Last year at this time, optimistic trend forecasters predicted that the cork would burst from the bottle by summer. With vaccines in arms, food culture would vibrate in a robust economy. American menus would be full of innovation driven by waves of international travel, and a new generation of digital-native cooks would rewrite the rules.
Clearly, the prediction game can be a losing one. But so what if things didn't turn out like everyone thought they would? Trying to forecast food trends is still fun and sometimes even accurate. (Kudos to those professional prognosticators who in recent years nailed the mainstream rise of quesabirria, soufflé pancakes, delivery-only restaurants and CBD. And a special citation for those who saw early on that those ripples of veganism would become a plant-based tsunami.)
So, how are things looking for 2022? Not great. The year is starting with a surge of a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 that is only adding to the economic uncertainty. Social justice concerns remain top of mind for many, as does pressure from a fast-changing climate. All of it will affect how food is grown, cooked and packaged.
But don't despair.
"Constraint breeds innovation," said Anna Fabrega, a former Amazon executive who recently took over as CEO at the meal subscription service Freshly.
She and other food industry leaders in the United States say 2022 will be another pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of year, shaped by the needs of people working from home and by the culinarily-astute-but-fickle Gen Z, whose members want food with sustainable ingredients and a strong cultural backstory, prepared without exploitation and delivered in a carbon-neutral way — within 30 minutes.
With that in mind, here are some potential developments, big and small, that could define how we eat in the new year, based on a review of dozens of trend reports and interviews with food company executives, global market researchers and others who make it their business to scour the landscape for what's next.
Ingredient of the year
Mushrooms have landed on many prediction lists, in almost every form, from psilocybin mushrooms (part of the renewed interest in psychedelics) to thick coins of king oyster mushrooms as a stand-in for scallops. The number of small urban farms growing mushrooms is expected to bloom, and mushroom fibers will start to proliferate as a cheap, compostable medium for packaging.
Drink of the year
Even in the age of no-alcohol cocktails, all those 1980s drinks you can barely remember (for obvious reasons) are coming back. Look for Blue Lagoons, Tequila Sunrises, Long Island iced tea and amaretto sours re-engineered with fresh juices, less sugar and better spirits.
"We all need things that are sweet and colorful and joyful and playful, especially now," said Andrew Freeman, president of AF & Co., the San Francisco consulting firm that for 14 years has published a popular food and hospitality trend report. (A corollary to the cocktails: the rise of ecospirits, made with ingredients from local farms or food waste and packaged and shipped using climate-friendly methods.)
Meat grown in laboratories from animal cells is on its way to winning federal approval as soon as the end of 2022, and chicken will be one of the first products to become available. But plant-based chicken from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have recently arrived in groceries and restaurants, and the battle is on to determine which substitute will dominate the market.
And in the real-chicken world, a shortage of wings has restaurants trying to persuade the masses to love a different part of the chicken. The Wingstop chain, for instance, has expanded its brand with Thighstop.
Seaweed to the rescue
Kelp grows fast, has a stand-up nutritional profile and removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and nitrogen from the ocean. As a result, farmed kelp will move beyond dashi and the menus at some high-end restaurants and into everyday foods like pasta and salsa.
Nostalgic childhood favorites from China (White Rabbit candy and haw flakes) and South Korea (the honeycomblike treat ppopgi, aka dalgona candy, and Apollo straws) will work their way into American shopping carts and recipes for desserts and drinks.
The third-wave coffee movement was built on arabica, the world's most popular coffee. But climate change is threatening production and driving prices up, said Kara Nielsen, who tracks food and drink trends for WGSN, a consumer forecasting and consulting firm. Enter robusta, the bitter, heavily caffeinated workhorse that is less expensive and easier to cultivate. It is the predominant bean grown in Vietnam, where coffee is made with a metal filter called a phin and sweetened with condensed milk and sometimes an egg yolk.
A new style of Vietnamese coffee shop is popping up in many U.S. cities, promising to take the robusta right along with it.
The quality of edible spoons, chopsticks, plates, bowls and cups is going up and the price is going down, signaling the start of a full-fledged edible-packaging revolution aimed at reducing single-use containers and plastic waste.
Sugar and 'swice'
Mash-ups like "swicy" and "swalty" will join the linguistic mania that brought us unfortunate nicknames like char coot and Cae sal (charcuterie and Caesar salad, that is). The new phraseology reflects an even wider embrace of flavor fusions that marry savory spices and heat with sweetness. Nene, a South Korean-based fried chicken chain that is just starting to move into North America, has even named a sauce swicy. Its flavor profile mirrors what would happen if gochujang and ketchup had a baby.
Flavor of the year
Yuzu has its fans, but the even money is on hibiscus, which is adding its crimson hue and tart, earthy flavor to everything from cocktails and sodas to crudos and yogurt.
A focus on India
With COVID limiting international travel in 2021, U.S. cooks explored regional American food. In 2022, regional foods from India will get a lot of attention, with deep dives into dishes from Gujarat, Kerala, Kashmir, Tamil Nadu and the Awadh area.
Vibe of the year
With the supply chain in tatters and restaurant staffs stretched nearly to the breaking point, demanding shoppers and diners are out, and patience is in. A growing interest in the historical and cultural nature of food and its impact on the climate will only add to what forecasters (optimistically) say will be a new emphasis on kindness and understanding.
As Jennifer Zigler, associate director of food and drink at the research firm Mintel, put it, "We've all gone through this stressful, anxious couple of years, and there's that willingness to have some empathy and understanding."
A buffet of other bites
Beyond the big trends are a long menu of smaller ones: the growing popularity of Koji bacon, the Chinese spirit baijiu and the noodle soup laksa. Jollof rice will appear on menus and in the frozen-foods section. Seeds will muscle in on nuts as an alternative protein source, in products like butters and ice creams. And look for a burst of new interest in animal-free cheese, potato milk, moringa, Taiwanese breakfast dishes, high tea and olives.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.