December 2007

Top Ten Nutrition Trends For 2008
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 9 No. 12 P. 44

When it comes to food and nutrition trends, consumers’ appetites can be about as fickle as a toddler’s. Today’s Dietitian weighs in on the hottest trends of the coming year.

Consumers have come a long way on their quest for food and nutrition enlightenment. While the fires of fad diets such as the low-carb revolution have been all but extinguished, the public is still burning with a desire to better understand how to live a longer, healthier, more beautiful life. Well-researched nutrition articles without a drop of histrionics have become commonplace in magazines. Consumers speed-read nutrition science as they cruise the Internet in their thirst for knowledge. And dietitians are no longer content staying in the shadows; they are becoming stars in a growing glow of nutrition media coverage, from being featured in popular magazines such as Glamour to hosting television shows such as Honey We’re Killing the Kids!

Dietitians will face continual challenges to stay on top of today’s shifting landscape of food and nutrition intrigue. Take a look at Today’s Dietitian’s top 10 nutrition trends and brace yourself for the new year.

1. Getting Personal. In case you haven’t noticed, people are craving a touchy-feely experience. They believe the cookie-cutter approach doesn’t always work. When they frequent Starbucks, they want their latté just the way they like it, half decaf, soy, and all. People tip waiters who get personal and squat beside the table an average of 18% compared with an average of 15% when waiters simply stand there. Personal chefs and trainers are all the rage. Entrepreneur magazine reports that personal chef service is one of the fastest-growing businesses in the country, and according to an IDEA Health & Fitness Association 2007 survey, adult one-on-one personal training continues to be the most popular training format.

With today’s growing mountain of information, people want someone to guide them by creating a customized plan that fits their own unique lifestyle and values. Corporations are catching on quickly, adding terms such as customization and personalization to their business plans—and so should you.

“I think personalization is part of a bigger trend of consumers wanting healthcare to fit their lifestyle, instead of the other way around. A lot of people tell me that when they’ve tried one-size-fits-all plans, there are parts they like that work for them, but others that don’t, so they end up modifying them anyway. But having the ability to sit down one-on-one with an RD and develop a plan together from scratch that takes an individual’s wants and needs into consideration each step of the way is exciting for people. RDs are in a perfect position to help people who want customized plans because our in-depth training and knowledge of nutrition, medical issues, and food uniquely qualify us to assess and counsel an individual with any kind of medical history or lifestyle,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, MA, RD, CSSD, nutrition director for Prevention.

2. Foods That Function. For better or worse, people are starting to look at foods as prescriptions for health. Functional foods, those that encompass a potential health benefit, are perceived as two-for-one deals. Not only can they fill a growling stomach, but they can also help stave off disease. According to data from a recent HealthFocus International survey, consumers are very interested in the health benefits that certain foods may provide. For example, 76% of surveyed shoppers said they want to learn more about cancer-preventing chemicals in fruits, vegetables, and grains, and 73% were interested in folic acid and heart disease.

It’s not lost on the food industry that consumers are becoming more interested in hardworking foods. Food labels are being crowded with information about the various health attributes of foods and ingredients.

According to the January 2007 New Nutrition Business, the upsurge of functional private label foods was identified as a key food and nutrition trend, particularly in areas such as weight management, calorie burning, mood food, digestive health, brain food, fruits, and beauty.

“People are thinking about food as more than basic nutrition. They are looking at food for health benefits. Within the last year, I have noticed more people looking at a few functional foods, specifically fatty fish for the omega-3 fatty acids and oatmeal for soluble fiber. The probiotics in yogurt seem to be getting some interest, as well as dark chocolate,” says Ruth Frechman, MA, RD, a California-based nutrition consultant and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

3. Eating “Green.” It’s cool to be green these days. Celebrities drive hybrid vehicles; magazines emblazoned with the word “organic” in their titles fill bookstore shelves; star chefs sing the praises of local cuisine; and Al Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign against global warming. According to a recent Gallup Poll, 90% of Americans recycle, 83% reduce energy use, 83% use less water, 83% avoid environmentally harmful products, and 73% buy environmentally beneficial products.

It’s beginning to hit home that the choices people make at the dinner table can impact the health of the planet. When the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations announced that livestock production was responsible for more than 18% of greenhouse gas emissions—more damage than transportation does—it became apparent how the food system can take its toll. People have become more aware of local foods that don’t travel across the country to get to the dinner table.

According to the International Food and Information Council Foundation’s “Food Biotechnology: A Study of U.S. Consumer Attitudinal Trends, 2007 Report,” nearly two thirds of those surveyed believe sustainable food production is important when defined as the ability to “operate in a manner which does not jeopardize the availability of resources for future generations.”

“It is my perception that consumers have an increased awareness of where food is coming from and how it impacts the planet,” says Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, a consultant for Environmental Nutrition Solutions, who notes that a growing public interest in local food and food sustainability is likely driving the increased media coverage of the issue. Dietitians must be in tune as well, since the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group membership rose roughly 28% over the past year.

4. CAM Quest. People are pursuing a more meaningful healthcare experience—from a renewed interest in wellness to live a longer, healthier life to a search for holistic health treatments that consider the entire being. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine reports that 36% of U.S. adults aged 18 and older use some form of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). And it’s not only the public who has an appetite for CAM—health professionals, healthcare facilities, and researchers are flocking to it as well.

What’s the hook? CAM is more about staying healthy than treating illness. It brings all factors of health and wellness to the table, including psychosocial and spiritual experience. There’s no doubt that dietitians have a place in this picture. The Nutrition in Complementary Care Dietetic Practice Group has a membership of 2,500 health practitioners.

Duke Integrative Medicine’s new facility is a perfect example of what draws both practitioners and patients to a blend of conventional and complementary therapies. Massage therapy for cancer patients, acupuncture to complement infertility treatments, botanical programs for wellness, and spalike surroundings are just a few of the offerings available. Since studies are pointing out that incorporating CAM into medical treatment can significantly help people heal, Duke Integrative Medicine believes that the integrative trend in medicine is a much-needed revolution.

“Alternative and complementary care is a growing nutrition trend for consumers and health professionals. Many consumers are trying to take their health more into their own hands and trying to be more proactive in their approach,” says Lynn Goldstein, MS, RD, CDN, HHC, a holistic health counselor in New York. “It seems that many people are getting more and more wary of healthcare in this country and seeing how expensive not only care from medical doctors but medications are becoming. Many people are turning to alternative therapies to help heal what ails them. Often in my practice, I get calls from people who want to first handle whatever problems they are dealing with through diet and supplements rather than pharmaceuticals. [Dietitians] like myself are getting involved because we are forced to learn more and more about supplements and using foods as medicine because consumers are asking for it.”

5. Food—Fast and Easy. It seems like people are forever in a spirited race with the clock. As they rush in their morning commute and shuttle kids to soccer practice, people are searching for new ways to eat on the run. More than one half of the meals purchased at the country’s 935,000 restaurants are eaten at home, at the office, or in the car. It’s no wonder that Yoplait Go-GURT was the most popular yogurt product ever released and an increasing number of products have been designed to fit into car cupholders—from soups and cereals to candy and snacks.

Convenience is so important to consumers that it has been identified as a megatrend by the food industry. Time-saving food products and quick fixes are important to 82% of U.S. consumers, driving prepared meal consumption to double over a 10-year period, with a forecast of sales in the $40 billion range by 2009. There seems to be no end in sight for convenience foods, so maybe dietitians can hitch a ride on this trend and become more convenient to consumers themselves.

“I think dietitians becoming more convenient is a huge issue. Many supermarkets are hiring dietitians, and some are even planning one per store. I’d love to see more dietitians working in places where people interact with food and make choices. Some restaurant chains are also bringing dietitians on board,” says Sass. “Many TV markets now have weekly nutrition segments featuring dietitians and newspaper columns written by dietitians. We know that people eat what’s available, so dietitians working on policy issues is key—in schools, communities, businesses, etc. The more involved we are in every type of industry that provides food to people, the more impact we can have on working with trends.”

6. The Slow Crawl to Whole Foods. A movement toward eating less processed and more natural, whole foods is slinking its way to the forefront. Slow Food, an international nonprofit organization with a mission of motivating people to come back to kitchens and tables and celebrate regional, seasonal culinary traditions, is growing in membership. Slow Food events are popping up all over the country, such as the Slow Food Pittsburgh Harvest Moon Dinner, which celebrated local, seasonal fruits, vegetables, and meats. Benchmark Hospitality’s Top Five Dining Trends for 2007 included naturally grown, local foods. National Grocer reported that natural foods are the fastest-growing product area in the supermarket today. Whole Foods Market is expected to see a 15% to 20% growth in sales in 2007. The number of farmers’ markets is up more than 18% from 2005 to 2006. The trend of a slower food supply is picking up speed.

Although Americans still have a long way to go when it comes to eating enough whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, the simmering interest in a more natural food supply is encouraging. “I am seeing an increase in the number of public pieces on local, whole, and natural foods. There are grocery stores that are dedicating a certain area of the store to natural and organic foods. I suppose the grocery stores are responding to customer demands. They are employing dietitians in many stores and connecting the dietitian to the natural food section of the store,” says Tagtow.

7. Exotic Destinations. Ethnic food is so beloved in our culture that it’s become mainstream. What was once eclectic and exciting is now part of American comfort food. Just look at pizza, spaghetti, tacos, and chow mein for proof. Exotic foods are becoming available in a growing array of venues—from mainstream grocery stores and fast-food spots to fine dining. And American palates are growing more sophisticated, diverging into microethnic cuisine, which celebrates foods from particular geographic regions within a country or continent. Benchmark Hospitality’s Top Five Dining Trends for 2007 includes a push for Latin food, and we’re not talking burritos. The flavors of Spain, Portugal, the Caribbean, Ecuador, Honduras, Argentina, and Cuba are on the hot list.

Riding on this wave is a new interest in how cultural eating traditions can offer health benefits. Just take a look at the popularity of the traditional Mediterranean diet among health experts and researchers. Particular ethnic ingredients—from Indian spices to South American grains—have also been the subject of health focus.

“There are more and more studies coming out every year on the positive benefits of the Mediterranean diet. Consumers like the Mediterranean diet; it’s very delicious and not hard to do,” says Nicki Heverling, MS, RD, program director for Med Mark, a new program created by Oldways that is designed to help shoppers quickly identify healthful Mediterranean foods at supermarkets.

8. On the Lookout for Killer Food. High-profile food scares over issues such as tainted spinach and pet food have made an impact on consumers. To fan the fire, television shows such as Kitchen Nightmares take consumers on a behind-the-scenes visit to see just how revolting restaurant walk-ins and pest problems can be.

And the food fear factors keep on coming—from the potential threat of bioterrorism to mad cow disease. Even the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 addressed food safety for the first time ever. The bottom line: Consumers are growing more concerned about the safety of their food supply. The Food Marketing Institute Consumer Trends 2007 survey found that safety concerns prompted 38% of consumers to stop purchasing certain foods in the past 12 months—up from 9% in 2006.

“There is an increase in public concern over food safety stemming from contamination issues we’re seeing, such as the recent spinach recall and issues regarding imports from China. Consumers are concerned about where their food is coming from,” says Tagtow.

“There is more interest in food safety and more focus on health grades in restaurants. Dietitians need to include this information in their practice, especially when working with immune-compromised individuals,” adds Liz Friedrich, MPH, RD, LDN, a nutrition consultant in North Carolina.

9. Making Your Own Nutrition Fate. Thanks to the Information Age, more people are making their own decisions about health and nutrition. It’s not unusual to see a patient walk into a dietitian’s office with Internet printouts in hand. One half of the people who have used the Internet to obtain health and medical information say the information has improved the way they take care of themselves, according to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Many of the respondents also reported that online information has directly affected their decisions about how to treat illness and deal with their doctors. The Pew report, “The Online Healthcare Revolution: How the Web helps Americans take better care of themselves,” found that 52 million American adults have sought health and medical information on the Web, and a majority of them go online at least once per month for health information. Such people have been labeled health seekers.

“I think many consumers are reading more and using the Internet, which can be both a blessing and a curse. There is a lot of information on the Web and in magazines about different foods and supplements to help heal what ails. Some of the information out there is wonderful and completely valid, but much is not and that can be very dangerous,” says Goldstein. “When people start taking all sorts of supplements that they have not thoroughly researched, they can get themselves into trouble. Oftentimes, people try to use diet and supplements to fix problems that really need to be addressed by a medical doctor, and in doing so, they often get sicker. [Dietitians] need to be up on the research and be sure to have answers for their clients.”

10. Weight Loss That Makes Sense. It seems that the glory days of fad diets may be fading. Though you’ll still hear rumblings about a crazy diet here and there—Master Cleanse Diet, anyone?—it’s a whisper compared with the roar of diets that tempted Americans in past years.

Dietitians are sensing a new awareness of healthy eating on the horizon. According to a recent council survey, 33% of Americans are currently on a diet—the highest number of dieters in the past 15 years. But the Calorie Control Council predicts a more health-conscious trend in weight loss, with changes such as better portion control, simple substitutions in meals and snacks, and more access to corporate wellness programs. Seventy-two percent of U.S. companies are now offering programs to help employees lose weight and live healthier lifestyles.

A trend that finds consumers more interested in healthful weight loss is one that dietitians can celebrate and be part of. “I have seen the public become disillusioned with the high-protein diets over the last two years. I see more people realizing that fad diets and diets in general don’t work. Many of my clients tell me that they don’t want a diet. They want to learn how to live a healthy lifestyle,” says Frechman.

“People are frustrated with fad diets. They are more interested in holistic eating,” adds Heverling.

When you ponder today’s emerging food and nutrition trends, it looks like one thing’s for sure: Nutrition professionals are going to have a busy year ahead of them.

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.