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Food culture trends bode well for produce industry

June Jo Lee, a self-described ethnographer, told a crowd at the United Fresh Produce Association convention that "food culture" is the basis for all food trends, and the future looks bright for fresh produce.

In fact, she said that most of the important trends have increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables as their major component. Before delving into those trends, Lee explained the kind of work she does and how it relates to the industry.

As a vice president of strategic insights for The Hartman Group, she interviews consumers about their feelings for food. She also goes to their homes and watches them plan and cook meals, and explores their pantry. This in depth knowledge allows her to opine on how food and eating is evolving in the United States.

Lee said that the biggest change affecting food purchases and consumption in the United States is that there has been a shift from a cooking culture to an eating culture.

In a cooking culture, only the preparer of meals is involved with the food that the family eats. In an eating culture, everyone gets involved.

She said everyone is participating, with talking about food quickly becoming a favorite pastime of a large percentage of the population. In fact, when visiting homes Lee finds that consumers either have a sports channel or a Food Network channel playing the background.

As this shift has occurred, Americans have also "outsourced" the preparation of that food. A full 77 percent of all home-eating occasions in the United States involve food that was brought prepared in one fashion or another. Only 23 percent can be called cooking from scratch. Typically those types of meals involve a couple eating together or dinner parties.

Family dining increasingly includes at least a portion of the meal being bought in a prepared state. She said "cooking" often involves "assembling components" rather than preparing the dinner ingredients from scratch.

Lee explained that this is one reason Americans have a love affair with Trader Joe's, which exemplifies that type of food preparation process.  

Another factor in this process is the modern American's aversion to meal planning. It is also considered the biggest impediment to online grocery shopping. To shop online consumers need to plan their meals in advance and most just don't want to do that.

In 62 percent of the eating occasions, the decision of what to eat has been made within the hour of the meal. One in 10 cooked meals is consumed within an hour of purchasing the ingredients.

Americans are also eating more throughout the day and are spreading their calories among more meals. Lee said after-dinner snacking has dramatically increased and before-breakfast snacking is also on the rise.

Among the most important food trend is a much greater concern of what we put in our bodies, she said. Whether it is interest in gluten-free, probiotics for digestions, smoothies or a vegan diet, Americans are playing closer attention to what they eat.

Lee said this should naturally lead to more fruit and vegetable consumption. For example, when looking for gluten-free ingredients, those inclined typically start in the produce department, as they do for most of the other trends.

"Fresh fast food" is another trend resonating with consumers. Lee said consumers still want fast food but not the typical fast food. They want items that are fresh such as the vegetable-laden dishes that populate Asian cooking.

She said a new book called Vegan Before 6 epitomizes the views of a growing number of people. The book urges consuming a plant-based diet all day and splurging for dinner. This obviously appeals to consumers who want to eat healthier but have not adopted a vegan lifestyle.

Lee said these are all food trends that tend to come from the middle class or the upper class. They are not an indication of current consumption habits of the total population.