A Norfolk field of wheat. Picture: Nick Butcher
Archant © 2018
Whether it’s foodie fads or the desire for healthy living, consumer trends have the potential to re-shape our food industry. Here are five which could affect East Anglian farmers in the coming decades.
“FREE FROM” FOOD
Gluten-free, wheat-free and dairy-free products used to be bought out of medical necessity, but they are moving into the mainstream as consumers increasingly buy them as a healthy lifestyle choice.
As a result, the UK “free from” foods market is forecast to triple from £221m in 2010 to £673m in 2020.
While 12% of Britons say they follow a gluten-free diet, more consumers are also exploring plant or nut-based alternatives to dairy. Although still a very small market compared to conventional pasteurised milk, these products have grown 18pc in volume terms over the past year.
The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board says: “Given the growth of this market in recent years and the positive consumer attitude towards these products, there is still room for further growth in free-from. Opportunities for free-from lie in different meal occasions, such as the snacking sector and prepared meal solutions.
“The core market of coeliacs for gluten-free and those with allergies and intolerances will remain. However, given that many free-from shoppers are ‘lifestylers’, they are likely to move on to a new trend, albeit similar.”
While the increase in veganism could affect the demand for meat from livestock farmers, flexitarians – those who are primarily vegetarian but occasionally eats ethically-sourced meat or fish – might maintain the demand for high-welfare animals.
For arable farmers, the boom in plant-based diets could generate bigger markets for crops like soya.
Pulham St Mary farmer Richard Cole, whose soya crop is made into tofu and soy milk at Norwich soy dairy Tofurei, grew 70 acres of the crop this year, and plans to almost double it to 130 acres for next harvest – replacing oilseed rape, which he has abandoned due to cost of production and risk from pests.
“You can definitely see vegetarianism and veganism getting a lot bigger, and the demand for soya is huge, whether it is UK grown or imported,” he said.
“Our weather is changing and we are in for drier summers and harder winters so soya is a perfect crop for a warmer summer. But there are other benefits. “My oilseed rape is my break crop normally, but I have not drilled any for next year because of all the pesticide restrictions and it is becoming a very expensive crop to grow. Soya is a pretty inexpensive crop to grow if you can get the results at the end, so it is a good replacement.”
The introduction of the sugar tax on soft drinks earlier this year could be a signpost that more anti-obesity and consumer health policies might lie ahead.
And while manufacturers are cutting fat or sugar, or using probiotics to boost gut health, scientific institutes are exploring ways to make farm crops healthier for the end user.
Laura Knight, head of corporate affairs at Quadram Institute Bioscience, on Norwich Research Park, said: “One of the projects at the Quadram Institute is directed at improving the health effects of wheat starch, to try to reduce the impact of obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.
“The aim of this work is to improve the starch quality in wheat, the most widely grown cereal crop, in a way that leads to substantial improvements to human health. Our approach is to understand how new variation in wheat starch genes affects starch structure and digestibility in the grain, and then using this information to fine-tune starch structure and design new wheats with slowly-digested and resistant starches.
“The translational aspects of this research will see us collaborating with crop breeders, seed companies, growers and food industry to deliver future foods that benefit consumers, and reduce the burden on healthcare providers and governments.”
TRACEABILITY AND PROVENANCE
Food scares – from the BSE crisis of the 1990s to the horse meat scandal of recent years – have led to an increasing concern for traceability in the products we consume.
This trend has fuelled the proliferation of farmers’ markets and shops springing up around the UK.
Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the Euston Estate, is on the board of food assurance scheme Red Tractor. He said the public interest in provenance could stem from “consumer dissatisfaction” generated by these food scares.
“It is also potentially coming from a slightly better understanding of UK farming and how farmers work so hard to produce this food,” he said.
“There are a lot of farmers’ markets and local outlets for local food but I think they are reaching saturation point. The larger-scale commodity producers are getting access to the wider market using assurance schemes like Red Tractor. For some of the larger local brands that the retailers are stocking, if they meet those standards it gives them the opportunity to market not just in the region but throughout the UK and in the export market.”
He added that Brexit had “also focused people’s thoughts on country of origin”.
THE WAR ON FOOD WASTE
What Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall began with his War on Waste has continued in the public consciousness – and is slowly seeping through to retailers.
While the UK is far from countries like France – which instigated a law in 2016 forcing supermarkets to donate unsold food to good causes rather than binning it – some companies are taking steps towards reducing the amount of food from producers which is wasted, for example Morrisons and its Wonky Veg range. That could mean a greater proportion of farm produce can be used.
In 2017 the East of England Co-op became the first supermarket to sell foods past their “best before” dates in its 125 food stores, with products including tinned and dried goods, bread, cake, fruit and vegetables sold for a nominal 10p.
Roger Grosvenor, joint chief executive, said the scheme was already making a “hugely positive contribution” to food waste reduction.
“Customers are perfectly willing to try these products, with reduced items flying off the shelves within hours. As retailers it is our responsibility to ensure we provide customers with the opportunity to make choices that support a more sustainable future for all,” he said.
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