As December snow starts to fall, so too does the avalanche of food trend predictions for the year ahead. Last month, we helped find clarity in this foggy crystal ball by breaking down the most noteworthy themes across trend reports. Today’s post, however, offers an antidote to trend mania: a look to the past. Approaching the end of the year – and decade, no less – presents an opportune time to pause and appreciate what can be unearthed from food history.
Unpack the “why” behind food to make a deeper connection
Brands have long relied on the latest market research to anticipate consumers’ changing needs. Coupling current data with a critical look at food history – or the myriad of factors that shaped what, why and how we eat – could yield even richer insights. After all, to study food history is really to study society. Food reflects humanity’s values, priorities and desires over time; this deep cultural context is something brands can’t afford to overlook.
Acknowledging the history that gave rise to foods, flavors and customs is important for countless reasons. It better equips brands to resonate with consumers by respecting traditions while evolving to meet new needs. It enables brands to more authentically represent foods and the communities behind them. Importantly, it also helps avoid cultural appropriation (the case of the turmeric latte, as one of many examples). This “due diligence” can become a standard part of the product development and communications planning process.
Draw from traditional knowledge for tomorrow’s solutions
No country is immune from the intertwined challenges of climate change and malnutrition (meaning undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overweight/obesity). As society races to identify new and accelerated approaches to protect public and planetary health, solutions grounded in traditional and indigenous knowledge are being reprioritized. For example:
- The Lancet Commission’s “The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change” called for the creation of an international “Seven Generations Fund” to invest in better understanding and application of “indigenous and traditional knowledge and wisdom” to current global challenges.
- National governments are also committing to integrating traditional knowledge into policy guidance. Canada’s first-ever “Food Policy,” released in 2019, noted that “preserving cultural heritage, including traditional knowledge” should be a key consideration in future food policymaking.
Brands could also make this an input in their decision-making, particularly when looking to innovate for more sustainable food systems. One (of many) ways to do this is by creating opportunities for meaningful partnerships with stakeholders who may have been underrepresented in the past.
Meet consumers where they are by looking to where they’ve been
Think back to the meal that defines childhood for you. Can you feel the lunch tray in your hands or hear the chaos of the cafeteria? Can you feel the warmth of a tray of cookies fresh out of the oven? That’s your own personal food history. The emotional resonance of that is irreplaceable and it’s the precise connection brands are hungry to make. This is food history in a nutshell; it’s generations’ worth of memories, rituals and recipes. For brands, asking the deeper food history questions can mean unlocking different sources of inspiration, uncovering stories that haven’t been told and much more.
In the rush to keep pace with the latest trends, it can be easy to overlook a food’s back-story. But, digging into the history can result in something more meaningful for brands and consumers alike. Drop us a line when you’re ready to explore this for your organization. In the meantime, here are some resources I’d recommend:
- Subscribe to podcasts, like Gastropod, a show that explores the intersection of food science and history. Two particularly intriguing episodes focused on delicacies we’ve lost due to “culinary extinction” and the subconscious influence of restaurant menus on food choices. Another great one is Splendid Table, “a show for curious cooks and eaters.”
- Squeeze in some food history reading over the holidays. Here’s a list to get you started, with The Cooking Gene, A History of Food in 100 Recipes and The Taste of Country Cooking, being some of my favorites.
- Visit the National Museum of American History’s Food History exhibit, if your travels take you to Washington, DC. It’s well worth a visit, especially in November during the annual Smithsonian Food History Weekend.