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Researchers Discuss Foodservice, Retail Trends

Consumers have had to navigate a complex economic environment as social and political factors have added further stress to the customer journey.

“It’s been a really rough 18 months for consumers,” said Sherry Frey, VP of total wellness at data insights firm NielsenIQ. She spoke on a panel with Mike Kostyo, VP of foodservice analytics at Menu Matters, and Laurie Demeritt, CEO of consulting firm The Hartman Group.

During the session, “Understanding Trends in Retail, Foodservice, and Beyond” panelists discussed how consumers are seeking out food experiences that are better for themselves, the environment, and society.

“During peak inflation last year, we saw consumers pull back on healthier items for themselves, for sustainability, and society,” said Frey. “However, in July of last year, it switched”—"better for you" products began to outpace overall food and beverages in dollar sales.

“As we look to the future and you think about where the opportunities for growth are, a couple of key pieces we see are around sustainability," she said.

Frey said that NielsenIQ has noticed that, in particular, consumers are looking for information about ingredients. They are interested in cleaner labels that are free from artificial colors and flavors.

Demeritt said that these findings are consistent with what The Hartman Group is seeing: even mainstream consumers care about sustainability issues. She said that 53 percent of consumers are more concerned about the environment, likely since 2023 was the hottest year on record, making the human impact on climate change more prominent.

Consumers often make implicit connections between sustainability and health, said Demeritt, highlighting how they work in tandem. She noted that 43 percent of consumers believe they are healthier when they choose sustainable foods and beverages.

“Twenty years ago, consumers thought sustainable products lacked something. Today sustainability is believed to be a claim about the end product’s quality,” said Demeritt. Consumers are equating sustainability to a better product because they think about the care that goes into it, such as the fact that it is pesticide- or herbicide-free, or non-GMO, for example.

The move towards sustainability and personal health is also found in foodservice. Kostyo said that it’s important for foodservice and brands to support consumers’ desire to live well. Research from Menu Matters finds that consumers overwhelmingly consider being happy and healthy as a life goal for the year.

“If you have a health product, that is something that consumers absolutely want to see,” he said, adding that there are many ways to support consumers in this way. For foodservice, this can be taking care of customers through offering premium and indulgent experiences, emphasizing hydration, and putting produce back in focus as a center-of-plate option.

Related: Fancy Food Show Preview: Understanding Sustainability Trends With Laurie Demeritt; Buyers Share Strategy During Scale Up Saturday