Three Food-Industry Trends Influenced by COVID-19

While COVID-19 is not the first pandemic traced back to eating animals, it is the first to coincide with the rise of alternative proteins.

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COVID-19 has had far-reaching effects on almost every aspect of our lives and caused society to reflect on what we can do differently, even in how we source and consume our food. And that's not surprising: Food is deeply personal, from what we eat to when and how we consume it. Food has the power to connect us with friends, loved ones and even our ancestors.

I was born in Texas and am Mexican by heritage. Growing up on both sides of the border, I ate barbeque on Sundays like every good Texan and two eggs for breakfast each morning like every good Mexican. Meals revolved around animal protein and a dish wasn't complete unless meat or eggs (ideally both) were on the plate. Animal protein was such a big part of my life, yet I never questioned where my food was coming from.

It wasn't until I went to college that I started questioning where my food came from. I worked for a sub-agency of the USDA which oversaw slaughterhouses in the United States. After witnessing how animal products get to the plate, I decided this was not something I wanted to contribute to and removed animal products from my diet.

Shifting Trends in the Food Industry

That was my turning point. For many others, their turning point was COVID-19. The pandemic influenced food trends and shifted consumer priorities in a big way. There are three major trends that emerged as a result of COVID-19.

1. The emotional toll of COVID-19 sparked a return to nostalgic comfort foods. While this is seemingly contradictory to the better-for-you trend I'll cover next, both address wellness and support acts of self-care. As opposed to physical wellness, comfort food prioritizes mental wellness. The majority of individuals (55%) reported that their life was more stressful in late May 2020 compared to January, according to a research survey published in The U.S. National Pandemic Impact Report. Since we were all ordering takeout, GrubHub's 2020 "Year in Review" report is a strong indicator of popular pandemic dishes. A spicy chicken sandwich was their most ordered dish of 2020, followed by a chicken burrito bowl, chicken wings and waffle fries. The most ordered dessert was apple pie. Familiarity feels good, and comfort foods aren't coming off the menu anytime soon.

2. The better-for-you trend, which was already underway, accelerated during COVID-19. Globally, 57% of consumers reported being more concerned about their immunity as a result of COVID-19. People stocked up on supplements and started eating for immune health. In particular, consumer awareness and education about the connection between gut health and immune health grew. A book titled Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome was released in May 2020 and instantly made the New York Times, USA Today and Publisher's Weekly bestseller lists. Consumer interest in this topic led to an increase in sales of microbiome-related products, such as prebiotics and probiotics. Natural Products Insider reports that "digestive supplements saw significant growth in revenue on Amazon during 2020, increasing from $27 million in January to $51 million in November," with probiotics making up nearly 84% of the category.

3. In my own corner of the industry, the pandemic caused consumers to take a closer look at where their food comes from and the safety of the food supply chain overall. Animals are the source of over 70% of infectious diseases in humans. Historically, the response to zoonotic diseases was to treat the symptoms instead of addressing a common cause: animal agriculture. Recent advancements in food technology have, for the first time, opened doors for alternative proteins at mass scale. COVID-19 surfaced at a time when alternative protein development was accelerating, creating an opportunity to meaningfully address our food system and the way we produce protein.

The popularity of alternative protein has been growing steadily year after year. The global alternative protein market size is estimated to be between $77 and $153 billion by 2030, up from $5 to $10 billion in 2021. And investors are taking notice: Research from The Good Food Institute shows that the alternative protein industry "raised $3.1 billion in investments in 2020 — three times more than in any single year in the industry's history."

While COVID-19 is not the first pandemic traced back to eating animals, it is the first to coincide with the rise of alternative proteins. For that reason, I believe we will continue to see a trend away from factory farming.

There are countless reasons the world needs to shift to a new food system; COVID-19 is just the latest. Over time, that shift will continue to spark plenty of new, industry-wide trends in food. And that's a good thing — it's time to stop treating the symptom and start tackling the problem.

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