To assess food trends among generational cohorts, Hormel Foods asked journalist J.K. Rose to explore current American food habits.
Humans have long tried to optimize their bodies through food. Ancient Egyptians believed that eating garlic gave them vitality and that poppy seeds relieved insomnia. Greek and Roman warriors thought consuming a lion’s heart would give them strength and a deer’s liver would make them faster. Today, our food choices have become increasingly splintered, as lifestyle preferences, economics, health, religion and personal ethics all influence our culinary habits. The food we choose increasingly signals what group — what tribe — we belong to.
“As long as there’s food, there will continue to be multiple food tribes and trends associated with it,” says Lisa Harris, cofounder of Harris and Hayes, a food and drink consultancy. “We create our identity and sense of self through what we do and don’t eat. While food and drink primarily bring people together, they can also be used to drive people apart as one tribe tries to position itself on higher moral ground than the other.”
A 2022 survey by the International Food Information Council found that 52% of Americans follow a special diet, ranging from “clean eating” to “mindful eating.” Eating habits differ according to the age of the respondents, the council reported, with boomers (ages 69–77) more interested in health and disease prevention while younger generations are inclined toward weight loss and physical appearance. The IFIC survey also found that Gen Z (ages 11–26) and Millennials (ages 27–42) were more concerned about the environmental impact of their food purchases and believed that their dietary choices reflected their personal identity and morality.
Apps Are the new Grocery Lists
While older generations find meal inspiration in well-thumbed cookbooks or in the hand-scrawled recipe cards they’ve inherited as family heirlooms, young people scroll through their phone apps for food ideas when they’re hungry or head to the store. The U.S. nutrition-app market is expected to reach nearly $900 million by 2027, according to market research firm Statista. Those apps, of which there are thousands, often cater to specific food tribes. There are apps for vegans, keto enthusiasts, localvores, detoxing and, of course, weight loss. There are several apps that claim to help you align your food purchases with your political or personal values. A 2023 survey by the International Food Information Council found the most common eating patterns or diets among respondents are high-protein (18%), mindful eating (17%), calorie-counting (12%), clean eating (12%) and intermittent fasting (12%). According to one survey, over half of millennial parents use one or more of these apps while shopping for food.
most common Diets Internationally
Among the newest crop of diet and nutrition apps are those that use AI, or artificial intelligence, for food tracking. These include MyFoodRepo, which scans photos of food or product barcodes to calculate nutrition information. Likewise, SnapCalorie can scan plates of food to estimate the calorie count of each item.
On the horizon are apps that take a cue from the nascent field of “precision nutrition” to analyze individual users’ genetics, metabolism, lifestyle and other factors to offer bespoke nutritional recommendations. The field has shown so much promise in helping reduce death rates from chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease that the National Institutes of Health has launched a $170 million study to develop algorithms that will predict individual responses to foods. One app that is already doing this is DayTwo, a program that allows diabetics to predict their individual blood-sugar response to various foods by analyzing their microbiome.
TikTok, in particular, has had enormous sway on the palates and culinary habits of Gen Z. Once synonymous with lip-syncing and dancing videos, TikTok saw its food content boom in 2020, when millions of quarantining Americans took up cooking as a pastime. More than half of Gen Z has tried a new recipe after viewing a TikTok food tutorial, according to market research firm Cassandra. Indeed, TikTok has spawned many first-time chefs, encouraged by viral recipes for everything from whipped coffee to a three-ingredient Oreo cake.
Social media influencers often target specific food tribes, with top self-styled experts earning thousands of dollars to post content. Tabitha Brown, for example, was an under-employed actor/Uber driver who wrote a review of a Whole Foods vegan BLT that went viral in 2017. Whole Foods hired her as a brand ambassador and then she launched a TikTok channel in 2020 featuring her vegan recipes, which racked up 5 million followers — a platform that netted her book deals, television shows, a collaboration with spice maker McCormick and even a line of clothing for Target.
A survey by Sortlist found that more people turn to social media for diet information than to doctors or search engines, yet only half of those respondents researched an influencer’s qualifications before following their advice — a phenomenon that nutrition experts find worrisome. To this end, Mayo Clinic published a list of red flags to watch out for, including restrictive diets that focus on eating or removing specific foods, which puts followers at risk of nutritional deficiencies.
From Fringe Fad to Mainstream Staple
The food industry has struggled to keep up with the collective appetites of 150 million American TikTokers. In January 2021, a baked feta pasta recipe caught fire and was shared 729,000 times, leading to shortages of feta cheese and becoming the No.1 searched ingredient on the grocery delivery app Instacart. Another TikTok recipe, the “tortilla wrap hack,” which received 2 billion views, led to a surge of tortilla sales. Some companies have tried to capitalize on FoodTok trends by launching their own versions of viral recipes. For example, a major grocery chain, created Asian-style spins on the “tortilla wrap hack” featuring ramen and seafood, while the kosher certification agency Orthodox Union Kosher released a version for observant Jews.
Some food tribes, like veganism, have been co-opted by the mainstream and are not quite so exclusive as they once were. Supermarkets and big brands use ‘plant-based’ as a more generic and inclusive term than vegan, for example, so that meat eaters, flexitarians and vegans will buy their products.Lisa Harris, Food Consultant
Harris points to plant-based milk as an example. In the United Kingdom, one in three consumers now drink oat, almond and other plant-based milk. “Consumers pick it off the shelves for multiple reasons — health, taste, curiosity — or because it forms part of their tribe identity.”
But you don’t need an app or a TikTok influencer to personalize your diet regime, says Monx Cullen, a Hormel Foods category analyst. When Cullen graduated from college a decade ago, it seemed that many of his friends were following a specific diet — pescatarian, vegetarian, paleo, etc. He himself followed the paleo diet in high school, which helped him lose 80 pounds and gain muscle mass. But recently he’s noticed a change. “The more I talk to people, the more I see people have left those diets after absorbing all the information and are making healthier, more conscious choices on their own. They take pieces that work from each diet and adapt them.”
What We Say vs. What We Eat
When people are surveyed about their food preferences and buying habits, they often answer not with their actual habits but with their aspirations. For example, in a report by communications consultancy Ketchum, a majority of Gen Z-ers said that sustainability, animal welfare and LGBTQ rights were important factors in deciding which companies to buy food from. Nonetheless, their actual eating habits didn’t necessarily match their stated values: while 76% of Gen Z-ers said that sustainability is important to them, the Ketchum report found that only 16% scanned labels to check for sustainably sourced ingredients. The biggest purchase drivers continued to be taste, followed by price, health and sustainability — in that order.
Ultimately, we all have to find our place. As Harris says, “Social media can make small tribes feel very big, as followers surround themselves with similar people who echo their beliefs, or a trending late-night snack experiment like fried cheese pickle becomes a legitimate food choice. Increasingly, respected voices in the industry are pushing consumers to see food in a more holistic context. Our digestive systems and individual responses to food are more complex than we might have first thought.”