A year ago, almost nobody could have imagined how dramatically everyone’s life would change in 2020. What we eat, how we purchase it, and how we prepare and eat it are among the most far-reaching impacts we have seen because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the 2020 Food & Health Survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), 85 percent of Americans said they had experienced at least some change in their eating or food preparation habits because of COVID-19, and they don’t anticipate that effect to fade much in 2021.
“COVID-19 has upended virtually every aspect of our daily lives,” said Joseph Clayton, IFIC’s chief executive officer. “While new vaccines and treatments will hopefully help turn the tide, IFIC’s survey data suggest that some of the changes we’ve undergone are proving durable, even many months later. Drawing on IFIC’s expertise in nutrition, food safety, and consumer attitudes and behaviors, we believe the pandemic will continue to be the dominant force behind a wide array of food trends in the coming year.”
IFIC surveys historically have shown little variation in consumers’ biggest concerns about food safety, with foodborne illness from bacteria topping the list almost every year. But that changed dramatically in 2020, when the risk to food handling and preparation related to COVID-19 was ranked the top food safety concern by more Americans than any other issue (24 percent), outpacing foodborne illness from bacteria (20 percent).
Despite there being no evidence of transmission of COVID-19 from food or food packaging, food safety will likely continue to be top-of-mind in 2021, given the findings of the recent IFIC surveys. A September 2020 IFIC survey revealed that about half (49 percent) of Americans were concerned about the safety of food prepared at home. The same survey showed that coronavirus exposure and food contamination remain among the most common food safety worries. More recently, 39 percent of respondents in the 2020 Year-End Survey said the risk of COVID-19 when shopping for food or dining out was their top food-related concern
In 2021, it’s anticipated that this trend will be reflected in technologies and innovations. For example, restaurant customers can expect experiences that minimize face-to-face interaction, such as robotic or automated food handling. Food take-out will also offer more and more contactless options. Home food-delivery apps and services will make greater use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to meet customer needs and expectations around food safety, a trend that is already spreading across the broader food system.
According to IFIC’s 2020 Year-End Survey, when Americans were asked how their cooking habits had changed over the past year, 36 percent reported cooking more simple foods, ranking ahead of trying new recipes (30 percent) or new cooking techniques (19 percent). At a more concerning level, nearly three in 10 (28 percent) said they are worried about being able to afford food for their household in 2021.
In the new year, consumers can expect to see simpler, more “semi-homemade” meals that incorporate affordable options like canned or frozen foods, along with convenient staples such as rice and pasta that can be quickly assembled for a well-balanced and budget-conscious meal.
How often do you snack? For many Americans, the answer seems to be “more and more.” The 2020 Food & Health Survey, conducted in April, reported that one-quarter of Americans (26 percent) snacked multiple times a day, which was unchanged from 2019. By August 2020, that number had increased to over one-third (36 percent).
In addition, 33 percent said they’re snacking more often when they’re bored or not hungry, and 32 percent are more often eating snacks alone—all possible indicators of the personal and professional lifestyle shifts many have undergone as a result of COVID-19. Some Americans reported more positive snacking trends, with 30 percent saying they have been eating healthy snacks or snacking on fruits and vegetables more often since the pandemic began. In 2021, since nearly four in 10 report replacing meals with snacks, expect to see more substantial snacks (think protein, healthy fats and whole grains) serving as meal replacements.
The mission of International Food Information Council, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, is to effectively communicate science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety. IFIC is supported primarily by the broad-based food, beverage and agricultural industries. For more information, visit https://ific.org/.