How do food trends happen – and what will we be eating in 2021?

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How do food trends happen – and what will we be eating in 2021?


‘Like dogs, foodies wag their tails at the slightest sniff of new and exciting’. Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

 Food fanatics used to obsess over kimchi – and this year it might be teff or guanciale. Brand consultants, market analysts and chefs explain how a product gets to be cool

very January, the British food media attempts to predict which ingredients and dishes will define the next 12 months. A new year means new food and magazine tip-lists of cool ingredients. It is traditional. This inexact science, a blend of research, intuition, wishful thinking and cribbed retailer data might, depending on your point of view, seem either harmless or ridiculous. But it has been lucrative for those selling craft gin, pulled pork, acai berries, gochujang, pastry stouts or any of 101 items that in the past decade have found themselves hailed as The Next Big Thing.

Such renewal is human nature, says Daniel Woolfson, food and drink editor at trade magazine The Grocer. “People are faddy. When Instagrammable stuff gets old, they instinctively look for the next thing.” But how? Where? Can the public create trends, in its likes and retweets? Or are we always manipulated by “big food”?

“The industry is obsessed with disruption,” says Woolfson. That is, creating a new sub-group in a food or drink category or transforming how an item is perceived and sold. Fever-Tree is the classic example. It pioneered an unforeseen market for “posh tonic” and even now when, like kombucha, cupcakes, Brewdog or smashed-patty burgers, it is long past peak cool, it retains an aura of quality and sophistication that bolsters sales. In 2014, nine years after its launch, the company was floated on the stock market, valued at £154m. It is now worth considerably more.

“Difference sells,” says Perry Haydn Taylor, founder of the branding consultancy, Big Fish. “Like dogs, foodies wag their tails at the slightest sniff of new and exciting. Then bark at each other on social media. Food is fashion. If you’re into that stuff, it matters.”

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“Brands getting that hip cult following are the ones that allow consumers to be invested advocates in what they’re about,” says Fiona Beauchamp of marketing agency Bray Leino. Instagram appears to be the perfect forum for such organic conversation. According to Facebook IQ, food and drink is UK Instagram’s most popular topic: 39% of users consider themselves “food aficionados”.

The reality, says Miguel Barclay, known for his Instagrammable “one pound meals”, is a manic scramble to get eyeballs-on-product using freebies and paid posts. “Vegan companies are on a whole new level. They find anyone who ever used the hashtag vegan, build up a network of 200 influencers and bombard them with free gifts. I work with very few brands. But most people [on Instagram] promote stuff all the time and don’t care what it is.”

With his 300,000 followers and bestselling cookbooks, Barclay is among an elite of Instagram faces who can pull a “five-figure sum, easily” as brand ambassadors. Such gigs, fronting and developing recipe content for well-known companies “are more subtle, useful and classic”.

Barclay would say that. He may be right, too. As owner of Sous Chef, an online retailer of specialist ingredients, Nicola Lando is permanently scanning the horizon for the next kefir or kimchi, everywhere from trade fairs to the US media. She refuses to identify a fixed hierarchy of influence but says the endorsement of authoritative chefs and cookery writers still matters. The resulting online chatter confirms the agenda, rather than setting it. “What drives UK food trends is people seeing interesting ingredients on restaurant menus, taking photos and sharing dishes.”

“Products are seen as premium if chefs use them,” agrees Stefan Chomka, the editor of Restaurant Magazine. “And, recently, many trends – barbecue, kimchi, bao buns – have come from restaurants. Supermarkets watch what’s happening there.”

When choosing to list fashionable ingredients, the supermarkets’ analysis goes far deeper. Waitrose’s executive chef Martyn Lee, who leads the store’s product development, tracked guanciale’s growing popularity through modern Italian cookbooks and restaurants such as Polpo and Padella, but Waitrose only opted to stock it in October after “data-driven” reports from its social media and web teams confirmed cured pig’s cheek was in demand nationally. “You need multiple instances of something coming through to join the dots,” says Lee. “We spot trends by them appearing in different spaces.”

How that buzz is generated differs enormously depending on aim, budget and luck. Are you shooting for supermarket ubiquity or locking in a loyal cult following? Given how consumers crave validation, you will usually need bartenders, baristas, bloggers, food journalists and other trusted figures (even key, high-quality Instagram influencers) on your side, talking you up.

Ever wondered how avocados became ubiquitous? Two decades of preparatory work by the London PR agency Richmond & Towers helped. In 1995 it began to act for the South African Avocado Growers Association, taking journalists to South Africa, using chefs, health and lifestyle ambassadors to boost the fruit’s profile, and producing in-store sales material and recipe booklets. Back then the task was straightforward: teach anyone unfamiliar with the fruit how to eat it.

Around that time UK avocado sales were worth £13m annually. By 2016 that figure had shot up to £150m. There was an element of good fortune here. Fashion is always contingent – in the avocado’s case on the rise of the “wellness” industry, so-called superfoods and social media’s foregrounding of all things photogenic. Nonetheless, it is difficult to begrudge Richmond & Towers claiming this 18-year campaign (which ended in 2013 and cost about £2.5m) as “the most successful fresh produce campaign in UK history”.

Will Covid-19 nip such frivolity in the bud? Slow the trends cycle? Not likely. Retailers report a significant shift to comfort foods. The economy is shot. The fashions that this new environment might spawn may feel less glib. But those trends (a focus on craft and utility in food, cementing the home-baking craze, perhaps a post-Brexit run on British heritage ingredients) may still be the ones that foodies lap up.

There is a growing ethical objection to the damage this greedy churn creates. Global trade in hyped ingredients can cause ecological and social fallout, such as price spikes in countries where the products originate from. In 2017, after a poor harvest of avocados, reports blamed global demand for making this once staple food too expensive for many ordinary Mexicans.

The way such ingredients are frequently sold in Britain, as “new” and “exotic”, ignoring their status in some communities or long culinary histories, is also increasingly being recognised. For instance, given the media coverage you’d be forgiven for thinking jackfruit was invented as a meat substitute in Dalston in 2017 rather than something used in savoury south and south-east Asian dishes for aeons.

“When a food gets popular, I want to see the people who kept those recipes and food cultures alive for generations, not someone who ‘discovered’ it on holiday, nor giant companies who pillage lands, giving nothing back financially, culturally or ecologically,” says Riaz Phillips, author of Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK.

Similarly, Lap-Fai Lee, a professional cook and tutor in Birmingham, finds chefs putting their “twist” on east and south-east Asian foods “laughable, juvenile, mildly racist. No western chef would put basil in carbonara, but they happily ‘reinterpret’ XO sauce. Next, it’ll be kosho, nam jim, sambal.”

In this search for new experiences, please tread carefully

How products get cool

1. Oatly

The Scandinavian oat milk producer likes noisy provocation. It recently petitioned the Bundestag to make CO2 labelling mandatory on food, and in 2014 it was successfully sued by the Swedish dairy industry over its slogan “It’s like milk, but made for humans”. (Oatly is currently challenging a separate EU decision over the use of the phrase as a trademark.) The company’s knowing, ironic, idealistic branding has seen it embraced by a so-called “post-milk generation” who, like CEO Toni Petersson, see it as a catalyst for change.

Food Trends 2021 Observer Food Monthly OFM January 2021

FacebookTwitterPinterest Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Conversely, in 2016, Oatly crept quietly into the US. The brand that, according to CNN, “made oat milk cool” opted against a big retail launch in favour of getting the product into cool coffee shops, such as Blue Bottle and Intelligentsia, in major cities. A coffee culture website,, and a “foamable” Oatly Barista Edition further helped get baristas onside.

This was more effective, says Linda Nordgren, Oatly’s communication manager, than “sampling a tiny, potentially warm cup in a grocery store”. It also removed the need for a large advertising spend (that came later). Online and across social media, coffee geeks started to voluntarily amplify Oatly’s brand.

Oatly had seeded a grassroots hype which, as demand grew through 2018 (Bloomberg called it “the great oat milk shortage”, with online resellers charging $25 per 1 litre carton), proved its viability. After a subsequent expansion the company is now valued at $2bn.

It helps that Oatly suits coffee. Rapeseed oil and an acidity regulator make it behave like creamy cow’s milk. “I was never a coconut or almond milk fan because they’re so flavourful. Oat milk is the most neutral, and steams without splitting,” says Dave Wolinski, co-owner of Manchester coffee shop Idle Hands.

Can Oatly’s moment last? In the UK, the artily packaged, carbon-neutral oat milk Minor Figures is now arguably more hip, and in 2020 Oatly accepted investment from Blackstone, a fund led by Trump donor Stephen Schwarzman. Such controversy is not cool.

2. Skrei

“We were never trying to get skrei on mainstream menus. There isn’t the stock,” says Fiona Beauchamp of marketing agency Bray Leino. Instead, between 2012 and 2018, acting for the Norwegian Seafood Council (NSC), Bray Leino used skrei – rare, high-grade cod which appears on Michelin-starred menus and in the northern foodie supermarket Booth’s, from January to April, as a glamour product. The objective? To cast “a halo effect across Norway’s stocks”.

Food Trends 2021 Observer Food Monthly OFM January 2021

FacebookTwitterPinterest Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Bray Leino was simultaneously busy promoting standard Norwegian cod in chip shops and supermarkets. But skrei (pronounced “skray”), a mere 5,000-6,000 tonnes of which is exported from Norway annually, was the cult item that enabled it to engage chefs, journalists and other opinion-formers whose tweets, TV mentions or media stories helped burnish the reputation of Norwegian seafood.

Chefs were pivotal, particularly the NSC’s two Michelin-starred ambassadors, Michel Roux Jr and Simon Hulstone from the Elephant in Torquay. Their roles included hosting trips to Norway’s Lofoten archipelago where chefs and journalists learned about the 10% of muscular, migratory Arctic cod that make the skrei grade. “Skrei’s cool because it’s a seasonal bunfight to get hold of it,” says Hulstone. “Chefs love that exclusivity.”

Retailers, says Beauchamp, look to chefs for “coming consumer trends” and, says Hans Frode Kielland Asmyhr, the UK’s NSC director, they are “credible educators. Excellent chefs only speak for products they believe in. This is not always the case for Instagram influencers.”

Neither Bray Leino nor the NSC provided sales statistics covering this period but such advocacy is deemed to have helped improve the profile of Norway’s fisheries. Four supermarkets began to identify Norway on its labels and, between 2012 and 2016, “spontaneous association” of Norway with seafood rose from 10% to 19% among shoppers, according to Bray Leino and the NSC’s consumer insight research. Roux and Hulstone continue to work with the NSC, promoting a variety of Norwegian seafood.

Hulstone regards his influence quizzically. “Chefs are still rock’n’roll in some horrible way. It’s bizarre. I go on TV and the restaurant fills up. I have 20,000 Instagram followers and no clue why.”

He is similarly nimble in dismissing criticism (“jealousy”) that such promotional roles attract. “I own my restaurant. No mortgage,” he reasons, while describing the NSC fees as “pocket money”. “Most jobs we are offered don’t work for me. But I’ll work with a company if I believe in the product. I won’t put stuff on the menu for cash.”

3. Lao Gan Ma

Tweet about Lao Gan Ma, as OFM did while writing this piece, and in the US and UK you know exactly who will respond: chefs, PRs, food writers, bartenders, deli-owners – foodie hipsters, basically, among whom this crispy chilli oil inspires evangelical fervour. “The sriracha years were John the Baptist compared to the coming of the One True Condiment,” replied Richard Storer, chef at Sheffield’s Rutland Arms. Such praise is common for this deeply savoury mix of fried onions and roasted Guizhou chillies, which in China has made Guiyang Nanming Laoganma Special Flavour Foodstuffs Co Ltd a household name, despite not advertising until recently. The company’s owner, Tao Huabi, started out running a noodle stall before her sauce proved a runaway hit. Nicknamed “old godmother” (lao gan ma) by her student regulars, Huabi – whose impassive face stares out from every jar – began to make the sauce commercially in the mid-1990s. By 2015, this once word-of-mouth sensation was selling so well Forbes was calculating the now 73-year-old’s wealth at $1.05bn.

Food Trends 2021 Observer Food Monthly OFM January 2021

FacebookTwitterPinterest Photograph: Romas Foord/The Observer

Exported worldwide, Lao Gan Ma’s fame continues to grow on recommendation. Its products are in “very high double-digit growth”, says Paul Michalski, the managing director of Lao Gan Ma’s European distributor, Liroy BV, largely down to rising numbers of Chinese students in Europe who are turning non-Chinese friends onto this magic potion.

In the US, Lao Gan Ma has seen a similar surge in popularity. In May 2020, Eater hailed a wave of chef-made chilli oils, many inspired by Lao Gan Ma and the social media heat around what Lucky Peach described as a “pantry staple”. There is even a US Lao Gan Ma fanzine.

“It’s delicious on practically anything,” says the Chinese food expert, Fuchsia Dunlop, “so I’m not surprised at its almost universal appeal. What is surprising is a relish with Chinese packaging catching on to this extent. I can’t think of another example.”

Nor one that has created such a vocal street team. “True fans spread the word,” says Brian Yip, a director at the supermarket Wing Yip. “One Cricklewood colleague, from Guizhou, tells everyone they should use it.” Or as Alex Rushmer, chef at Cambridge’s Vanderlyle, drooled on Twitter: “I would eat a bowl of gravel smothered in Lao Gan Ma.”

What we’ll be eating and drinking in 2021. Possibly ...

Corn ribs

Cooked corn cobs carved to resemble spare ribs; pioneered at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar, spotted at London’s Fallow or Glasgow’s Ka Pao.


Essential to an authentic carbonara. Previously a specialist product, now in Waitrose.

Young garbanzo

Green, early-harvest chickpeas. Sweeter, almost pea-like, used in various dishes from salads to pilaf. Marks & Spencer is launching a green chickpea hummus later this year.

Hard seltzer

Flavoured, low-calorie, alcoholic sparkling water. Huge in the US. Launches from Kopparberg, Coca-Cola and Brewdog suggest the UK could follow.


This fast-cooking, nutritious east African grain is “on the horizon” here, says Waitrose’s Martyn Lee. Sustainable sourcing is a challenge.


One-time healthy (and unpersuasive) stand-in for chocolate and cocoa powder in baking, which may yet return on its own terms.

Table beers

Usually 2.5% to 2.8% – big on flavour, low on alcohol. Try Northern Monk’s Striding Edge or Howling Hops’s Pocket Rocket.

Smoked salt

Flavoured salts (herbs, lemon zest, seaweed) are taking off. “Smoked salt can be used in meat rubs or on boiled eggs,” says Sous Chef’s Nicola Lando.

Banana blossom

Popular in south-east Asia, the budding flower from the banana tree is increasingly used in vegan dishes to replace fish.

Eringi mushrooms

Martyn Lee is excited about potentially using king oyster or eringi mushrooms to replace steak or scallops. Chinese cooking has a rich history of such substitution.

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