Chopped up fruit arranged in descending columns to mimic a graph chart

Over 15 years ago, when the internet was a mysterious and exotic place that many people had never visited, I started a web-housed food trend newsletter called Topline Trends. It was almost instantly successful not because I had a firm handle on what I was doing but because it was one of the few easy to access sources of information about food trends. Over time both the internet and I became more sophisticated and today Topline Trends (now published under the capable guardianship of Amy Whitson, owner of Topline Trends and The Test Kitchen Incorporated) continues to flourish.

The lessons I learned that allowed my newsletter to evolve so that I could proudly wear the moniker ‘food trend expert’ can be useful to bloggers  trying to choose topics to feature in their posts. The more I tried to communicate about trends, the more obvious it became that the word ‘trends’ (like the word ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’) is so overused that it verges on meaninglessness. It’s used so loosely that it can be difficult to know what people really mean when they call something a trend. To help avoid confusion, I developed my own way of defining trends. I’ve found my definitions extremely useful in giving my observations the context they need to be used to create innovative food products and editorial ideas.   My model considers where our various food curiosities come from:

  • Forces: The overarching needs and desires people in particular cultures have at any given time. Forces shape current trends and generally shape our food related behaviour -- cooking, dining, shopping and even dieting -- for a decade or longer.
  • Trends: The choices and behaviour we exhibit as a response to the forces impinging on our lives. Trends can grow and change over time if pushed or pulled in various directions (see below).
  • Fads: Offshoots of trends that generally last for less than a year or that occur in an isolated location due to local factors.

One of the most common traps I see food bloggers fall into is becoming insular. For instance one smart blogger writes about monkey bread or floats grilled cheese croutons in tomato soup and suddenly others are inspired to do the same. If you see several blog posts on the same topic, does that mean that you’ve uncovered a trend?  Nope; a handful of blog posts does not a trend make. It just means that several people share a passing interest in the same delicious topic. In fact, both those examples are clues to how bloggers are expressing other trends. In the case of monkey bread, the real trend is the resurgence in home baking and cocooning. In the case of the croutons, the trend is the widespread urge we’re seeing in home cooks and chefs to modernize comfort food. And both of these trends are a response to the current economic and political forces in the world at large.

Strawberry in chocolate fondue, from topLikewise, bloggers (and all food writers for that matter) need to beware of Push Trends. These are the trend claims that companies and PR folks often make to further their own goals. Push trends gain initial momentum not because people have a deep desire or need for the food or activity, but because an industry successfully publicizes and promotes a topic enough to make content starved writers believe they need to share the ‘news’.  Fondue is a great example of a recurring push trend. In my 20 years as a food writer I’ve read press releases about the triumphant return of fondue at least 5 times. Yet, I don’t see real people doing much more with their fondue pots than moving them from one shelf to another in their storage rooms.

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pomegranate seeds in a glassThe real magic lies with being one of the first to uncover a Pull Trend; these are trends that rise up organically and gain momentum due to word of mouth; they have a true link to a market force. Write about a pull trend and you’ll find readers sharing links to your posts. The pomegranate story is a great example of a push trend that became a pull trend. Confused?  Let me explain: About 10 years ago I remember getting a super fancy media kit announcing that POM Wonderful was, well, wonderful. After glancing at it and seeing that pomegranates are high in antioxidants I tossed the kit in the recycle box.  Although health and wellness is a long term force affecting trends in Canadian society, I didn’t see why people would quit eating local super foods like blueberries and cranberries in favour of an imported fruit. Pomegranate needed time to prove itself before I wasted any ink on it. Then, thanks to the great push efforts of their launch campaign, millions of people – real live ones with money in their wallets – tried pomegranate juice and liked it and wanted information about how to incorporate pomegranates into their diets. In that way, a push flavour trend became a pull flavour trend and the ink (like the juice!) continues to flow as a result.

So what’s the takeaway advice I have for bloggers? Don’t just assume that the myriad trend lists you collected over the last two months are all valid. Consider who published each one and who the sources they quote are. If a flavouring company says that lavender is the next big thing, ask them if they have recently developed a new lavender flavour. If so, ask them how sales are. Likewise, use the free tools you have at hand to see who is talking about various foods and gadgets. If you do a twitter or google search and see that chefs and food lovers are talking about an ingredient, it might be a trend or at the very least a fad. If your research reveals an insular group or only people that have a commercial interest in the topic are talking about it, be wary.

How much stock to do you give food trend lists and predictions?  Do you seek these articles out or do you prefer to evaluate blog topics based on your own interests and what you know about your readers?

May the Forces be with Your Blog in 2012 was written by Dana McCauley. Dana is the Culinary Director at Janes Family Foods where she uses food trend insights to develop new food products. She is also a judge on Food Network Canada’s original reality TV series Recipe to Riches.  Follow Dana on Twitter.

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