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The popularity of plant-based diets, which typically include a lot of legumes, should continue to grow in 2021.Janine Lamontagne/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

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The COVID-19 pandemic shifted our eating, drinking, cooking and shopping habits, and it made us focus more on our personal health.

We relearned how to cook, shared meals with family and gained a new understanding of how what we eat and drink can support physical and mental health – all positive effects that will shape food trends for the year ahead.

Here’s a peek at what 2021 holds in store.

Functional foods on the rise

With health at the forefront, people will continue to seek out functional foods that deliver a specific health benefit beyond their basic nutrition.

Expect to see more foods and beverages with functional ingredients – mushrooms, vitamin C, herbal extracts, probiotics, postbiotics – that support the immune system, soothe stress and calm the mind.

One example: PepsiCo’s Driftwell, an enhanced water beverage “designed to help you relax and unwind.” Launching in U.S. stores, the functional drink contains L-theanine, an amino acid that research indicates reduces anxiety and promotes relaxation.

Plant-based options will expand

In 2020, sales of plant-based “meats” boomed in Canada and worldwide. With consumer concerns over health, the environment and animal welfare, there’s no reason to expect the demand will slow.

According to the International Food Information Council’s 2020 year-end survey, “plant-based” topped the list of diets consumers had heard most about in the past year, ranking ahead of ketogenic and Mediterranean diets.

Plant-based eating means choosing proportionately more of your foods from fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils, soy, whole grains and nuts and seeds; it doesn’t have to mean never eating meat or dairy.

Expect to see a greater selection of plant-based foods including chicken, fish and egg alternatives, as well as new kinds of nut “milks.” Chickpeas are anticipated to trend this year, turning up in foods such as flours, cereals and tofu.

Climate-friendly meals on menus

Food production is among the leading sources of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. It also contributes to biodiversity loss, land degradation, water use and chemical pollution.

According to 2020 research from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, one-half of consumers are willing to choose more sustainable foods if they have access to information about their diet’s environmental impact.

Such actionable information is now appearing on foodservice menus. This past fall, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, Panera Bread launched labelling of “Cool Food Meals” on its menus across the United States. The badge identifies items with a lower carbon footprint, calculated by the WRI.

In October, Chipotle Mexican Grill introduced “Real Footprint” to its U.S. menus, a sustainability-impact tracker. The company is working on expanding the offering into Canada.

The Cool Food Pledge, a program developed by the WRI, is a movement of restaurants, hotels, hospitals, universities and city governments that have committed to reduce the climate impact of foods they serve. So far, 40 organizations from around the world are members; the City of Toronto is currently the only Canada-based member.

Appreciation for family meals

The pandemic has resulted in sharing more family meals, often three a day, a habit that’s associated with emotional and nutritional benefits.

A 2020 survey from the U.S. based Food Marketing Institute found that among people who had been eating more in-person meals, 71 per cent reported feeling more connected to their family than before the pandemic.

Four out of 10 also said the meals they eat as a family are healthier than the ones eaten when alone. Previous studies have found that children who regularly eat family dinners consume more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods.

FMI research suggests that a majority of consumers plan to continue eating family meals often when the pandemic ends. As pointed out in the 2021 trend report from Canada’s Nourish Food Marketing, in order to continue this family custom, it will be important to keep meal prep easy and meals interesting and fun.

The Nourish report predicts that grocery stores and foodservices will have a role to play, perhaps by offering customizable meals to accommodate for different food preferences among family members, in addition to meal options that families can prepare together.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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