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A Different Spin on Comfort Food

J.K. Rose | March 5, 2024

Impact | The Originate Initiative

A growing number of consumers are seeking out food — and food companies — that give them a sense of wellbeing.

For a deeper look into the 2023 food industry trends identified by Hormel Foods experts, the company asked journalist J.K. Rose to share her insights on holistic wellbeing. Note: Hormel Foods does not endorse companies mentioned in this report.

Every year, business analysts assess the trends that shaped the food industry and forecast what these trends mean for the future. This year, the insights team at Hormel Foods identified five trend areas: Redefining Value, Holistic Wellbeing, Edible Experiences, Sustaining the Social Good and Food 3.0. Many of these trends overlap, with Holistic Wellbeing receiving greater attention in recent months.

spike in global anxiety rates
as a result of COVID-19
of Americans
report “actively trying to improve wellbeing”
in revenue
generated in 2022 by the “wellness industry”
of survey respondents
reported food choices affected their emotions

The growing wellness industry offers consumers everything from “wellness cruises” to “wellbeing apps” with the intention of making us feel better, sleep better and think better. Experts trace this heightened focus on self-care to the collective stress we experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, when global anxiety rates spiked 25%, according to data from the World Health Organization.

“Engaging in a self-care routine has been clinically proven to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve concentration, minimize frustration and anger, increase happiness, improve energy and more,” wrote Dr. Matt Glowiak, a clinical psychologist at Southern New Hampshire University. Today, more than 90% of Americans say they are “actively trying to improve their wellbeing,” according to a poll by the market research firm IFF. As a result, the business of feeling good is booming, generating a record $5.6 trillion in revenue in 2022, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit that tracks the sector.

Given this broad trend, it makes sense that consumers are increasingly seeking out food they believe will strengthen their immunity, ward off disease and increase their mental and physical health.

Personalized Nutrition

Diet and nutrition have become a crucial part of any self-care routine. We’ve come a long way since the days when weight loss was the primary concern and single-food regimes such as the grapefruit diet, or cabbage soup diet were all the rage. The downside is that there is an enormous amount of competing information about how to create optimum diets. What are we to make of constantly changing and often conflicting nutrition advice?

“We are confused about what we eat, where we eat and when to eat it,” said David Bosshart, a trend researcher at the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute. “We define ourselves by what we’re eating, but, even more so, by what we don’t eat. Food may have moved to the center of our lives, but we are overwhelmed by our choices.”

The best starting point is to remember that no two people are exactly alike. So what works best for one person might not work for the next. The concept of personalized nutrition — also known as precision nutrition — has gained traction, thanks to advances in nutrigenomics, which studies how food affects an individual’s genes. As technology enables greater insight into specific dietary needs, consumers will shift away from one-size-fits-all diets and curate their own version of healthy living.

There are already many products on the market that offer DNA-based dietary guidance. Companies analyze users’ genetic makeup for insight into their metabolism, stress levels, risk of hereditary diseases and hundreds of other datapoints before providing a “nutrigenic profile” designed to guide food choices. Similarly, other companies provide at-home DNA testing for sensitivities to 204 foods and spices. Companies have also devised breathalyzer-like devices to help users figure out whether eating certain foods gives them digestive problems such as bloating and IBS.

A Food for Every Mood

While physical health is often the main goal, there is also a growing understanding of the profound interplay between our sense of mental wellbeing and the food we choose to eat. We all know that certain dishes deliver happiness by triggering the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which are tied to feelings of contentment and pleasure. In a survey by the International Food Information Council, 75% of respondents stated that their food choices affected their emotions — and 50% stated that stress-eating caused them to eat less healthy foods.

Engaging in a self-care routine has been clinically proven to reduce or eliminate anxiety and depression, reduce stress, improve concentration, minimize frustration and anger, increase happiness, improve energy and more

Dr. Matt Glowiak, Clinical psychologist at Southern New Hampshire University

In the last few years, there has been a flood of new scientific research attempting to understand precisely how different macro- and micronutrients affect the complex chemistry of the human brain. Several studies have noted the benefits of diet changes in treating depression. The conclusion is becoming clear: The foods you eat significantly impact your brain’s structure and function, and your mood. With over 80% of adults attesting that they would be willing to change their diet to positively change their mental health, there is now a new crop of products claiming to boost both emotional and physical health.

For example, a number of food startups are putting new spins on traditional herbal remedies promising to increase tranquility, energy and mental focus. Interest remains high in what are often called “superfoods” such as passionflower, ginseng and ashwagandha. These traditional herbal plants have been paired with new technologies such as smartwatch apps that monitor heart rate and breathing patterns. Likewise, new snack companies are offering protein bars made with ingredients that are said to improve brain health and neuroplasticity. In the foodservice world, a growing number of high-end and quick-service restaurants are competing for the wellness-conscious consumer. In a “food for mood” effort, a chef in Quezon City, Philippines, launched a revolutionary cafe by using neurotransmitter-activating ingredients in his fare to boost customers’ sense of wellbeing.

Eco-Conscious Consumption

Feeling good about what you eat has another facet: We want the food we choose to be good not just for us but for the planet as well. Consumers are increasingly curious about what companies are doing to minimize their environmental impacts. Gen Z (ages 12–27) is driving much of this change. According to the market research firm McCormick, 73% of Gen Zers believe their generation is more concerned with the planetary impact of their food-buying habits than older generations.

When the FDA began requiring packaged food companies to include standardized “Nutrition Facts” labels on their products in 1994, most simply printed the ingredient list and a “% daily value” column reflecting the daily allowance of various nutrients contained in the product, based on USDA recommendations. Today, consumers are getting more information. Today’s eco-conscious food companies use label space to advertise their commitments to the environment by displaying certifications from groups such as the Rain Forest Alliance or USDA Organic.

People are reading labels looking to reduce sugar, they’re also looking for more sustainable eating.

Jessica Moulton, a packaged goods expert at the consulting firm McKinsey

Growing concerns about climate change have led to the creation of innovative new products. To address plastic pollution, startups are now selling concentrated laundry tablets and concentrated flavored-drink pellets. Established companies are also updating their practices. To address water waste, California almond growers have committed to reducing irrigation 20% by 2025. The Hormel Foods brand Applegate® uses innovative regenerative-agriculture practices that not only yield cleaner food but also improve soil health and reduce carbon emissions.

Given the tendency for young people to drive trends, it’s likely that seeking wellbeing through food and responsible corporate practice will stay with us.