Eyes on the Fries

How potatoes can remain a staple even as menus continue to evolve

Published online: Jul 10, 2019 Articles
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This article appears in the July 2019 issue of Potato Grower.

It’s a new age for the food industry. Will everyone be eating lab-grown meat this time next year? Will insects become the norm? Trends are moving faster than ever, and it’s up to everyone at every point in the supply chain to uncover and maximize tomorrow’s trends.

Plants Powering On

Ask any potato, and they’ll tell you they did “plant-based” before it was even a thing. From nut milks to plant-based meat alternatives, plant-based eating principles are making waves. The rise of flexitarians, consumers who are looking to reduce the amount of meat they’re eating in exchange for plant-based options, is gaining momentum as a lifestyle choice. This rings true for the 25 percent of consumers who report a desire to adopt flexitarianism as an aspirational goal for how they want to eat in the future—motivations vary, but health is a common denominator.

Health’s Many Stages

Health claims have a way of moving with the times—from the 1980s to the trends of tomorrow, health trends have evolved through four stages:

  • Healthy 1.0 (1980s to early 2000s): Weight management. It was all about low-fat, low-calorie and low-carb choices.
  • Healthy 2.0 (early 2000s to today): Feel-good foods. Local, natural and free-from claims grew and the emphasis on weight management waned.
  • Healthy 3.0 (2010 to today): Functional foods. Foods that “do something for you” (aid performance, superfoods) and products with a positive nutrition halo are some of the fastest-growing items. According to Datassential’s MenuTrends, functional foods like chia seeds, kombucha and turmeric have all seen triple-digit growth rates over the last four years.
  • Healthy 4.0 (2019 to today): Personalized nutrition. The next wave of nutrition is a tailored look at consumers and what their unique physiologies require, right down to their DNA.

Potatoes have high potential in the functional foods race with opportunity to become the poster child of a new wave of nutrition. Operators can maximize the potential of potatoes by emphasizing the numerous health benefits or pairing potato-based dishes with other health-oriented ingredients that resonate with today’s consumers.

Generations Change, Food Evolves

The ethnic diversity of generational groups can provide an enlightening look into the future of food. The population of baby boomers is 28 percent ethnic, whereas the latest generation, Generation Z, is 47 percent ethnic. This growing level of diversity is a driving force in shaping our collective culinary tastes, and preferences and expectations for global flavors is expanding. 

Similarly, exotic ingredients are no longer reserved for fine dining or ethnic restaurants. To track the growth of ingredients and flavors, Datassential’s Menu Adoption Cycle is a framework for understanding the cycle of food trends. Foods and flavors are tracked based on their presence, ranging from novel and new to the quintessential and mainstream at four levels: inception, adoption, proliferation and ubiquity. Potatoes are a well-loved ubiquitous ingredient optimally primed for a dose of trend-forward inspiration.

Most limited-time offers released at major restaurant chains today comprise ubiquitous ingredients like potatoes (nearly 80 percent), but there’s innovation happening by leveraging a twist of something new— “ubiquity with a dose of inception.” By taking approachable ingredients (ubiquity) and pairing them with exploratory flavors (inception/adoption), mainstream ingredients become novel experiences. As with Wendy’s ghost pepper fries, ubiquitous cheddar and jalapeno french fries are topped with adoption-level ghost pepper sauce for an approachable, yet trend-forward concept.

The Root of Potato Trends

Potatoes are a superfood in both nutrition and popularity. Today, potatoes are found on nearly 84 percent of menus, and that number is expected to continue growing—particularly in the trend-forward fast-casual segment, according to Datassential’s machine learning tool, Haiku. The future of potatoes’ growth lies in making the most of consumer and menu trends.

While there are some generation-specific affinities (curly fries are more popular with Gen Z, with 82 percent loving or liking them and 83 percent of millenials loving or liking them), there are options that ring true across generations. Adoption-level fingerling and red bliss potatoes have a high level of appeal across a wide range of consumers ranging from millennials to boomers.

Operators are seeing success by elevating potato offerings with flavor-forward spins on classics; they load ‘em up. The fastest-growing potato items are smothered with anything from buffalo to barbecue sauce. Significant opportunity lies in the potential of potatoes as a carrier of some of the fastest-growing inception- and adoption-level ingredients—think Tajin, dukkah, furikake, gochujang, ‘nduja or ghost peppers.

Transform Trends into Opportunity

Potatoes provide a veritable blank canvas and foundation for a menu of ideas shaped by the latest trends. Health is evolving, and with the rapid growth of plant-based eating, potatoes can become the ideal partner to eating styles favored by today’s consumers. Understand and embrace what generations herald—an inspiring and novel approach to global flavors. Maximize trends with an innovation approach that is driven by “ubiquity with a dose of inception.”

It’s a new age for the potato: Time to smash old opinions and mash up a new mix of trend-forward potato innovation.