Tera Johnson, director of the UW System Food Finance Institute and founder of Tera’s Whey, a protein powder company, spoke to attendees of the Edible Startup Summit, sharing her experiences and explaining trends she has found in food business.

MADISON – According to Tera Johnson, director of the UW System Food Finance Institute, big and bigger changes are here when it comes to food business trends. She shared her thoughts on those trends with entrepreneurs at the fifth annual Edible Startup Summit on Oct. 26, organized by Dane County UW-Extension and RP’s Pasta Company, Madison.

“We think big as entrepreneurs and thinking big with food is important,” she said. “We live in a time of great accelerating change, and it’s hitting food big time.”

In fact, Johnson believes there are five critical trends pertaining to food culture right now that food entrepreneurs can take advantage of. Through market research, Johnson has found that the “Balkanization” of food continues as consumers have many brand choices to pick from when in the aisles of their grocery stores. Brand proliferation is happening in all areas; where there were maybe one or two brands before, there may be 20 brands now.

“We love choice but we also don’t want to make all these choices for everything in the grocery store,” Johnson said.

Because of this, it’s “absolutely critical in food right now to be defensively unique,” she added.

Johnson suggests finding what makes you, your product and/or business different than others, keeping in mind that it might not be your product that makes you defensively unique. It could be your business model or an ingredient.

Another trend Johnson sees is “food as medicine” and the bigger trend of a transition from consumers eating anything to being more selective and looking at food for functionality. Doctors are prescribing different types of diets for different ailments and plant-based everything is entering the food scene. Vegetable consumption is going up, with fresh cut salad identified as the fastest growing area of sales in the retail market.

There seems to be an interesting trend in the area of red meat, something Johnson described as “the yin and yang in the meat world.” While red meat consumption is declining in the U.S., Johnson’s “yin,” grass-fed meat consumption is increasing quickly, the “yang.” Consumers are becoming more aware of grass-fed and the claims are resonating with them.

Johnson expects slight growth in the area of cheese, with Wisconsin poised to take advantage of that growth, even though it has been a hard year for dairy overall. Younger consumers, especially millennials, look at cheese as a convenient, high protein snack. And with Wisconsin home to more grass-fed dairies than many other states in the U.S., it could prove a great opportunity for the state, Johnson said.

A third trend that has emerged refers to “picking your own tomato.” Consumers are still leery about grocery shopping online, even though market research shows that online grocery sales are increasing. Humans are hard-wired to forage, which may explain why consumers are more comfortable going to the grocery store to “pick their own tomato,” Johnson said.

For food entrepreneurs, this trend tells Johnson that it is also still very risky to have a food business that is strictly online only, unless the entrepreneur has something that’s really functional right now to make it work.

“This is the year traceability became sexy,” Johnson noted of the fourth trend in food business.

A lot of attention has been given to traceability as consumers care more and more about where their food comes from. This makes it critical for food entrepreneurs to provide information to consumers about their product, with social media serving as a good tool to build that relationship between the business and the consumer.

The final trend highlighted by Johnson was seeing agriculture as a problem and a solution. Producers are seeing bigger yields but more variability, forcing farmers to diversify to remain resilient. Natural food industries are also looking into carbon sequestration as a solution.

As parting advice for the food entrepreneurs, Johnson said it’s important, more than ever before, to be transparent and build consumer trust. Brands also remain important, she added, and continue to serve as an efficient way to establish a relationship between the producer and the consumer.

In a changing world, entrepreneurs should also want to be part of the solution to the big problems we collectively endure as young consumers are watching and want to see the impact when they spend their money.