Grain-based foods popular in post-pandemic world

Homemade sourdough bread might not last into post-pandemic life, but that doesn’t mean the popularity of wheat and grains will diminish overall.

Changing consumption behaviour offers many opportunities for the sector, according to Dana McCauley, veteran food system analyst and director of New Venture Creation in the University of Guelph Office of Research.

Why it matters: High sales of flour for home-baking will not last forever. Producers of grain-based foods need to look toward larger food trends and demographic changes so they can grow. 

Part of the challenge, however, will be accounting for demographic differences while monitoring trends. 

Like so many things, COVID-19 caused a major shakeup in the food sector. Dining out ceased and was replaced by takeout and home-cooked family suppers. 

Comfort foods became a go-to, at least in the early months, in place of novel culinary experiences. The growing interest in sustainable packaging, farmers markets, cannabis edibles and other trends flatlined. But as the months of pandemic have dragged on, things are changing. 

Speaking during C&M Seeds’ Wheat Industry Day, McCauley says those in the food sector need to look at trends and anticipate which groups will have expendable income in post-pandemic life. 

For example, those between the ages of 25 and 40 – millennials in common parlance – will have different needs and interests than younger generations or older ones who have greater financial security. 

“These (millennial) consumers are going to go into stores and approach purchases already feeling a little bit compromised, so it will be really interesting to see which retailers step up and try to serve this group and capture their loyalty,” says McCauley. 

She referred to a Forbes article describing the cohort’s comparatively high reliance on “the gig economy,” crushing levels of debt and general fiscal vulnerability. They need products friendly to the freezer and at-home cooking. 

Similarly, the brand skepticism, environmental focus and affinity for innovative products of younger groups will require different marketing approaches, along with an understanding that pandemic trends like home baking and regular family meals will invariably decline.

“The main opportunities are to not to get too caught up in the past and think about new ways to serve new needs. Is it time for ‘the best thing since sliced bread’ to be replaced with something new?” McCauley says.

“Don’t assume they know everything. … The pandemic was a weird year and you can’t count on anything that happened.”

A critical part of marketing adaptation involves understanding a general shift to more technically based claims and value propositions. These relate to place-of-origin interest, continued interest in plant-based protein products, gluten-free and low-carb products, as well as digestive health.

McCauley believes there is plenty of room for wheat and other grains in these spaces. Regarding plant proteins, for example, she cites the “underdeveloped product category” of gluten-based meat alternatives, such as mock-duck common to some Asian cuisines, as potential areas of growth. 

Adding QR codes to product labels to indicate places of origin has already been embraced by many products and could be expanded. 

Online shopping trends are expected to continue in some form as well, so redesigned packages could promote sales by communicating origin, ingredient, nutrition and other information more clearly and in an easy-to-read form. 

The global market for products claiming to boost digestive health and immunity is expected to have compounding annual growth of 39 per cent in coming years, amounting to $24 billion by 2023. Innovative products like bread fortified with minerals and vitamin B1, a product already sold by British bread maker Hovis Ltd., is an example of how grain-based staples could modernize. 

McCauley cautions that the science behind products must be rigorous or the company responsible will find regulatory and consumer pushback. She cites the cautionary tale of Kellogg’s ill-fated, post H1N1 2009 release of “immunity-boosting” chocolate-flavoured Rice Krispies as an example of a failed product venture. 

“Do consult all regulatory bodies before you spend a fortune launching a project and put yourself out there for any kind of negative exposure,” she says.