How COVID-19 Has Accelerated Food and Drink Trends

Social distancing measures and economic shutdowns have created new habits and attitudes, amending and accelerating global food and drink trends. The number of infections, deaths and job losses have heightened concerns for human welfare, which will make ethical human claims a focus. Interest in buying local and sustainable food will likely hasten the acceptance of agricultural and scientific innovations. Finally, as the threat of the virus subsides, people may seek to protect themselves with hyper-individualised approaches to physical and mental health.


COVID-19 has inspired reflection on spending habits, as well as ethical consumer choices. Therefore, conspicuous consumption habits may fall decline, whilst instead shoppers look to adopt “conscious consumption”, as coined by Mintel, which supports ethical and environmentally friendly brands. However, many sustainable and responsible brands carry premium prices, which presents problems in the UK where unemployment set to peak at 7.7% in April to June of this year. In order to take advantage of conscious consumption, food and drink retailers must make sustainable and responsible products affordable to consumers of all incomes.


In a similar vein, according to Mintel, as a result of shortages and price hikes, consumers have adopted “less but better” eating patterns. People are consuming dairy, meat, poultry and other animal products less and trading them for plant-based protein, such as beans and legumes. Public sector caterers in the UK are set to cut meat usage by 20% year on year. However, when buyers choose animal products, they now tend to trade-up to more nutritious options or items that have ethical or environmental claims, as suggested by Mintel’s consumer research. More mindful consumption of animal products is a step toward sustainable, or planet-friendly, diets.


COVID-19 has accelerated acceptance of the use of science and technology in food production. Economic lockdowns compromised the abundant access to affordable, safe and nutritious food and drink that many shoppers expect. For example, COVID-19 outbreaks at several American slaughterhouses have cut pork supplies by 25%. Food and drink manufacturers must therefore invest in innovative methods to grow and make food, drink and ingredients which bypass the global supply chain and consequently reduce the vulnerability of dependence on such a vast network. Locality will be a key advantage moving forward, as a more robust local food supply will also increase equitable food access and potentially reduce prices.


Technology in food production could be used to implement automation to help secure a safer supply chain. The need to guarantee safe and clean working conditions may inspire more companies to explore how automation could be used in their operations. Automated technology also could make facilities less susceptible to staff shortages, as well as creating a more resilient, safer, and cheaper food supply. However, COVID-19 has meant that people are more interested in worker welfare, with 94% of employers having introduced measures to support staff wellbeing since the outbreak, according to research by recruitment firm Wade Macdonald and law firm Doyle Clayton. Therefore, companies should reinvest in their workforces, by training employees to complement robots or educating people to move into other roles.


Another feature of the pandemic has been the need to stay healthy and a new urgency for people to look for ways to improve their wellbeing. This is especially true for people who are at risk of the diet and lifestyle-related health issues that can exacerbate COVID-19 cases. Because more people are now comfortable using technology, after having come to rely on the internet and smart devices for daily life, it can be used as a conduit to improve their physical and mental well-being. Services that can offer convenient and effective ways to improve diets, exercise regimens and mental wellbeing will most likely find large and ready audiences.


Health needs to be accessible to everyone, especially now with the motivation from the pandemic to improve people’s health immediately to prevent severe health problems. This has made making affordability a necessity. Using food as medicine is a goal of US grocer Kroger’s pilot program to help patients with diabetes. A physician writes a “nutrition prescription” for a patient. The patient then consults and shops with Kroger’s in-store dietitian who aims to help change their diets in line with current habits and spending constraints.


Ethically, people will be looking to companies to communicate how they are invested in the welfare of people and the health of the planet while industrially, the illumination of the intricacies of the global food supply chain will hasten consumer acceptance of food science and technology. And lastly, the hyper-individualised approaches to health will potentially benefit from the reliance on technology during the pandemic, with more people willing to turn to technology to get personalised insights on how to follow nutritious diets. This could result in reductions in meat consumption and also more of a focus on where food comes from and how it is produced.


By Samuel Hughes-Penney

Sector Head: Gregor MacDonald