Deep inside the world of agrifood tech startups, it’s sometimes easier to see which food trends are going to be big in five years from now rather than in five months. Luckily, every year, grocery retailers and food media put out trend lists for the coming year, predicting what’s going to be big in food. A careful look at these lists can help us predict not necessarily what technologies are going to get a vote of confidence from VCs and investors, but rather, which technologies are going to have the attention of consumers in the year ahead.
Both Whole Foods Market and the Specialty Foods Association named plant-based foods as a top trend for 2018, but Whole Foods’ list specifically noted that technology is part of the trend. “By using science to advance recipes and manipulate plant-based ingredients and proteins, these techniques are creating mind-bending alternatives like “bleeding” vegan burgers or sushi-grade “not-tuna” made from tomatoes,” stated the company. The tuna replacement mentioned is by Ocean Hugger Foods.
If this category of innovative food has taught us anything, it’s that getting consumers on-side early is essential. Impossible Foods, for example, has been able to wow eaters with its plant-based burger that bleeds despite the bleeding effect requiring genetically-modified ingredients, of which plant-based consumers often disapproving in other contexts.
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Notable and appropriately absent from this category is cultured meat company Memphis Meats, which while often lumped in with Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Cultured meat is a fundamentally different product — actual meat cultured in a laboratory — and likely won’t hit shelves for at least four years. Stay tuned for a thorough round-up of all the funding news in this bustling space soon.
Upcycled Foods — or foods that repurpose the byproducts from food production into human food products — made the Specialty Food Association’s trends list for 2018. Companies in this category repurpose produce waste from cut-fruit operations, rescue spent grain from breweries and more.
Examples include Rise Products, which makes flours from soy milk and tofu byproducts, fruit and vegetable waste juicer Misfit Juicery, and spent grain granola bar Regrained. All are at accelerator or early seed stage (Regrained claims to be bootstrapping). Innovative food startups are on track to show good growth in 2017, but if upcycled foods are to gain traction outside the media and in the marketplace, we’ll likely need to see more funding in the space.
Cannabis in Food
Though the Trump administration raised a lot of questions as to whether the legal cannabis industry would be able to proceed apace in 2017, cannabis continued gaining legal ground in many states this year. So much so that the Specialty Food Association predicts that the crop will feature more prominently in cuisine in 2018.
Cannabis-containing packaged foods are already receiving mainstream media coverage and chefs with experience in Michelin-starred restaurants are already working with the crop. Recreational use of cannabis becomes legal for in California on January 1. Massachusetts will follow in April and Canada is getting organized to legalize as well. Additionally, Mexico is predicted to legalize cannabis-based products in 2018.
Along with whole cannabis, cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychotropic active component of cannabis, is rapidly growing as a food ingredient.
Transparency Across the Board
One of Whole Foods’ Trends for 2018 is “Transparency 2.0”. The company explains the phrase: “More is more when it comes to product labeling. Consumers want to know the real story behind their food, and how that item made its way from the source to the store.” Transparency is the guiding principle behind a handful of Midstream Technologies within agrifood tech and consumer demand for more disclosure makes the startups in this field attractive in the eyes of investors.
Whole Foods itself is working with this trend by committing that all labels within its stores will “provide GMO transparency” by September 2018.
Some smaller producers are struggling to respond to consumer demands for more information about how their food was grown because it requires detailed record-keeping and audits. But large agrifood companies have a hard time too due to the sheer scale and global nature of their supply chains.