8 signs Americans are slowly embracing a healthier diet

Soda consumption is down, and our aversion to sugar is expected to grow. Here are the trends to watch in 2016

Published January 12, 2016 8:00AM (EST)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet Last summer, the right mix of rain and sun over Minnesota gave corn farmers in the Gopher State a bumper crop. Garrison Keillor, the redoubtable host of the public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion,” was likely pleased. “Sex is good,” the proud Minnesotan once quipped, ”but not as good as fresh, sweet corn.”

One of 2015’s food trends, in fact, was a craze for healthy maize. Organic, GMO-free corn products like Kiddylicious Sweetcorn Rice Rounds, Off the Cob Sweet Corn Tortilla Chips, Pipsnacks Popcorn and Pop Art Snacks Tandoori Yogurt Popcorn tantalized health-conscious taste buds at the 61st Annual Summer Fancy Food Show last summer in New York City.

Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at NPD Group, recently told Marketplace’s Annie Baxter that consumers are increasingly focused on clean and pure foods. And when it comes to corn, that means fresh, locally sourced organic sweet corn, not high-fructose corn syrup, a sweetener found in a wide range of processed food that has been linked to obesity and diabetes.

Consumers’ growing aversion to sugars in all forms will likely accelerate, said Seifer, as part of an overall trend of consumers becoming more aware of what they’re eating and how it affects not only their personal health, but also the environment, sustainability and animal welfare.

Here are eight advancing food trends that are moving the food system to a better place, and that are poised to become even more popular in 2016.

1. Locavorism

Coined in San Francisco in 2005 and rooted in the organic agriculture movement, locavorism is the practice of eating food that was produced locally; specifically, within a 100-mile radius of where you live. Eating this way is considered healthier, as the food will be fresher and won’t require preservatives. Locavorism is also better for the environment, since the food items don't have to travel very far to reach you, therefore using less energy for transportation and decreasing your carbon footprint and reducing emissions that contribute to climate change

Last year, a small group of intrepid locavores in Bristol, England, began a research project called Going Local Going Green that has been tracking the progress of their exploration into the 100-mile diet. They will be releasing a short documentary about their research early this year. In the U.S. the locavore movement looks to increase its ranks in 2016. While Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire and Oregon retained their Number 1 through 4 rankings, respectively, on the Strolling of the Heifers 2015 Locavore Index, several states moved up in the rankings from 2014 to 2015, including Massachusetts (11 to 5), Wisconsin (8 to 6), Montana (9 to 7) and Connecticut (20 to 10).

The pushback on genetically modified foods may help spur an interest in locavorism. "The controversy around GMOs will prompt consumers to become even more interested in 'hyperlocal' organic food than ever before," predicts Aaron von Frank, CEO of GrowJourney, an organic, heirloom seeds-of-the-month club.

In addition to eating locally, one of the main aspects of being a locavore is eating in season, which means giving up certain foods at certain times of year, and giving up some foods altogether. But eating as our ancestors did holds a certain appeal. “Eating in season is all about the pleasure of being in the moment and tasting something new,” says Sarah Elton, author of Locavore: From Farmers’ Fields to Rooftop Gardens, How Canadians Are Changing the Way We Eat. “When I haven't eaten asparagus for 10 months, that first taste of spring is heaven.”

2. Wholesome foods

“The food industry has gotten incredibly good at manipulating the properties of food,” says Kelly Brownell, dean of Duke University’s School of Public Policy. “It has just the right texture, just the right color, just the right smell to make you consume as much as possible, miss it when you don’t have it, and crave it to the point where you want to keep coming back for more.”

But even as Big Food attempts to lure us with processed foods, more consumers are seeking out the opposite: wholesome, unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. This steadily increasing interest in wholesomeness correlates with an increasing aversion to sugar: A recent Gallup poll found that 44 percent of Americans now include organic foods in their diets, while a full half avoid sugar. Seventy percent of Americans seek out grains such as cereal, pasta and rice, while more than 60 percent avoid soda. And an impressive nine out of 10 Americans try to include fruits and vegetables in their diet.

Not only are consumers increasingly seeking out wholesome foods, they are willing to pay a premium for them. According to Nielsen’s 2015 Global Health & Wellness Survey that polled over 30,000 people online, 88 percent of Americans are willing to pay more for healthier foods. Global sales of healthy food products are estimated to reach $1 trillion by 2017, according to Euromonitor.

When it comes to what consumers will be seeking out more of over the coming year, it may amount to single word. “Just think of the word no," Seifer said. "No preservatives, no additives, no growth hormones."

“While economic concerns remain in the forefront for consumers, health and wellness concerns continue to increase in importance,” said market researcher James Russo of Neilsen. “The reasons vary from societal, demographic, technological, governmental, and most importantly, a shift in consumer focus on the role diet plays in health."

3. More plant-eating

Global Food Forums, which organizes conferences for the global food, beverage and nutritional products markets, says that 2016 will see a rise in herbivorism: “Plants are playing a meatier role in a surprising number of products, and not just for vegan and vegetarian alternatives.” This trend goes hand-in-hand with the recommendation issued last year by the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the nation’s top nutritional panel, that Americans should eat less meat.

“High meat prices, fears over hormones, health concerns, and even processed-meat cancer scares have made vegetable-centric restaurants the new hot commodity in the food world,” says food writer Gillie Houston.

In the new documentary In Defense of Food, based on his bestselling book, Michael Pollan offers a simple solution to the diet-driven health crisis in America that has resulted in nearly seven out of 10 adults being considered overweight or obese. His recommendation: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He means eat the kinds of things our ancestor ate for thousands of years, before the advent of the highly manufactured, processed foods that now litter the food landscape.

Pollan notes that his advice “is about as universal as any advice you could offer. It’s very rare in our lives where the answer to a complicated question is so simple, but when it comes to eating, it is.”

4. Pushback on GMOs

In 2013, a New York Times poll found that 75 percent of Americans “expressed concern about genetically modified organisms in their food, with most of them worried about the effects on people’s health.” So while the anti-GMO movement has been gathering steam over the past few years, consumer concern over this issue will be tested in 2016, as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently ruled that the GMO salmon created by AquBounty Technologies is safe to eat.

According to Nielsen, 43 percent of the global population, across all demographics, say they would pay more for foods that are GMO-free. “Whatever the science says, many consumers have made up their minds: no genetic tinkering with their food,” says Technomic, a food service research firm. In 2016, according to the food research firm, “Some diners will gravitate to restaurants touting GMO-free fare; others will demand GMO labeling on menus. That’s a big issue for the supply chain, since many crops (such as soy fed to livestock) have been modified to boost productivity.”

"There is already a lot of controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms, but I think this debate is going to become seriously intense in 2016 due to the recent decision to pass GMO salmon for human consumption," says Abigail Keeso, a registered nurse and co-founder of That Clean Life, a platform for healthy eating.

5. Cage-free eggs

2015 marked a tipping point in the long campaign to free America’s egg-laying chickens from battery cages, as several of the biggest food brands announced they would stop sourcing eggs produced by hens subjected to an inhumane form of confinement so extreme the birds are unable to spread their wings even once in their entire lifetimes. These pledges indicate a sweeping corporate response to consumers who are increasingly demanding that their food be produced without cruelty. In 2016, conscious consumers will be seeking out cage-free eggs in greater numbers, a trend that will likely continue for years to come.

“When you have everyone from McDonald’s to Taco Bell to Dunkin' Donuts to Nestlé all switching to cage-free, you know it is becoming the norm in society,” Josh Balk, senior director of food policy at the Humane Society of the United States, recently told AlterNet. The HSUS has been at the forefront of the nationwide cage-free campaign for the past decade.

Terrence O'Keefe of WATT Global Media, an agribusiness information firm, says that “market demand for cage-free eggs is spurring a shift to cage-free housing, which may be the most significant development of 2016 for U.S. egg producers."

“The cage-free future will happen,” said Balk. “I guarantee it. There’s no way a company will ever be able to convince its customers that it’s somehow okay to treat animals like machines and immobilize them to the point they can barely move.”

6. Hot sauces and spices

There will likely be a steady rise in consumer interest in hot sauces, with chefs and condiment producers trying to keep up with Americans’ growing desire for spicy foods. “It's a contest to see who can blister your palate more,” Michael Whiteman of Baum & Whiteman, a food and restaurant consulting firm, told Marketplace.

Technomic calls it the "Sriracha effect." The group says chefs have “learned that Sriracha sauce can add instant ethnic cachet to something as straightforward as a sandwich” and in 2016 will be seeking out new ingredients from around the world to keep the heat on, such as ghost pepper from India, sambal from Southeast Asia, gochujang from Korea, and harissa, sumac and dukka from North Africa.

There’s also an increasing awareness of the health benefits associated with eating spicy foods. "There is accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research to show the benefit of spices or their active components on human health," said Lu Qi, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health and co-author of a study published last year in the BMJ that eating spicy foods such as chili peppers may increase longevity. One reason could be the ability of capsaicin, the main compound in chili peppers, to reduce the harmful effects of LDL, or bad cholesterol, as well as its anti-inflammatory properties, which helps to reduce the risk of heart-related problems. Spicy foods also boost the production of so-called feel-good hormones like serotonin, which can help alleviate stress and counteract depression.

7. Ugly produce

From the luscious images created by food companies to chefs focusing on the visual look of their dishes, we have been conditioned to believe that perfectly shaped fruits and vegetables are somehow better. This desire for perfect looking produce plays a significant role in food waste; twisted tubers and bent broccoli taste the same and provide the same nutrients as perfectly shaped versions, but end up in the trash.

“Grocery stores refuse to stock ugly fruits and vegetables, so most of it never sees the light of day,” writes Ariel Schwartz, deputy editor for innovation at Tech Insider. “And billions of tons of perfectly tasty — but cosmetically challenged— produce goes to the landfill every year.” The National Resources Defense Council estimates that an astonishing six billion pounds of fruits and vegetables are wasted every year in the U.S. because they are considered ugly.

Last year, Schwartz wrote about his experience trying a new startup called Imperfect, which aims to change the perception we have of so-called ugly produce by delivering it right to our homes. The company, which charges $12 for a box of mixed produce sourced from California farms that would normally cost $20 at a grocery store or $35 from a similar delivery service, has plans to expand to other parts of California and the rest of the U.S. “Maybe it's time to redefine what we think of as ‘attractive’ produce,” writes Schwartz.

In Australia, a family firm called Eat Me Chutneys is also working to fight food waste by transforming ugly produce into 200-300 jars of chutney every week. They recently ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to help them reach their target goal of saving 10 tons of ugly produce in 2016.

8. Year of the Worker

Many food and farm workers face labor abuses and a number of hazardous conditions, such as prolonged exposure of toxic pesticides. Thankfully in recent years, their stories have been surfacing and public awareness has been steadily growing. For example, in January of last year, following a two-decade fight against the slavery-like working conditions of American tomato farmers, Secretary of State John Kerry presented the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) with the 2014 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking.

In the last decade or so, more than 1,200 farm workers have been liberated from agricultural slavery rings in Florida alone. That may sound like a lot, but, as Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, told NPR, "What you're seeing is the tip of a really ugly iceberg.” The problem, he said, is that "they're very, very hard cases to prosecute."

In September, the EPA and the Department of Labor proposed updated worker protection standards that will raise the minimum age a farm worker can handle pesticides to 18, and also enlarge “exclusion zones” for all outdoor areas that have been treated with pesticides. These rules could soon increase protections for the nation’s 2 million farm workers.

Considering the increased awareness of the farm worker, in addition to today’s tighter labor market, mandates to boost minimum wage and the advancement of technology and automation, it's no wonder that Technomic dubbed 2016 the “Year of the Worker,” saying that we can expect to see food companies devoting “more resources to training and retention.”

Whatever specific food trends may arise over the coming year, it’s clear that consumers’ growing tendency toward healthier, more sustainable, more just and more humanely sourced foods will continue to drive positive changes aross the entire food system — not just in 2016, but for a long time to come.

By Reynard Loki

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy’s Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

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