The Google-ization of Food Trends: Can Search Predict the Future?

hydepark New Technologies

Google’s recently released food trends study is a fascinating glimpse into America’s search behavior (thinkwithgoogle.com).  As a food innovation company working with many CPG companies and restaurant chains to help launch “the next big thing”, we found it interesting to see what this study highlighted and, importantly, what it omitted.

The Google study basically measured the top volume queries related to the food category over a two-year period.  They adjusted for seasonality and looked at things like the sheer number of monthly searches, their velocity and acceleration.  In other words — what’s hot, based on a massive group output.

When we looked at the list of winners, filtered through the lens of actual food innovation, here is what we saw:

Pan-Asian Explosion.  It comes as no surprise that Asian-inspired cuisines are all the rage.  The salty, umami-rich Japanese noodle soup, Ramen, the closely related Vietnamese Pho and the egg-topped Korean Bibimbap have been flooding trendy menus.  The stampede doesn’t stop at taste, however. Nutrient-dense and medicinally beneficial “superfoods” from South and Southeast Asia also made the list: foods like Bitter Melon, Jackfruit and Turmeric garnered a great deal of interest.

Hello Wheat.  So much for gluten-free.  Pasta is back along with bread and wheat-based items in all their delicious glory.  Rigatoni, Linguini, Sourdough Bread and even the wheat-based noodles found in Ramen seem to signal the proud rebirth of gluten as the staff of life.

Veganosity.  Plant-based eating appears to spawn endless creativity, as searches for dishes like rice made from cauliflower (Cauliflower Rice) and donuts crafted with no animal products (Vegan Donuts) made the list.

Farmhouse Roots.  The Farmhouse movement is not new, but the search for more esoteric cuts, methods and cleaner forms suggests a deeper level of fascination.  Those of us from the Midwest grew up with Cheese Curds, but, based on Google searches, it appears they have been “discovered”.  Pulled Pork, another Midwest favorite, and Overnight Oats – a concept largely driven by the excellent marketing from The Quaker Oats Company – are both trending.

Babymania.  As GenXers and Millennials are giving birth and raising children, it’s no surprise that food searches related to how to feed, celebrate and entertain their little darlings are spiking.  Smash Cakes – miniature-sized birthday cakes into which one-year-olds are encouraged to  – you guessed it – smash their faces are creating perfect Instagram moments.  Seems you can’t go a to a baby shower these days without being served a Gender Reveal Cake – a celebration cake that, once cut, exposes the blue or pink “secret” inside.   And it looks like homemade Funfetti Cakes are providing endless bursts of color on tables across America.

So, what’s missing from the list?  How about protein?  Or the hyper-focus on clean label: nut-free, dairy-free, preservative-free?  Where are all the strange and wonderful mash-ups (think cro-nuts)?  Has bacon run its course?

In fairness to Google, they did highlight that searches for items like Gluten-Free Cupcakes and Bacon Cinnamon Rolls were in decline. And even Kale Chips and Quinoa seem to be limping along.  The end of an era, perhaps?

In our opinion, many of the big, macro underlying trends are not over, but specific foods within them simply lose or gain steam.  Predicting those changes takes a great deal of study. Google searches – like new restaurant dishes and ethnic tip-ins – are harbingers of what may come, but provide no guarantee they will be here tomorrow.   Separating the sustainable trend from, let’s say, the Rainbow Bagel  – well, even Google doesn’t have that crystal ball ….yet.