In Defense of Forecasting Food Trends

It’s finally here: the moment for trend professionals to make their predictions for the year ahead. Most lists are out already as the forecast season began back in October for the early birds, which means putting that list together in late summer. Kind of how food magazines shoot spreads of Thanksgiving turkeys around the Fourth of July.

This point underscores the arbitrary nature of trend forecasting; it’s not like we all put down our poke bowls on January 1st and swap them for tuna onigiri (on my 2017 list). But the start of a new year has become the traditional moment for many companies to pause, consider and project.

And project we do. Kim Severson in the New York Times ran a terrific story about the (dubious) art and science of food trend forecasting, something that has multiplied along with food media outlets scrambling for copy. As a trend professional, I’m amazed every year at the many new voices chiming in; I’m also amazed at some of the predictions (really, you didn’t notice the cauliflower trend yet?). But both readers and professionals get a kick out of predictions, gauging the lists to find out how trendy they already are or using them to inspire future food discoveries.

 Will you be trying a kimchi bun at The Ramen Shop in Oakland in 2017?

Will you be trying a kimchi bun at The Ramen Shop in Oakland in 2017?

Beyond the fun factor, though, these lists have a purpose. There is pressure on companies releasing forecasts to get a list out in a timely fashion, to be viewed as a thought leader and be part of the conversation. It’s good for business to show clients that someone has done their homework and made some sense out of the myriad signals blinking away.

And by sense, I mean making sense in the context of the business of the forecaster. Each one sees a different segment of the food industry and reports on that view for that segment. The National Restaurant Association chefs draw conclusions from the restaurant world; Whole Foods knows what new packaged goods are vying for shelf space. Google, well, it knows everything, and data companies know plenty, too. But menu data firms just know the menu part of the story; that’s their science. The art of forecasting comes from a longer, broader, more agnostic overview of the foodscape coupled with an understanding of culture and consumer behavior. That’s what independent trend professions like myself practice.

Reading trend forecasts in the news is taking them out of this context. Their real value comes internally, when trade associations, market research firm and PR agencies use the information compiled behind the predictions to inspire clients, inform menu decisions, educate project teams and tell stories. It keeps these groups up to speed so their clients can be, too.

Embrace 2017’s trend predictions, use them as a roadmap for the year, either leading to new food excitement or away from the crowds. But keep in mind that if all together they sound like a lot of noise, for us pros, there are smart insights buried within each one, waiting to be unlocked by the thoughtful analyst, strategist and marketer, or any culinary professional looking for hints about what to write about, teach or cook next.