Food futurologist Dr. Morgaine Gaye on how she forecasts grocery-store trends

Food futurologist Dr. Morgaine Gaye on how she forecasts grocery-store trends

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

As a food futurologist, Dr. Morgaine Gaye forecasts trends in the food industry. It’s a bit of a complex concept to explain—if we like bacon now, isn’t that what’s hot?—but Gaye uses market research, scientific studies, consumer behavior, and cultural theory to help global food brands predict what’ll be popular next year, the year after, and for years to come. As Gaye puts it on her website, she helps explore “future food trends, why we eat what we eat, believe what we believe, and what the future of food looks like.” In other words, she knows why sriracha potato chips are all the rage all the sudden. The A.V. Club talked to her about that, as well as about how a mass-marketed food product goes from concept to market.

The A.V. Club: What does a food futurologist do?

Dr. Morgaine Gaye: I look at global trends in architecture, design, fashion, what’s happening geo-politically, economically, ecologically, and pull all those things together and try to create what I would call macro- and micro-trends. So I don’t say, “Ooh, cupcakes” or, “Cronuts, they’re going to be big,” necessarily. I look at the why. For me the why is much more important, because if I’m speaking to a whiskey brand, they’re not particularly interested in the fact that cronuts might be big. But they’re interested in the macro-trend. So what’s the cronuts thing really about? A big macro-trend is texture, and maybe also something around how scarcity makes a product more popular. Those are two macro-trends that I could talk to any company about and go into details about global indicators in the news and in all walks of media, fashion, behavior, architecture, whatever, that indicate to me that’s going to be a trend.

AVC: Who have you worked for?

MG: My clients tend to be the big, multinational food companies, like Pepsi, Tropicana, Cadbury, Mondelez, Kraft, Kellogg’s, Post, General Mills. I mean, you name it. All of the biggies.

AVC: You’re based in the U.K., but you’re in New York right now. Are food trends global?

MG: It’s so difficult, because when it comes to food, each culture is very different. I can generalize, but there are some things that bubble up from Japan, and lots of things coming from Northern Europe, such as Amsterdam or Sweden. Then, of course, the coasts, California, New York, and London. I would look to those as indicators of really forward-thinking cultures and areas, as opposed to countries, really. I think when you start to talk about countries, it’s very difficult. Arkansas may not be the same as L.A.

AVC: Bacon was a really big thing in the U.S. starting in 2009, let’s say. Can you talk about how that played out? That went from small brand to big brand, and now it’s in mass-market candy bars and chips.

MG: Well, for me, actually there’s a second wave of that coming right now, which is looking into salamis. So it’s actually not over because we’re getting very interested in the pig. That was the bacon, but now we’re getting interested in the whole pig. That’s connected to a macro-trend I call “back to the ranch.” What we’re looking at in that trend is something around the urban cowboy, or around the idea of wildness. You might start seeing that in fashion, where you see a lot of fringe. That’s kind of an indicator. There are people wearing cowboy-esque clothing, possibly the hats, possibly the checked shirts, maybe the cowboy boots. Those sorts of things are becoming more and more apparent on the catwalks, so it’s becoming not just something one hipster might do, but a bit more of a general thing.

So there are the very interesting salamis with unusual flavors. And all around the pig there’s loads of different things coming in. There’s been a few pork scratch-ins over the years. And now there’s cock scratch-ins that have come around. That’s chicken to you and me.

There’s something around this idea of urban cowboy. Actually a great indicator was the film with Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club. Lots of things start pointing to cowboy things or to eating outdoors and wild cooking. It’s sort of ranching or that sort of sense of a bit more wildness.

So the pig is coming back, really. And it’s not just bacon. The bacon bit was a little bit contrived, whereas this is a bit more wild. It’s a bit more artisan, cut up on a board. You feel like you might be in Italy or the Outback or whatever. So that’s the second wave of the bacon thing.

For me it’s very hard to talk retrospectively. I can speak about food history from the 18th century or the ’70s or the turns of big trends, but one micro thing like that is quite difficult because I have to go back too far. I’m writing up 2016 now.

AVC: So we’re going through salami now, or is salami on the horizon?

MG: It’s early adopters. It’s coming in. It’s going to get bigger.

AVC: It sounds like it could have something to do with authenticity as well, which is a trend that’s been happening in music as well with bands like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers.

MG: Authenticity or transparency is one of the other things I talk about, especially around food. It’s a lack of trust in the government, it’s a lack of trust in the food-chain suppliers. There’s been food scares, like the horsemeat scandal in Europe, and some big scandals in the media and in religion. We’ve basically had about 10 of our most beloved celebrities up for child pornography and rape. It’s really been a big thing. You find out that someone’s a pedophile and you think, “Wow, that just rocked my whole childhood.” We don’t really trust anything, and that’s coming through in the food. There’s an authenticity, but that’s going to play out in many ways: with transparency, with clear foods, with packaging, with misshapen fruits and vegetables. It’s going to come out in lots of different ways, I think.

AVC: Do faux flavors come into play as well? Like if a lab figures out how to make something taste like bacon, does that get blasted into the market?

MG: Oh gosh, yeah. Absolutely. Food brands care about profits. Whatever the trend is, they’ll go with it. If it’s health, then they’ll go healthy. It’s not because they really do care. They want to seem to care because that’s the trend. It’s the same with flavors. They’re looking for the next trend, the next wave, the next thing they can sell.

It’s exactly like fashion, you know. Flares are in, then we’re looking for drainpipes, then we’re looking for ra-ra skirts; we’re looking for the next thing. Flavors are exactly the same. The people that work in flavorist departments, they’re also looking for those new combinations of things.

I’ve seen it a lot with the rice. There’s a big international rice brand, and they’re always looking. Every year they’re going, “Well, the mango one’s down, but the sage one is doing really well.” They’re always adding the new flavor to increase sales. It just goes in and out of season.

That’s what we are like, though. We are so trend driven in the countries I talked about. Especially in the U.K., actually. But we’re also very disloyal to our culture. We’re always looking for the latest thing. We’re fickle. We’re changing all the time.

AVC: Do you think there are some products—like red velvet M&M’s, for instance—that are meant to just be out there on a limited basis? Like Mars wants consumers to buy them once, try them, and then walk away?

MG: Eight out of 10 products either never get to market or fail very quickly. Three months, six months, and they’re off the shelves. That’s why companies keep developing, because ultimately, something will stick, something will be a lifelong favorite of people. They have to take those risks. There’s a big surge at the beginning because everyone says, “I must try that.” Then there’s a lull, and companies watch a product. If it declines, then they have to pull it. They always have a target and a cutoff so you know when to pull it. But when they pick those trends, it’s not out of a hat. It’s really analyzed.

AVC: What trends are coming in 2014 or 2015 that we can already identify?

MG: One of the things that I talked about for 2015 was volume. When I write about a trend I give it a context, so the context around volume is that people are tired of being smaller, less space, thinner, less. It’s almost like everyone is like, “I’ve had enough of that. I’ve had enough of no calories.” It’s about adding it in. It’s about volume. It’s about being bigger. It’s about taking up space. We’re seeing it coming through now in the massive big sleeves on the fashion catwalk or the huge garments. Big coats are starting to show that. So we’re going to see more and more volume. That leads into things with bubbles and inflated foods. Inflated buildings as well. Oddly, my apartment in New York is in an inflated building. So that’s a great indicator that there will be more of that sort of thing. It’s about air, about putting air into things. It’s still a really unexplored area in food. We’ve got the bubble tea, but that’s not really air, although we can whip things in. Air is what creates so many things. It helps things to rise through yeast. It creates texture.

For example, volume will be something where products will go because it will enable people to eat a lot or eat a big volume, but it will be a lot of air. There will be new mouthfeels around that. There will be new possibilities that haven’t fully been explored yet with putting air into things. So that would be an example of something for 2015 that you’ll see more of. Taking up a lot of space. Being big. Bigger, big things. But with bubbles. With volume, it’s not about something dense, like a massive french fry. It’s more like a big, whipped-type thing, like a coat that looks like a meringue.

AVC: It should be interesting to see that play out in the potato-chip industry.

MG: I’ve actually seen that already. The potato-chip industry has just developed a potato chip made from egg whites. So, when you make a meringue, as you imagine, you whip up the egg white and then you add sugar. Then of course it grows when you cook it. They’ve done an egg white, but a savory version, and created a potato chip from that. I don’t know if that’s on the market yet, but it’s out there.

AVC: On your blog you talk about seaweed as a trend. Can you talk a little about that?

MG: Seaweed is super interesting. If there were one thing I would put my money on in the next five years, it would be seaweed. We haven’t even seen the beginning of that yet. I mean, in the U.S. you’re further ahead with the seaweed snacks like the $1.99 ones from Trader Joe’s or whatever. That’s already quite big in the U.S. on the coasts. But I’ve just seen some incredible products developed on seaweed. One guy got so much crowdfunding—I mean, millions—to develop a seaweed chip, which is incredible. Seaweed is also a sustainable source of incredible nutrients, and it’s free, pretty much. Around the coasts of the U.K., we have over 70 different species, and there’s a lot of Chinese and Korean farmers trying to buy out some of that sea space, because our waters aren’t polluted. It’s a big commodity, and it will become bigger because it’s got iodine, it’s got loads of nutraceuticals, and they’re going to be using it in beauty products much more often. It’s got a multitude of benefits, which hits lots of targets, such as sustainability, health, diet, and cost. It’s not an expensive thing. It’s just really banging on every single trend. And there’s so much we can do with it. We haven’t fully explored it. It can be made into a gel, so we can usually make our own caviar from that, for example. There are just a million things. It’s incredible.

AVC: What’s your least favorite trend?

MG: I don’t have any kind of preference. For me it’s just information that I collate, then get lots of images to try and see how it will play out. I would love to be able to show it better than I do. I would love to be able to have somebody who could make films, so I can really convey the feeling. We have big mood boards of images, because that’s one of the ways we can convey the feeling of that trend, like in the fashion business. But it would be great to make more videos to convey that feeling.

AVC: Let’s say you’re talking to Post Foods about 2015 cereal trends, and you say, “Okay, puffy stuff.” How long does it take a company to develop, test, and get a product onto the market?

MG: Eighteen months minimum, three years at most. That’s why I need to be ahead, so I’m always releasing trends 18 months ahead. It takes the bigger companies a long, long time. It’s basically like turning around an oil tanker. The smaller companies are much more responsive, which is why we tend to see those early trends coming into the small companies. It’s maybe why M&M’s started doing the red velvet M&M’s, because it’s being done by the small bakeries for a few number of years already. Everyone’s had a red velvet cupcake. They’ll have noticed that, and it will be years before they can actually get a product to market. They have to really back a good horse. By the time they get something like red velvet M&M’s to market, the majority, not everyone, but the majority of people will have had something along those lines. They’ll be familiar with it. It’s like the salted caramel epidemic. First it was made by these little artisan chocolate makers, and before you know it, everything is salted caramel. If the big ones are taking it up, we see that it’s got some longevity, generally. 

AVC: Is there a danger of a trend dying before a product comes out? Can the public get too sick of salted caramel?

MG: Yes and no. The thing is, they have to take a punt, but it’s not a risk. They do a lot of research before they make that decision to make some factory part that’s going to make that product. Usually it’s got some longevity or is a familiar thing. People don’t go, “Wow, red velvet. What’s that?” People go, “Oh, I like red velvet, and they’ve got M&M’s, cool.” A company would rather have that response than have it be a real shocker. If they did green tea M&M’s, it would be unusual and it would be really interesting, but it wouldn’t fly. There hasn’t been a precursor to that in other products so that people would be like, “Oh, I like it when it’s in cakes, so I’m sure I’m going to love it in M&M’s.”

Still, the novelty of red velvet M&M’s is that we’ve had red velvet and we’ve had M&M’s, but we haven’t had them together. It’s about combining the two things we know and love, and then that’s when the brands get it right. A great example of that would be Dunkin’ Donuts. Customers say, “I love the donuts and the cupcakes at Dunkin’ Donuts, but I wish they were gluten-free,” and then ta-da! They’ve gone on the gluten-free trend. They’re seeing that it’s getting more shelf space in supermarkets, and they’ve thought, “Wait, is it just a fad? Or is it something that’s going to grow?” And then when they see it’s growing, they know they need to go there.

AVC: With a company like M&M’s, there’s so much going into launching a product like Giant M&M’s, for instance. They have to get engineers to manufacture the molds for the candy, and then they have to lock those into their machines and figure out what machines they have that can handle the production, and so on.

MG: It’s massive. It’s absolutely huge. And they do lots of consumer testing, and you know what? They don’t always get it right. I was involved with a project very recently with a very famous chocolate brand. And they didn’t get it right. They had years and years, and it was the first product they’d launched in a very long time, and they really didn’t get it right. It’s quite something.

The sad thing about a lot of the food companies is that the people that make the final decisions are the ones in the suits pushing the money around. No matter how great the research development is, how creative the teams are, the flavorist, everybody else. When push comes to shove, the top guy makes the decisions. And sometimes he doesn’t know that much about food or the market or the consumer or mouthfeel or perception or branding. That’s when they bring me in. Sometimes I try to help them get it right. I don’t get brought in when everything’s flying fabulous and it’s all good. I usually get brought in when there’s a lull or there’s a bit of difficulty, or a company really needs to reevaluate its strategy. It’s usually when there’s a turning point or a new position that they need to take. 

Filed Under: AUX, Dr. Morgaine Gaye

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