‘We are entering the era of functional foods’: Tastewise

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Functional food Functional food market AI Machine learning

Consumer interest in functional foods is soaring, according to data provider Tastewise, but not always for the reasons you assume.

What would you do if you saw a sharp, sudden spike in demand among consumers for sauerkraut? Make your own? Wrong, says Alon Chen, the CEO and founder of Tastewise, a start-up that uses AI and machine learning to provide real-time insight into people’s food tastes.

Far better to identify the trend behind the trend. “Sauerkraut is fermented food, and fermentation is highly associated today with gut health and brain health,​” Chen explained. So sauerkraut is an example of a demand for a traditional ingredient being driven by a new concept. What’s more, if a food brand sees that sauerkraut is rising “it's already too late. It will take you sometime until you get it into your product line.​”

His point is that, once you know which functions interest consumers, you can create products to suit growing consumer needs in the relevant format. Better to take a step back and understand what’s behind the trend.

There are other examples. Ashwagandha is used as a stress relief. Maple syrup for weight loss. Golden syrup for sleep. Moringa? A natural replacement for ADHD drug Ritalin. Hemp oil is also seen as stress reliever, but interestingly its cousin CBD is not. That’s used for gut health, according to Tastewise's analysis of online consumer conversations. Celery juice: for focus. Keffir, not for gut health or to keep up with Kenyan long-distance runners, but as an anti-depressant. 

Peppermint, watermelon and radish are all gaining popularity for their digestive qualities. There’s more. "People buy a lot more cream cheese and use it in their recipes because they are on a ketogenic diet, where you're supposed to reduce carbs and sugars. Finding the reason behind the trend is really critical for you as a food manufacturer today and that is what we do.”

‘Not only do we now know what is trending; we know why’

Tastewise has just released a report that offers insights about the eating habits of today’s consumers, both inside and outside the home. The report highlights the growth of functional foods. Over a third of consumers are looking for functional benefits from their food, it stated. There has been a 23% rise in the past year in the number of consumers looking for wellbeing functions for their food and drinks, it added.

Tastewise works by using AI and machine learning tools to analyse billions of food data points - including social, menus, and home recipes - to provide real-time insights for hospitality and food brands. A lot of the data is from the US exclusively, but is still used by Tastewise to form opinions of global trends. It predicts, for example, that the functional food market globally is poised to reach more than $275bn.

“The beauty of this technology is that we don't need surveys or to ask people - we train the algorithms to explain and understand human behavior around eating and drinking​,” explained Chen, who was a Google marketing executive before launching the tech start-up. 

What other areas should be on the radars of food and beverage firms? “Using food and beverage for anti-ageing is increasing 50% year-on-year,​” said Chen. “What we've found is that one of the biggest drivers for anti-ageing is actually the vegan diet. People go for veganism to look younger.” 

Consumers have sleep on their minds

Sleep is another driver. Social mentions of ‘sleep’ in relation to food are up 28% year-over-year, according to the Tastewise report.

Golden milk, also known as turmeric milk or a turmeric latte, is hot on the fingers of consumers on social media keen to explore its natural sleep-promoting potential. 

Tryptophan-rich ‘moon milk’, a sleep-inducing recipe for warm milk that’s sipped before bed, is up 70% on social media in the past year, added the findings. In the US, 54 restaurants now offer moon milk on their menus: up 15% from last year.

Wellness is now a ‘powerful entity’

The pursuit of wellness - the feeling of total health, beyond the absence of illness – has become a powerful entity, according to Tastewise. Today’s health movements are often dedicated to well-being beyond the physical, including practices for improving mental and spiritual health as well, the report stated. 

“Food and beverages have an important part to play, with clean eating of particular interest for consumers -- social mentions of ‘wellness’ and food are up 40% since last year. Smoothies and herbal tea have experienced marked growth in the category over the past year,​” the report said.

“Pea protein, typically consumed as a neutral-flavoured powder, is finding new popularity; mentions of the protein in connection with wellness are up 542% in the past year.”

Brain and gut health are also growing
Look for the 'trends behind the trends' says tech start-up Tastewise

Consumers looking to bolster and protect cognitive health through everyday lifestyle choices are embracing natural ingredients for their brain-boosting qualities, the report noted.

Mentions of the brain and food are up 46% in the past year. Nutrient packed dates, sauerkraut, and ginger are particularly in demand. Consumers are increasingly choosing sweet potato for brain health. Social year-over-year growth of the versatile root is up 125%,”​ Tastewise wrote.

Gut health has a direct line to overall health. Everything from anxiety disorders, chronic headaches, skin issues, hormonal imbalances and more have been linked to how the gut is functioning, it added. “Food and beverages are intimately related to the health of the digestive biome, and consumers are drawn towards ingredients that support positive gut health; social media mentions of ‘gut health’ are up 42% in the past year. Ingredients like watermelon and leafy greens offer the fiber needed for healthy digestion and are increasing in popularity.”

Weight loss is another, perhaps more obvious, factor. But here the content is shifting, according to Tastewise. This year has seen a cultural shift away from fast-dieting and unrealistic beauty standards, and toward body positivity of all shapes and sizes, it believes. “People interested in weight loss are also shifting away from the old vanguards of theweight-loss industry, and towards natural and healthier alternatives like cranberries and provolone​,” it wrote.

“Maple syrup, up 88% in the last year on social media, moves beyond its association with breakfast foods, serving instead as a natural sweetener that can replace unhealthy, processed sugars. Coconut water, known for its hydrating properties, is up 64% on social media amongst consumers thinking about weight loss in the past year.”

Continued consumer interest in CBD is clear’

CBD has also come a long way from its original, primary application against stress, reckons Tastewise. Today’s CBD offers a host of potential health benefits including digestive health (up 268% in social mentions in the last year), anti-inflammation, pain management and more, it notes.

Additionally, consumers take CBD in various forms to improve immunity, increase energy, and support good sleep. CBD comes in oils, tinctures, drinks, snacks and more, and can be found in everything from beer to gummies to ice cream to soap. Continued consumer interest in CBD is clear: Social mentions of CBD over time have increased 215%.”

How can we be sure these trends will last?

Understanding these drivers can also help food and drink companies distinguish which of these trends have legs with the flash in the pans. Take charcoal, which was ‘one trend discussed extensively last year’ but which since quickly disappeared, according to Chen. Why? Because the trend driving it – the one for colour – wasn’t strong enough. That’s different from trend such as brain health, which is pertinent while many countries deal with ageing populations.

What we say is that the likelihood of something sticking around is if it address a need that is rising then it’s likely. People might swap sauerkraut for something else that improves their brain health. But the brain health motivation will stay​.” 

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