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Tasty Trends: Why Are Some Foods More Than Just Passing Fads?

Food fads and trends pop up all the time, but what makes certain foods trendy while others are forgotten by the wayside?

By Sara Novak
Jul 10, 2023 1:00 PM
sliced avocado on toast bread with spices
(Credit:Elena Shashkina)

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As foods like Avocado toast, acai bowls, cauliflower rice and kombucha become trendy, we see them more and more. We might start to notice them on restaurant menus and then suddenly, we can't escape them in the grocery store.

But why do certain foods become trendy and other equally healthy or delicious foods never make the cut?

What's the Difference Between a Food Fad and a Food Trend?

You may remember the viral video on TikTok of feta pasta a few years back. It was a simple recipe made with cherry tomatoes, garlic, basil and a block of feta mixed with some cooked pasta. It was a wildly popular video that caused everyone to make feta pasta. It became so popular so fast that stores couldn't keep feta cheese in stock. 

Experts contend this was more of a food fad than a food trend because it didn't last. "The main difference is staying power. Fads tend to come and go, while trends stick around for a longer period of time," says Jonah Berger, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Food trends are catapulted by social media; from there, they either catch on or burn out.   

"Social media makes it faster and easier to see what other people are doing, so it can speed the effects of social influence. Something that starts to become popular in Thailand can easily catch on in New York, Rome and Buenos Aires in a matter of days," says Berger.

However, when something gets a lot of views all at once, it may be more likely to lose steam and not become a trend, says Ernest Baskin, a professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Saint Joseph's University. "It's better to move a little more organically through social media rather than pop up really quickly in a day and then burn out," he says. 


Read more: Is the Mediterranean Diet Healthy?


Restaurant Menus Provide a Sneak Peak into the Next Big Food Trend

Often restaurants are among the first to experiment with food trends like newer vegetables, flavors or flavor combinations. "Restaurants can experiment on a smaller scale whereas a grocer requires industrial manufacturing, so they need to be a lot more sure of something," says Baskin.

Avocado toast is a great example of this. It all started with a few restaurants putting it on the menu, and a few other restaurants saw that the product was doing well and followed course. After that, it expanded and began moving through popular culture. People became more aware of the product and how simple it is to make, so it began showing up in both restaurants and in home kitchens.

Not surprisingly, food marketing also plays a role in influencing whether or not people are interested in trying a new product. Baskin says that plant-based meat alternatives are a great example of the power of food marketing. It's changed plant-based food products from being an item that shows up in the quiet corners of vegan society to something of mainstream interest. 

It's not just paid advertising that provides certain foods with an attention boost; earned media coverage can also play an important role. No matter how good a food product is, it doesn't matter if people don't know about it. "Food marketing certainly helped propel plant-based meat alternatives into the public consciousness," Baskin says. 


Read more: 6 Brain Boosting Foods You Should Have on Your Plate


The Role of Industry Trade Shows

Another way that food trends catch on is through industry trade shows. This is another testing ground for food trends to see whether they're ready for primetime. Once a retailer sees a product at a trade show, they can make a deal with the manufacturer to push new products that aren't yet on the market. Additionally, certain foods may be perfectly delicious, but if they're too expensive to produce or large-scale production isn't viable, then they don't gain traction.

Nitro coffee is a great example of something that went the trade show route first. Baskin says that seven years ago, he went to a restaurant trade show, and the biggest exhibit was nitro coffee (which at the time was brand new). "The fact that so many companies were trying to innovate with nitro coffee suggested that this might be the next big thing," Baskin says. And now it's in every coffee shop across the country.

In the end, it's people power that pushes food trends forward. If we don't like it, it won't last. "The less likely people are to want to talk about something, the less likely that thing is to catch on," says Berger.


Read more: Therapy on a Plate: How Your Diet Can Benefit Your Mental Health


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