Kara Nielsen, Food Trend Watcher

It’s that time of year again. Not just for turkey and relentless Lexus commercials, but for self-styled experts to string together lists of the foods we’ll be eating (or talking about eating) next year. But where do these trends come from, and why should we believe that, come January, we’ll all feel a sudden urge to eat hand-pulled noodles or suck down grilled cheese–infused vodka?

If anyone knows, it’s Kara Nielsen. For over five years, Nielsen has had the title “trendologist” at the Center for Culinary Development, a San Francisco food and beverage product development company. As her title implies, food trends are her meat and potatoes—pretty much literally.

Where do food trend lists come from?

A lot of it is coming from market research companies that have access to global new-product introduction data and can see certain things going on. They can look at it from an analytical point of view and make an educated guess of what’s going to come here. I tend to look more at the buzz the media is providing and then I match it with where I see consumer behavior going … you just sort of feel the temperature. [The end of the year] is just sort of an arbitrary time frame.

Do trend lists themselves sometimes seem arbitrary to you?

I always find it interesting what people are calling trends, and try to match it up with what I see. Like with mini-desserts: We’ve been talking about them for a long time, but what is it about minis again, and why do we crave them? What’s pushing the mini trend of 2011 versus the mini trend of 2009? What’s new here this time? Sometimes it’s portion control; this time it seems more about price points.

How do trends usually play out after the end-of-year lists fade from memory?

Look at cupcakes: It’s a trend, but where, and for whom? They started in the late 1990s with Magnolia Bakery, but moms never stopped making cupcakes, and cupcake liners were never not in the grocery store. I even think of the cupcake trend as not the cupcake trend but the specialty bakery trend. If you follow them up the trend map, basically they’re not new anymore, and they ceased to be a trend in the sense of moving—they have arrived, part of our pantry or vernacular. On the other hand, there are fads like low carb, where the industry made low-carb foods that weren’t satisfying and didn’t sell and were too expensive and disappeared. Things that disappear too quickly go down in the record book as fads.

On the topic of cupcakes, will they ever go away? And what’s your answer to the eternal question of what will be the next cupcake?

I do think people will tire of them a bit, but nothing is sitting on the top of my head right now as the thing that’s going to take over for the cupcake. I will say, I'm getting tired of talking about these Americana desserts with marshmallows and peanut butter. The real key is trying to understand what’s driving a trend, which we don’t hear as much about as "This is a trend." Food trends typically need to meet a consumer need in some way for them to become in demand. It’s a really basic thought, but when you look at an item and think, "What need is this filling?"—that’s when it gets interesting.

Like what, for example?

One food item we’ve been seeing that’s really gone beyond the food world is Sriracha, which is filling the need for heat, which is more and more beloved these days.. It started out as an insider condiment that restaurant chefs would have for staff meals, or that appeared at ethnic restaurants—very often trends start in indie and ethnic restaurants. Chefs or food lovers go to global-cuisine restaurants, fall in love, and bring it out and into a new space bit by bit. If something is good and meets a need, it catches on.

Image source: The Center for Culinary Development