30 July 2018, 10:00 AM
  • Sick of turmeric? Skeptical about nut milks? The last five years has seen an explosion in kooky innovations, but it’s time to take notice, discovers Anna Blewett
Generation next

Over the last few years there have been rumblings among the ancient cheeses, the barrel-aged balsamics and heritage veg. These venerable, time-honoured products, made for centuries to traditional recipes from feted food cultures, are being subjected to something of a ‘youthquake’. Innovative new products previously considered seriously niché or even ‘novel’ (the official term for any foodstuff not widely consumed in the EU prior to 1997) are stealing market share and jostling for listings in our most mainstream retail channels.

Exhibit A: jackfruit, the tropical fruit whose starchy flesh has made its way into Sainsbury’s own-brand chilled range in the form of a pulled pork-style meat alternative. In fact, market analysts at Mintel report a 257% rise in the use of vegan claims in global food and drink launches. Claims of ‘natural’ are up by more than 10% on last year.

Exhibit B: milk kefir, the microbe-rich fermented dairy now populating chillers in Morrisons, Tesco and any other switched-on multiple.

Exhibit C: turmeric – once buried deep in the mix of spiced savouries, now front and centre in oat milks, teas, honeys, blends, soups, slaws, and any other product you can think of. Mintel identifies this highly-pigmented spice, along with matcha and activated charcoal, as a real winner of the visually-led food culture that’s being fuelled by Instagram and other platforms. All (currently) sit below the sales radar of the big market monitors but look set to burst onto the bar charts as sales figures from the last six to 12 months are consolidated into published data.

These Johnny-come-latelys are riding on a wave of interest generated by the consumer desire to be surprised by new sensations, and nourished by ingredients that can fix their diet. Forget the graceful trajectory of salted caramel, this new wave has made its mark in a remarkably short period.

“I can’t think of a better example than fermented foods,” says Nicola Peters, creator of Turmeric & White Miso Kimchi (recently listed by Ocado) and founder of The Cultured Collective. “These products weren’t popular when I started out two years ago. At that point the term ‘fermented’ was easily the least attractive word, the hardest thing to sell. If I used it a look of disgust would appear on people’s faces, so I’d say something like ‘cultured’ instead. But with all the publicity around the importance of gut health and the benefit of fermented foods, it’s now a word that I can actively use to promote my products. People are more health conscious so they have an additional reason to buy into something ‘kooky’ other than me just saying it tastes nice.”

Flavour follows function
So people are trying new foods despite the taste, braving some challenging new flavours to bag a health benefit? “I think there’s a conversion process,” says Nicola. “There’s nothing quite akin to a live ferment but people are very familiar with yoghurt – a soured milk – so it’s not a completely alien taste. And in the case of kimchi? Most of us have grown up in a cosmopolitan world so we’re accustomed to a wide range of flavours. I’d never want people to eat my products just for the health benefits. I started with taste – and things have to be delicious – and fortunately it has all these health benefits too.”

So could palates be changing to accept, and even seek out, flavours we would once have found challenging? “Yes, absolutely,” says Vhari Russell of Food Marketing Expert. “We’re all holidaying further and further away so there is an appetite to have the kinds of food we tried in other countries. Bigger brands are spending a lot of money on food research to get ahead of those trends. The great thing about smaller and artisanal brands is they can react far quicker.”

Vhari should know. Her agency helps small producers, the kind whose wares fill your shelves, hone their product and nail their brand message. And as you’d expect, she has to think practically about the value of every trend that comes along. “The question in our minds is whether [being very reactive] is a benefit or a disadvantage. There are lots of conversations about jackfruit, for example, but how long will it be around for? Most people have no idea what to do with it and it’s not necessarily going to become part of anyone’s weekly shop. So there’s a balance between riding on a trends and not having a product that’s flashin- the-pan. Smaller brands are much quicker-turning machines than the supermarkets’ own brands which take forever, relatively speaking.”

You don’t have to know your Anna Jones from your Aine Carlin to realise that jackfruit is becoming a staple of the vegan pantry. And however unfamiliar such products are in circles used to discussing ‘affinage’ and ‘terroir’, they’ve been gaining traction in the UK market for some time. “We’ve known about jackfruit for years,” says Carol Dunning, event director or ExCeL’s Natural & Organic Products Europe.

“But the journey I’ve seen is products becoming tastier. We see gourmet healthy lifestyle foods, like raw nut butters with spice infusions, or crisp seaweed strips that properly mirror the diversity and deliciousness of sea vegetables. Yes, they’re healthy alternatives to something more established, but the makers are really upping their game to get to that gourmet level. Maybe delis wouldn’t previously have considered these kind of products as being tasty, or their kind of market’, but now there are so many truly good products in the natural and organic world they could fill a deli themselves.”

Not convinced? “The thing that really struck me at the show was the sheer number – and quality – of vegan cheeses,” says Allison Jacobs, deputy editor of Natural Health magazine. “In previous years they’ve been a very small part but this time around the dairy-alternative cheeses were out in force. I sampled a Camembert-style cheese which had the unmistakeable mushroomy flavour and that gooey, warm Camembert consistency. It was made from cashews!”

Over and out
Carol has overseen the show for 13 years, but notes that 2018 was the year “the bigwigs” from the major supermarkets showed up. Buyers from Sainsbury’s and Waitrose rubbed shoulders with seasoned visitors, proving that the mainstream mults see this marketplace as increasingly overlapping with their territory. So what does Carl see on the horizon for retail? “Lots of amazing kombucha, making drinks out of apple cider vinegars is coming back, really ingenious seaweed products: crisps, powders for bread making. Turmeric is still holding. You won’t see all these products in supermarkets; it’s really the consumer demand that is driving this and the indies have been the ones that have responded.”

As in all market places, one strong creative move will convert some early adopters, who’ll influence their own audiences and gradually everyone jumps in with two feet. So where, besides Instagram, should trend seekers look? “We look at a really wide range of sources, but that includes organisations like The Food People,” says Vhari. And in retail? “Historically Marks & Spencer has always been the market leader in terms of innovation,” says Vhari. “When I worked in confectionery, the category where I started out in NPD [new product development], we were always benchmarking our range against M&S. To a degree it’s still true – they were the first to do coconut water in a coconut, cauliflower steaks and stoneless avocado.”

Getting out of a trend cleanly, with minimum stock left in the bargain bin, is every retailers dream. And of course casualties of the march forward are fall by the wayside all the time. “I remember the days when goji berries were all the rage,” says Carol. “At this year’s show I didn’t see a single one. But although we do still see trends like that sweep through, you’d have to say that the big trend is a solid building of interest in these products that were once considered niché. I don’t see that going away.”