DNA, bee pollen, za'atar and more: 5 food trends headed Buffalo's way

By Samantha Christmann

"If you look at menus, you can predict food trends at restaurants and at home," Li said.

In the 1950s it was TV dinners and deviled eggs. In the 1960s it was Jell-O molds and pigs in a blanket. The 1970s got fancy with quiche and crown roast. The 1980s were all about blackened fish and wine coolers.


When it comes to food trends, the only thing constant is change. And those changing tastes always follow the same cycle, according to Jack Li, managing director at Datassential, a food industry market research company in Chicago.


"If you look at menus, you can predict food trends at restaurants and at home," Li said.


Trends begin on the menus of "authentic" restaurants, but just 30% of them make it to what Datassential calls the "adoption" phase. That's when food trucks and higher-end eateries pick them up and offer them to more adventurous eaters. From there, it reaches "proliferation," hitting mainstream menus and restaurant chains. After that, it becomes "ubiquitous," Li said, being incorporated into menus everywhere, even hospital cafeterias and school lunches.


Li shared more insight at the Niagara University Food Marketing Center of Excellence's Innovation Summit last month. Here are five major trends he promised will hit consumers' plates soon.


Food tailored to your personal DNA.

Some people have a quirk in their DNA that makes cilantro taste like soap. For people with a different genetic makeup, cilantro simply tastes like cilantro.


As at-home DNA kits get less expensive, companies will be able to target more of those differences using genetic markers. As a result, consumers' tastes and nutrition will be personalized like never before.


"You probably won’t believe me that it will be a thing but, trust me, it will," Li said.


A California company called HABIT is already doing it. It takes the consumer's blood and DNA samples, then prescribes foods that are ideal for their health. Customers also get a nutrition plan and personalized recipes.


Other companies operate in a similar fashion. For $69, GenoPalate will take your existing DNA data from 23andMe or AncestryDNA and apply it to certain nutritional variables.


MyDNA promises to help you optimize your nutrition, fitness and caffeine habits, according to its website. DNAfit's starter package offers personalized nutrition for $89, including a mail-in DNA swab test, and the ability to upgrade to stress and sleep profiles.


The new meaning of health food.

In the 1980s and 1990s, healthy eating meant restrictive diets of low-fat and low-calorie foods focused on weight management. In the 2000s, consumers began demanding local, natural foods free from harmful ingredients. Consumers became deeply educated about what was in their food, where it came from and how it affected their bodies, moods and energy.


Health-conscious consumers continue to focus on food as fuel for overall wellness. They want clean, natural food, but they also want high-performance superfoods – foods that promise better focus, more energy, detoxification – anything that will enhance their bodies and well-being.


"You are going to see a tidal wave of these products in the coming years," Li said.


Chia seeds are high in fiber, protein, good fats, antioxidants, nutrients and good carbs while being low in calories. Bee pollen is said to help remedy everything from hot flashes and inflammation to cancer and high cholesterol. Turmeric may help fight depression.


Customers may not fully understand what a trendy ingredient does but, if they believe it's good for them, they'll pay more for foods and drinks that contain them, Li said.


Food and beauty will collide.

Now more than ever, looking good means feeling good.


Just as consumers want natural foods, they want natural beauty products. Often, that means plant-based health and beauty care. Increasingly, it will be difficult to tell food products and beauty products apart, Li said. You'll see beauty products in the produce department, and health supplements in the makeup aisle.


There are already products on shelves with intersecting ingredients. Activated charcoal is used in some lemonades and sold as a detox drink. It's also used in toothpastes, sponges, face masks and skin creams.


In Jamba Juice and protein bars you'll find collagen – something that was once reserved for facials. Neal's Yard Remedies sells something called Radiance for Beautiful Skin. The pink pouch looks like it should contain a body masque, but it's actually a food supplement.


HUM brand Raw Beauty looks like a beauty cream, but it's actually a superfood drink mix.


"What store do you find that in? Do you eat it or rub it in your hair?" Li said about the HUM product. "It's not immediately clear."


Foods designed for Instagram.

In the past, customizing your food meant asking the chef to hold the tomatoes on your salad. Now, food is hyperpersonalized – it's an extension of the consumer's self.


"It's like a tattoo, it's intimately personal," Li said.


And where do today's consumers express themselves? Social media.


"Food that looks exotic and fun will continue to trend because it looks good on Instagram," Li said. "It's a way of saying, 'Look what I ate, I'm better than you.' "


That's especially the case with Asian desserts, which Li described as "super photogenic."


Coming to the fore are Chinese black sesame rice balls, a white dessert that explodes with small black beads when bitten; Thai rolled ice cream, which is poured onto a frozen pan before being scraped and rolled into portions; and Hong Kong egg waffles, rolled-up waffles with bubble-shaped chambers. Sweet treats and candy in brightly colored packages with Japanese writing, such as Taro Mochi, make for great photo-ops.


New ethnic flavor fusions.

As America's population becomes more diverse, so will its palate.


While 70% of the baby boomer generation is white, just over half of millennials are. That will bring a wealth of new flavors and dishes to mainstream cuisine. What began years ago with Polish pierogi, Chinese lo mein and Swiss fondue will continue with Ethiopian injera and Persian za'atar. Hashahar Ha'ole Parve chocolate spread is Israel's answer to Nutella – a celebrated Italian spread that reached ubiquity in the United States less than 10 years ago.


"There was a time when we didn't know what a fajita was, or chipotle as a flavor," Li said.


Restaurants will ease new ethnic flavors into the mainstream one exotic ingredient at a time, incorporating them into a base of tried and true favorites, such as Korean barbecue on top of french fries or gochujang sauce on a chicken sandwich.


"A few years ago, all you knew about ghost peppers was some idiot on YouTube eating one and crying for 10 minutes. Now you can buy fries with ghost pepper sauce at Wendy's," Li said.


5 up-and-coming foods that have gone mainstream

The latest new dishes and flavors were introduced by adventurous restaurants in big cities such as London and New York. Now, they’re approaching the mainstream and soon, you’ll see them everywhere.


  • Nduja is a spicy, spreadable pork sausage from southern Italy made with hot Calabrian peppers. It is a versatile ingredient that can be used like chili oil on foods such as pizza, pasta and shellfish.


  • Aleppo pepper is a Middle Eastern spice that is dried, deseeded and ground into flakes. Popular in Armenian, Syrian and Turkish immigrant communities, it can be used as a substitute for paprika or crushed red pepper.


  • Furikake seasoning is made from dried fish, sesame seeds and dried seaweed. It is often sprinkled on rice, vegetables and fish. It has already taken hold in Hawaii and on the West Coast.


  • Shakshouka originated in the Mediterranean and Middle East, but the dish gaining popularity now was perfected in North Africa. It contains eggs poached in a sauce made with tomatoes, chili peppers, garlic and such spices as cumin, cayenne pepper and nutmeg.


  • Elote is Mexican grilled maize, a variety of fresh-picked sweet corn on the cob that is roasted over an open grill and seasoned with salt, chile powder, butter, cotija cheese, lime juice and either crema fresca or mayonnaise.