How the Media Influences What We Eat, Drink and Crave

Recently, the New York chapter of Les Dames D’Escoffier hosted The Next Big Bite, a discussion at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), which explored how the media is shaping public conversation and consumption of food and beverages.

Moderated by Martha Teichner, Emmy Award Winning CBS News Correspondent, panelists Chef Carla Hall (ABC’s The Chew, Bravo’s Top Chef, Southern Kitchen Restaurant), Kate Krader (food editor, Bloomberg Pursuits), and Talia Baiocchi (editor-in-chief of frankly discussed fads, trends and what they believe to be significant in food and drink.

Trends versus Fads

Let’s start with a quick quiz (as Martha did).

Question: For each of the following, please categorize if they are a trend or a fad?

Casual Dining
Small Plates
Lower-Alcohol Drinks
Specialty Burgers
Corn Ice Cream

Answer: All but the last three were deemed “trends” by the panel. The last three, “fads.”

The consensus was that a trend has a longer curve. There’s a critical mass and a momentum supporting the trend, and it has “legs,” or can grow and evolve into something else – it can be repeated or iterative in slightly different ways. A fad is a “flash in the pan,” something that people will quickly get bored with and move onto something else.

Kate deconstructed a trend: if you can answer the question “why” with depth, a backstory, and two or more supporting points, then it likely has sustaining value and is more than a fad. Or, if you see the same unique and interesting thing appear or “pop up” in three different places or ways.

However, there was concern that the concept of trends themselves was reaching saturation. With the proliferation of media vehicles online, the bar is getting higher and higher for a trend to be something substantial, “golden,” and lasting.

Food and Beverage Culture

There is growing interest in where food and drink comes from, how it’s made, and who made it. Talia commented that these same themes are emerging in the wine world, but that it’s lagging nearly 15 years behind the food world; “organics are still fairly new in wine.” She attributed it to wine still being viewed as a luxury item in the U.S., as something different than what many Americans grew up with.

Carla introduced a concept that was new for me: “terrior for our being.” It’s the idea that people and place (or land and history) contribute to our overarching understanding of who we are and where we come from. Food has become part of the personal journey, as evidenced by the fact that social media content is dominated by images of what people eat and drink. The anti-globalization of food movement plays into this concept of nostalgia, simplicity and authenticity.

Our eating habits are still shaped by the economic crash of 2008. The resulting impact on the restaurant scene is what Kate called “hybrid cooking,” or a mix of high and low. Fast casual has evolved, and we now expect better quality food, faster.

Media Vehicles

Everyone agrees: the Internet has changed everything. The amount of content and the pace at which it refreshes can be oppressive. However, online has the ability to go deep and explore stories in a way that isn’t restricted by time or space. Talia cited Eater’s Four Season’s series as an example of thoughtful, important content that is originating online.

However, traditional vehicles are still relevant. While television was once a mass communications tool, it is now a means for influence marketing. Cable and digital channels provide infinite targeting capabilities – programming doesn’t have to try to be everything to everyone anymore. Kate asserted that print still has the power to transport and transform, particularly in the food and travel categories. People hold onto magazines and interact with them in a way more meaningful than digital.

Our Relationship with Food

Despite the fact that the internet has created a proliferation of content, Carla believes that our attention span is getting longer. People want to go deeper and understand the root of their interest. It’s becoming more personal to the point that some consumers are eschewing external validation and instead declaring that “I give this importance.”

Kate also posited that millennials are representative and driving the changing American palate. Talia agreed – this is the generation that grew up with sushi and bitter flavors. There is a sophistication to what they’re seeking in food – for example, authentic Thai, versus the Americanized Pad Thai of their parents’ generation. There is also an element of rebellion in the millennial rejection of fine dining and pursuit of simplicity – it’s the antithesis of what they were exposed to with their parents, although that experience has shaped the demand for quality and flavor.

What’s Next for Beverages

Beverage trends are sourcing inspiration from and collaborating with the kitchen. The rise of Asian cuisine is a strong influence in the beverage world. Natural wine, cider, sour beer and kombucha all interface with Asian foods with the through-line being the flavors of fermentation.

Health and wellness trends are also shaping food culture. Food as medicine is on the rise, with people sourcing ingredients based on their medicinal properties. This extends into cocktail culture (see my previous post on five fall trend predictions)

Regional identity shapes what we drink in addition to what we eat. On the West Coast, fresh ingredients drive concoctions. One the East Coast, stirred, strong drinks still dominate.

Low-alcohol will gain importance across all categories. In addition to lower-alcohol, higher-acid wines, Talia anticipates lower ABV cocktails without compromising flavor. In the beer world, the boozy IPAs are being up-ended by gose, saison and farmhouse ale styles. Session beers, with higher acidity, generally pair better with foods.

Beverages’ sustainable attributes and their economic impacts will also shape what and how we drink, says Talia, citing Mezcal and Rhum agricole.

And last but not least: yogurt in cocktails.

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