2:39 min Read
Dr. Shelley Balanko spends her day examining reams of data, attempting to forecast what the next big trends in the food sector will be. Balanko, a PhD in applied social psychology, is an expert in how cultural trends affect the foods we eat. As the senior vice president of business development at The Hartman Group, she works with food and beverage companies to help them understand what products consumers will crave in the next few years, particularly in the health and wellness, natural and organic, and sustainability sectors.
Food and the agriculture industry are rapidly changing — with new innovations, such as gene editing, being developed and applied every day. New advancements are making it possible to grow food to meet new demands while using fewer resources like fertilizer, land and water.
We talked with Balanko about her personal interest in wellness, the process of trend spotting and her take on the future of food.
What sparked your interest in health and wellness?
My parents were really good role models. They were into fitness throughout their 30s, 40s, 50s and even still now in their 70s.
My mom always had a strong belief in paying for high-quality food. In our family, if there were going to be trade offs made in order to make ends meet, it was not going to be in food. She just believed that a healthy diet was the foundation of a healthy body, and it would be better to make tradeoffs elsewhere in life rather than compromising your own body. You only get one of those, and in many instances, it's not repairable.
Those lessons — combined with the work I do at Hartmann — have really shaped how my family eats today. I think we make investments in our body by eating healthfully now, so we don’t have to pay for it later.
How do you and your colleagues go about trend spotting and forecasting?
We’re always looking for the emergence of early signals of trends. We conduct in-depth, semiannual research on our core areas of expertise — health and wellness, natural and organic, and sustainability. Because we do these studies every other year, we’re able to track consumer attitudes and behaviors over time. We combine that information with monitoring things like new products, new retail environments, new restaurant menu trends, conversations on blogs and more. All those things can point toward trends.
We couple that information with the long-term view we have about the industries we work with about how people across generations respond to different trends. From that, we’re able to contextualize the emerging signals and make educated guesses about what is likely to be an enduring trend.
So, what are going to be next big things in food over the next few years?
One of the things that is getting a lot of attention, especially in the health and wellness space, is personalized nutrition. Consumers are increasingly looking for solutions that are targeted at their own unique needs, as opposed to looking for a solution that has been developed for the masses, to address societal health and wellness needs. So, I predict we'll probably see some interesting developments in the personalized nutrition space.
Another thing we’ve been seeing in recent years is more and more interest in the health of people’s microbiomes. People are recognizing that the microbiome and gut health is really the root of all wellness. It’s connected to digestion, inflammation and more. This is connected to the increased interest in probiotics, whether as a supplement or as something that is in food naturally, to enhance gut health. We’re now seeing a growing interest in prebiotics, which promote the growth of probiotics. That will likely catch on in the coming years, as well.
Finally, we’re tracking consumer interest in new food technologies. For the past two decades, consumers have been focused on eating fresh, real, and less processed foods. However, recent innovations in plant-based foods such as meat and dairy analogs have captured consumer attention. In many instances, these products appear to be very processed. We’ve addressed this paradox in our latest syndicated research report, “Food + Technology: From Plant-Based to Lab-Grown.”