Paul Collins, commercial director at UK foodservice supplier Reynolds, looks at the role functional foods are having on the eating-out market as a whole and the impact on supply chains and farmers
According to a recent poll of industry business leaders by CGA Peach (the 2016 Business Leaders’ Survey), the two biggest food trends most likely to make an impact in 2016 are ‘free-from’ foods and superfoods. Interestingly enough, these not unrelated themes did not even register on last year’s list of trends, so why all the sudden fuss?
Superfood is not a new word; in fact it’s been around for many years. Most people can quickly rattle off a list of so-called superfoods, which would probably include kale, broccoli, beetroot, pomegranate, wheatgrass, chia seeds, quinoa or blueberries.
The Oxford Dictionary definition states a superfood is “a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being”. Most commonly, foods deemed appropriate for superfood status are generally rich in antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, vitamins A, C and E, selenium or omega-3 fatty acids. These antioxidants are thought to protect against free radicals and harmful chemicals, which cause cell damage within our bodies.
But not everyone buys into the idea that eating functional foods will help stave diseases or improve your general wellbeing. In fact, the European Union (EU) banned the marketing of products under the term ‘superfood’, unless they are backed up by scientific evidence.
What most experts do agree on is that a diet based on a variety of nutritious foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, remains the best way to ensure a balanced nutrient intake for optimal health.
But, whatever your stance on superfoods, there is no doubting that the food industry is being shaped by a relentless, growing demand for healthy eating – and for many reasons, including, of course, the obesity crisis and a torrent of (often confusing or contradictory) medical claims.
And meat-free diets are becoming more popular. A 2014 report carried out by Mintel found that 12% of the UK population self-identify themselves as either vegetarian or vegan, with an even larger 20% of 16-25 year olds self-identifying this way.
What’s more, according to the study, flexitarianism is also a growing trend, with many more consumers choosing meat reduction on a part-time basis. Environmental concerns regarding the sustainability of meat farming against the backdrop of a growing population are helping to fuel the move away from meat to veg. The growth in juicing and raw foods also seems to be gaining momentum across the UK.
So I guess that’s good news all round for greengrocers and fresh produce growers!
And, of course, it is, but it’s not always plain sailing because as often is the case with crazes, superfoods or otherwise, supply can struggle to keep up with demand.
For example, the rise in global demand for avocados in the last few years has been nothing short of incredible. Sales of avocados have quintupled in the US over the past 15 years and over the 12-month period to January 2016, avocado sales in UK supermarkets are estimated by to have grown by 31.1%, according to data from IRI Retail Advantage for the 52 weeks ended January 2, 2016. But, with avocado consumption in the EU currently at 0.75kg per capita, which is just one quarter of that in the US, you can expect demand to continue growing.
However, with demand for avocados increasing at this phenomenal rate, when growers have an ‘off-year’, as is the case right now, there just isn’t enough fruit to go around. And supply cannot be switched on quickly, because an avocado tree takes five years to bear fruit. In addition, an avocado tree needs a substantial amount of water and the right soil type, so for farmers there are other investments which carry slightly less risk and generate much quicker returns.
This spring, we are taking the unprecedented step of air-freighting avocados from Mexico and California because there is simply nowhere near enough fruit in the Northern Hemisphere to go around. From an environmental perspective, the situation is far from ideal but, the alternative is to have no fruit... which, given the current appetite for avocados, isn’t really an option.
Whilst at Reynolds we believe we have the most robust sourcing plan, bar none, sometimes Mother Nature likes to remind us that there are some things that we cannot control – even though the fruit does actually grow on trees.
So long may the superfood trend continue, but please spare a thought for the farmers and the greengrocers!