What's the Future of Food? Generation Z May Have the Answer


You’re probably thinking that you’ve heard this before. Millennials were supposed to save the planet and make everything better. And now it seems like a hot minute later, we’re already putting all our hopes and dreams on a new generation?

I don’t blame you for being skeptical, because it seems like management consulting firms and investment banks love churning out reports with bold predictions about where consumer spending behavior is headed. Millennials were all the talk a few years ago but now they’re all about Generation Z.

The Imperfect Art of Labeling a Generation

Firstly, any attempt to label and define an entire generation is going to be imperfect at best. On top of that, trying to predict how they think, what they value and what food they will choose to consume is bound to involve some sweeping generalizations. But at the same time, not examining an entire generation of digital natives, born into the hyper-connected, social-first, information-everywhere world we live in today would be a mistake. 

So here I am, adding to the noise around Generation Z.

If we’ve learned one thing from history, it’s that each successive generation does inherit the cultural imprints of the world they are born into and it guides their world view and actions for decades to come. 

Even if you don’t buy the hype surrounding Generation Z and why they matter, you should want to know what the future holds, and this generation provides us the best clues about the world we’re about to create.

Whats so Special About Generation Z?

What makes Generation Z (born between 1995 and 2007) particularly unique in the context of food is that they are the first generation to have a clear understanding of the consequences of the choices made by generations before them.

Baby boomers, born between 1940- 1959, lived in the shadow of World War II, and were therefore driven to create a society of abundance and consumerism, which lasted till Generation X, who had one last grasp on the elusive American dream, before it all started to change.  Millennials were the first generation to feel the after-effects of our industrialized food system, the emergence of the digital revolution, the post-911 global war on terror, and an unstable U.S. economy. And then came Generation Z – born into a social-media dominated culture, with access to technology and information unlike any generation before them. This new generation has a much broader view on the world and a deeper understanding of the cultural and environmental burden that rests on their shoulders.

Why is Generation Z so important? Because they are the first generation that appears to be in search of the truth, instead of searching for objects or experiences to be consumed. They’ve seen generations before them try to chase things and witnessed it bring them mostly dissatisfaction on a personal level, while destroying the balance of our precious planetary ecosystems. Generation Z have been forced to embrace uncertainty, and search for another way. Hence, they question everything, value authenticity and freedom of expression, diverse points of view and approach the world with an unprecedented level of distrust of established systems and paradigms.

What Does Generation Z Have to do with the Future of Food?

Here are just a few facts about Generation Z:

  • They now make up more than 25 percent of the U.S. population (that’s a bigger segment than the Baby Boomers or Millennials).

  • They are the most ethnically diverse and technologically connected generation in U.S. history.

  • They will account for 40 percent of all consumers by 2020.

  • They will someday have the greatest buying power. 

Do I have your attention now?

So let’s look at how Generation Z eats. It is no surprise that a generation that values authenticity and quality and ethics and the environment is very plant-forward. 

  1. Research by Barclays shows that Generation Z consumes 57 percent more tofu and 550 percent more non-dairy milk than millennials. Many are part of a growing movement of "flexitarians" who eat meat and animal products sparingly.

  2. Nearly three out of four (65 percent) Generation Zers, specifically, find plant-forward eating appealing and 79 percent would go meatless, one to two times a week now or in the future. 

  3. According to research from the Hartman Group, as junior high students move through high school, they become more likely to eat plant-based meals. Hartman believes this trend bodes well for continued growth in plant-based foods.

The Keys to Feeding the Future

Based on everything I have read about Generation Z, and what matters to them, here are some simple takeaways on how to prioritize this important and fast-growing consumer segment. Learning how to feed Generation Z the right way may in fact help us figure out how to feed the world in the future. 

  1. Brand: Generation Z cares about the welfare of people, animals, and the planet. Brands that reflect those values, with an authentic story, and products with healthy, sustainable, plant-based ingredients, conveyed in a relatable way, wherever media is consumed (mostly social) have a better chance of standing out. 

  2. Packaging/Formats: This generation values convenience, so the more portable and ‘on-the-go’ or snack-able product options you offer, the better. That being said, make sure your products minimize excessive packing and use of plastic.

  3. Flavors: The Generation Z palette is a lot more diverse than previous generations with a taste for international cuisines and flavors, ranging from Indian to Middle Eastern and African.

  4. On-Demand: Being digital natives, social media + e-commerce is an obvious winning combination. This generation values the convenience of online shopping and access to food with a few taps on their phone. But it doesn’t mean retail and food service opportunities don’t exist. In the offline world, curated experiences to taste and interact with a brand and their products are worth focusing on..  

  5. Transparency: If you want to start with just one takeaway, make it this one. Generation Z cannot be fooled easily with marketing jargon, buzzwords and hype. They will do their research and verify what you are saying with influencer and peer reviews on YouTube and social channels. They value truth over brand loyalty, so the more transparent you are (about ingredients, your supply chain, environmental impact, etc.), the more chances you have to earn their trust and make them brand loyal in the long run. 

If you pay close attention to plant-based brands that are growing fast, they share many of the characteristics outlined above.

But this is just a starting point. There’s a lot more to explore here and the more you engage with and learn about this new generation, the more likely you will be able to deliver healthy, sustainable, flavor-packed and high-quality food that will feed the future.

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Nil Zacharias: Founder, Eat For The Planet

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