To say that 2020 and 2021 were years of rapid change would be an understatement. With sizeable proportions of consumers in Europe and America being confined to their homes, consumption patterns were modified beyond recognition as there was little but in-home entertainment, exercise and food to purchase. The food that people cooked and ate in their homes was in many ways different from before March 2020 – in some cases, these changes were short term but it is likely that other aspects of consumption will remain visible for the foreseeable future.
The most tangible development across industrial nations was a move away from red meats towards plant protein, and from industrially produced meat and conventionally grown produce towards organic, often locally sourced food. The most recent Food and Health Survey conducted by the International Food Information Council – a US-based NGO – shows that consumers increasingly are reducing their meat consumption and that 80% of respondents have altered their eating habits during the present pandemic. In France, habits have also changed, but experts urge caution and advise against drawing long-term conclusions. The increased demand for locally grown vegetables and meat from local farmers appears to be reflective of a genuine desire to buy local. An early increase in sales of organic milk, pasta and rice produced on a large scale and sold by supermarkets, however, is more likely due to conventionally produced equivalents selling out as consumers were stockpiling. Unable to find their usual brand, consumers then bought the organic alternative. Paradoxically, consumers also report buying more chocolate and crisps as more turn to daytime snacking. A study by the two UK charities Guy and St Thomas and Bite Back 2030 shows that snacking has increased by 40% during the pandemic.
The wish to eat healthier could be a reflection of the slower pace of life that comes with remote working – or being furloughed. The shift to local is not a completely new phenomenon though – in the Anglosphere, the number of participants at “Veganuary”, a campaign where people pledge to follow a vegan diet during the year’s first month – has increased every year since it begun in 2014, as have sales of organic food more broadly. Rather than creating a new phenomenon, Covid-19 has accelerated a pre-existing trend. Multinational food and beverage firms and the value of their shares are unlikely to suffer from this in the long term since giants such as Nestlé and Danone already offer organic or healthier versions of some of their most popular products. While some consumers have left big labels and will favour independent, local competitors, the majority with environment and health concerns is likely to stick to the product they already know, albeit in a healthier version. This does of course assume that multinationals do keep up with increasing demand. Given the increased interest in alternative products, chances are likely that they will.