple places along the food chain, working within at least three categories, such as a savory main, snack food, and a cocktail. Pumpkin pie spice and coconut milk-rubbed short ribs, pumpkin-spiced coconut fudge, and a pumpkin whoopee pie with coconut cream filling were just three of the dozen or so recipes Vetter tested for that one flavor prediction.

After recipe testing, Vetter's team reconvenes to discuss what worked, what flopped, and which flavors will have the best impact with consumers, before settling on the final ten flavor combinations. The marketing department starts writing up the report, coordinating with McCormick product development to begin work on new industrial or consumer products that the flavor pairings may inspire, including the jars of McCormick spices you can buy at the supermarket. A few years ago, an entire line of toasted spices came out of one Flavor Forecast and have been one of the company's better-selling products in recent years.

The Flavor Forecast is released to the public at year's end, and over the next few months Vetter and the McCormick marketing team present its results to over a hundred major customers while the company's distributors give hundreds more presentations to smaller clients. Each talk is tailored to the customer, so one to TGI Friday's will be quite different from one at Nabisco. Sample foods are always provided, like cayenne and tart cherry brownies (2009), to suggest how McCormick's customers might integrate these new pairings in their particular products. "Within a matter of a couple of months [of the report's release] we'll get orders," said Alan Wilson, chairman, president, and CEO of McCormick & Company. "We'll turn [a pairing] into specific products quickly on an industrial standpoint. . . . A chipotle idea becomes a sandwich sauce for a quick-service restaurant, a frozen dinner for another customer, and an ingredient for another customer."

In many ways the McCormick Flavor Forecast is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they call something a trend and then use that prediction to sell those flavors up and down the food chain, it's like Goldman Sachs putting a buy rating on a stock they're promoting and then profiting when the stock's price inevitably goes up in reaction to that rating.

When food companies don't have their own trend forecasting units — and most don't — they often turn to two firms based around San Francisco who specialize in forecasting and responding to trends: CCD Innovations, where a woman named Kara Nielsen worked when I met her, and Mattson.

I met Kara Nielsen at CCD's downtown offices near the city's waterfront. A formally trained pastry chef, Nielsen found the CCD job on Craigslist a decade back and has since become one of the better-known trend experts in the business (today, she works for the food innovation firm Sterling Rice, in Colorado). Food trends, according to her, represent the evolving needs of people around eating, including economic needs, health needs, social needs, and political needs. A greater societal trend, such as green living, will emerge — that is, "I need to be better for the earth." It will exert pressure and change our value as consumers ("I need to eat local").

As the value changes, our needs change — "I need local food" — and an opportunity arises to serve that change: "My company needs to sell local food." At CCD, Nielsen's job was to identify trends at various points of their development, a process she classifies into five stages, and then write reports on those trends. Then she worked with food companies to understand the opportunities associated with those trends and helped CCD's product development team create a packaged food product or menu item that brings that trend to their client's target market.

CCD's trend reports can focus on flavors, such as heat and spice, which may involve smoke-infused drinks found at cutting-edge cocktail bars at stage one of their development and something like Buffalo hot sauce-flavored ketchup at a stage five, when it is at its most accessible in the mass market. Nielsen remarked that my book Save the Deli even factored into one of the company's trend reports, pulling up the company's sixty-eight-page 2010 sandwich report, which cited the reinvented Jewish deli as a stage-two sandwich trend. I read through, astonished, as the report quoted extensively from my book along with several articles I had written. A surge of pride shot through me — that I had played a role in turning the nascent artisan Jewish deli scene into a mainstream food trend — but it also unnerved me a little to know that my work had been used, without my knowledge, to sell the corporate food world on appropriating the handmade pastrami I loved so dearly.

Nielsen draws a clear distinction between trends, which are slower-paced evolutions with deep cultural roots, and fads, which are superficial manifestations of those trends. A fad is something like the Paleo diet, which first came into fashion in 1975 for its focus on an abundance of raw protein. But a trend is the astronomical growth of Greek yogurt, which drew one of its strengths from the rising interest in high-protein foods but also had a number of other factors going for it.

"There is a Greek yogurt flavor of Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. Are there any probiotics in Honey Bunches of Oats? Greek yogurt has become a health halo. What's left once it's in Honey Bunches of Oats?" Greekyogurt

When Nielsen first wrote about Greek yogurt in 2007, she talked about its American arrival via Greek grocery stores in New York and its rapid adoption through tastemaking retailers like Trader Joe's and Gristedes.

"It was pushing a lot of buttons," recalled Nielsen, "it was natural, pure, wholesome, strained, simple, and old world." Another factor she identified in Greek yogurt's imminent rise was its combination of high-protein, low-fat, and cultured probiotics — all in line with diet trends globally. Greek yogurt also benefited from a rising appreciation of tart dairy flavors, thanks to the popular Korean-style frozen yogurt chains, such as Pinkberry and Menchie's, which were spreading from the West Coast across North America. And it was a continuation of a much-longer lasting yogurt trend, which had begun in the 1970s with sour yogurts, evolved into the chunky FroYo of the 1980s, and hit Nielsen's stage five in the 1990s when companies like Dannon and Yoplait added tons of flavorings and sugar to yogurt, to the point at which it lost its healthy image. Greek yogurt was a reset, a return to Yogurt 101, and now the cycle was ramping up again.

I asked Nielsen where Greek yogurt was today on its evolutionary journey as a trend, and she handed me a Greek yogurt-flavored snack bar from the conference table, which was piled with products. "This is what stage five of a trend looks like," she said, pointing out several other Greek yogurt-flavored products, which were now flooding the market. "There is a Greek yogurt flavor of Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. Are there any probiotics in Honey Bunches of Oats?" she asked, rhetorically. "Greek yogurt has become a health halo. What's left once it's in Honey Bunches of Oats?"

One of CCD's main competitors is Mattson, located about forty minutes south, across the Bay from Silicon Valley. Peter Mattson founded his eponymous company shortly after Faith Popcorn hung out her shingle, though he focused exclusively on food. Mattson's first food trend forecast came out in 1979, and it predicted the rise of Mexican food, convenience cooking (one-pan dinners), and bake-in-bag technology. At the time consumer-packaged goods companies were growing into massive, unwieldy bureaucracies, and they were becoming increasingly insulated from the reality on the street. "Corporations are terrible at identifying trends," Mattson told me. "The food industry moves at the most glacial speed, and it's a risk-averse industry."

Though Mattson is best known as a prototype shop and science-heavy kitchen laboratory, credited with developing POM Wonderful and the Starbucks Frappuccino among other hit products, its work in trend predictions lies at the core of this, and the company has a staff of individuals who aid in putting together the forecasts that drive those innovations. "We don't want to hire anybody unless they're obsessed with food," Mattson told me when I asked what made a great food trend forecaster. "It's not a life-sustaining thing . . . you need to have an irrational obsession with food. Those are the kind of people who'll go where others won't go." These individuals need to be creative, intellectual, and able to substantiate and rationalize hypotheses about potential trends, the core of all food trend forecasting.

After lunch at French Blue I followed Stuckey to the nearby campus of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, which is an imposing former stone winery that is built like a castle. Inside, as young student chefs in towering white toques scurried up and down the large staircases, several dozen executives from across the food industry gathered around wine, appetizers, and several jugs of what was labeled "Mexican Lime with Chia Seed Water" — basically a chia fresca. The group covered a wide swath of the food industry: from Dow Agro Sciences and the Soybean, Mushroom, and Peanut Boards; doctors from the Cleveland Clinic and professors from Harvard Business School; to representatives from Butterball, Dunkin Donuts, Chobani Yogurt, Wonderful Brands (the company behind POM), and McDonald's corporate dietician.

They'd all gathered here for the opening session of the Worlds of Healthy Flavors retreat, put on by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard University with a focus on how to make American food healthier. Everyone filed into an auditorium with steep stadium-style seating and a huge demonstration kitchen for a stage. After an introductory presentation by Dr. Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health, who warned of the dangers posed by diet trends, superfoods, and gluten-free celebrities, the host introduced Suzy Badaracco, one of the most interesting trend forecasters working today.

Badaracco, who has curly reddish-brown hair and speaks incredibly quickly, is a bit of an enigma in the food world. From the time she was 19 until her mid-20s Badaracco worked for the Orange County Sheriff's Department as a forensic photographer and criminalist, covering hundreds of crime scenes, where she profiled criminals based on the available evidence. She is trained in military-grade intelligence and chaos theory with an expertise in pattern recognition, and she employs the same methodology developed by the US Marines, FBI, and Scotland Yard to predict military strikes, terrorist attacks, and murder sprees. If you married the quirky lab genius from CSI with the gastronomic curiosity of Anthony Bourdain, you'd get Suzy Badaracco. "I went from tracking serial killers to cereal bars," she joked to the room as she began her presentation.

The information available today that relates to food trends is vast, often contradictory, and largely inaccurate. What Badaracco does at the firm she started, Culinary Tides, is aggregate data from thousands of different points, including the industry reports produced by firms like Technomic as well as nearly every published article, government trade report, relevant scientific health study, and seemingly unrelated statistics, like the destinations Americans are buying plane tickets to. All of this adds up to more than 1,400 reports a month, which are then fed into a database that analyzes roughly two hundred units of data for each client every month, and this is then used to build an eighteen-month predictive window into the future, tailored to each client's needs. "Maybe they'll be focusing on a particular thing," said Badaracco, "then we can go and pull out micropatterns. We cross-analyze all of those areas. We deal with white space — things that don't exist. Chaos theory. And we prove it will exist by massive amounts of quantitative data."

"If you can Google a trend, you've completely missed the trend. At that point you're not forecasting — you're just tracking."

Badaracco had no interest in the type of firsthand observations that other forecasters used. She didn't take her clients on taste tours, suggest new products for them to make, or even get excited about a particular food she might happen upon at a restaurant. "In chaos you don't want to do your own field work. It's a dangerous practice. What you're seeing is food trucks in a single city. That's useless. It tells you nothing about the national trend and where it's going. We have to understand on a much larger scale of what something's doing." The idea is to get out so far head of the trends that they're not even trends yet. "If you can Google a trend, you've completely missed the trend," she said. "At that point you're not forecasting —you're just tracking."

Badaracco's presentation to the crowd at the Culinary Institute focused on long-term flavor trends. It was a rapid, whirlwind flood of data, organized into slides jammed end to end with text, charts, and basic diagrams along with the metaphorical buzzwords she uses to define the different stages of a trend's evolution. There are blips, which are noteworthy data points jumping out from the chaos, and shadows, which are pre-trend events or precursors to a trend.

Trends have births, and those can be strong births (a break-out, like Greek yogurt), stillbirths, and orphaned births, which is when a trend doesn't have strong parents to champion it. Yes, food trends have parents, and like children, they need support and nourishment or else they'll fail to thrive. They also need advocates and allies. Just as a trend is born, a trend can morph (whole wheat bread to multigrain bread to single-grain bread to ancient-grain bread), crash (the Atkins Diet becomes discredited), redirect (lactose-free moves from the mainstream back to a niche), and be killed by an adversary (GMO foods go from salvation to pariah, thanks to political opposition from the organic movement).

Trends also have their own personality. Badaracco described the Greek yogurt trend as "the guy who comes to the party that just everybody likes, everyone chats with, he'll freshen your drink, pat your kids on the head." He's sweet, he's savory, he's breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert . . . all of which means that Greek yogurt isn't going anywhere soon as a trend."


She pulled up a slide on trend births and began talking about where consumers were today, comparing one month's American consumer confidence survey to another, which showed, based on her analysis, that recession signals were ebbing at this point in early 2013. "We are moving slowly, kicking and screaming into a recovery phase," Badaracco predicted before clicking on to the next slide, which focused on health trends. Seasonal and local-sourcing trends were all about control issues, Badaracco explained with great passion, which are born during recessions as a way to control what food you bring into houses.

"I want it," she said, holding an imaginary organic apple in one hand, and then, turning her attention to the imaginary cheaper apple in the other, "I don't want to pay for it!" Conversely, foraging in the woods for mushrooms, a trend gaining favor with high-end chefs, was recovery behavior, because recovery brings out discovery instincts, and foraging is the ultimate discovery activity. "Because it can kill you," Badaracco said, noting that the fine line between a delicious morel and a poison fungus was something diners were happy to walk when wallets were flush, but they reverted to sure comforts like hamburgers when things felt rocky. Anything extreme on the palate — new flavors, textures, experiences — was recovery behavior, not recessionary.

This all led to Badaracco's slide on flavors, which she described in a variety of categories, each with its own personality. Cage-dancers (seasonings) were wild and included the Peruvian herb huacatay, Nordic flavors, flowers, ashes, flavored heat, and geranium leaf. Sensuals (fruit/veg) had white strawberries, kimchi, and finger limes; tree-huggers (dairy) would be Lebanese yogurt and paneer; bipolars (protein) had goat and lamb bellies, blood, skin, fin-to-tail seafood eating, and something called "lethal"; interpreters (grains) included not just chia but also faro, grits, and black rice (a Glenn Roberts hat trick); and type-A (beverage) featured barrel-aged cocktails, Vietnamese coffee, and sipping vinegars. Globally, American soul food, regional Mexican, and Peru were already rock stars, but Badaracco predicted, based on travel statistics, that North Africa, Nepal, Laos, and somehow even the Arctic were rising stars to watch. All of this was projected in a sprawling jumble of monochromatic text, with no photos or illustrations, that contained sentences like Cocktails, craft beer, wine $#, desserts#, insect eating = recovery behavior. The whole presentation was undeniably fascinating but also a bit like stepping into a math class you quickly realize you are vastly unprepared for. The room at the Culinary Institute was full of astonished faces, partly in awe and partly in shock, as Badaracco kept on blazing through her talk.

What Badaracco, Stuckey, Nielsen, Tristano, and others in the trend forecasting business all agree on is that food trends are evolving quicker, with less of a predictable trajectory, and a more rapid evolution from the fringes into the mainstream. More uncertain trends make the need for their predictions even greater, and many people have jumped into the business in recent years, adding their own food trend forecasts to those already out there. Peter Mattson estimated that there were now thousands of people offering up some form of food trend forecasting, though only a hundred or so were actually good at what they did. Already a firm in Spain, Azti Tecnala, had invested heavily in a crowdsourced trendspotting competition called the Food Mirror Game, which they hoped would evolve into a global network of informal, highly motivated foodies, who could act as advanced scouts constantly on the lookout for new trends. "You want a trend?" asked Michael Whiteman, the restaurant consultant who has been publicly sharing his previously private trend reports since 2008. "More predictions!"

This article is adapted from David Sax's The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy About Cupcakes but Fed Up With Fondue.


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