Food trends

Mike Lee, co-founder of Alpha Food Labs, talks about the future of food during Northwest Farm Credit Service’s Ag Outlook Conference in Twin Falls on Nov. 5.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — Food in the 21st century is no longer just about flavor and nutrition, it’s about values and what consumers and food companies stand for, according to an innovator in the industry.

“This is the end of one-size-fits-all food,” Mike Lee, cofounder and co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs, told producers at Northwest Farm Credit Services’ Ag Outlook Conference on Nov. 5.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s promised to feed the world and focused on productivity and improved yields. It prioritized a handful of crops and created a series of monocultures. It traded off agricultural diversity for brand diversity, with 75% of food coming from just 12 crops and five animal species, he said.

It also created a monoculture of ideas as to one way to do things — the most efficient way, he said.

“And I think that’s changing,” he said.

For example, teens today are spending more money on food than clothing. Food has become part of their identity, a statement. It reflects their values. And it’s not just teens. Millennials and others are also seeing food as an extension of their identity, he said.

People can go online now and connect to others like them. They become networked and form influential “food tribes” that raise their hand to food companies. Smaller brands are latching onto those values, and the industry is seeing more brands focused on smaller niches, he said.

It’s no longer a mass market. It’s focused on smaller tribes and to “try to be everything to someone rather than something to everyone,” he said.

Consumers want to know how their food was made, where it was grown, whether it’s seasonal or local, he said.

“The process has become the product,” he said.

The GMO debate is evidence of that, he said.

“It sets the stage for farmers to tell the story … it’s not Tony the Tiger marketing something that’s kind-of-wheat,” he said.

The 21st century eater is focused on health, the experience and sustainability — and healthy comes first, he said.

“People are looking at food as medicine,” he said.

They prefer convenience, but they’re not willing to sacrifice healthy for convenience — and they’re willing to pay a premium for that. They’re looking to functional ingredients beyond nutrition, and that’s a $247 billion market today, he said.

Sustainability is another big issue with consumers, but it has become a really big, vague, daunting thing, he said.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a man on the street who doesn’t want to help the planet,” he said.

But it’s a hedonistic sustainability; they want to do what’s right for themselves and their family, he said.

“For most people, they’re just trying to find what they can afford that’s tasty,” he said.

Consumers are also looking for the experience, and their choice of fresh food is on the rise. The perimeter of the grocery store is outgrowing the interior, and fresh food has infiltrated all retail channels — with consumers able to get a fresh salad at a convenience store, he said.

Frozen foods are also coming back, and brands are picking up on it and rebranding frozen as closer to fresh, he said.

The future of food is “everything” because there are an infinite number of identities, values and points of view, he said.

For more on Lee’s future of food, visit

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