Interview with Phil Lempert: food trends 2015

Food trends for 2015

Last month, I was approached by a colleague of Phil Lempert; would I be interested in interviewing him about food trends in the coming year? If you are unfamiliar with Lempert, he is the food trends expert for NBC's Today Show and also appears on a monthly basis on The View. This seemed like an intriguing opportunity so I enthusiastically scheduled a date for last Thursday, November 6.

The information provided to me prior to our talk was informative. Looking ahead to 2015, Lempert predicts that smoked foods will not go slowly but, rather, continue to play an important role in foods prepared by both home cooks and professional chefs and show up in new and unexpected ways like flavor-infused butters and cocktails. I was happy to hear this because smoked foods provide such a complexity, sometimes an element of je ne sais quoi that brings a dish to greater heights.

Additionally, the fermented food celebration seems to have not yet waned. Sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi everywhere? Lempert sees this trend continuing full steam ahead as the new year rolls in. This is a good thing, as fermented foods contain many a beneficial bacteria which is marvelous for optimal digestive health.

Lempert also looks forward to rural areas being better serviced by online/same-day grocery store delivery. I hope the same is true for poor urban areas considered food deserts as everyone deserves the opportunity to purchase (with cash or WIC resources) and have available, fresh, healthy, non-processed food. That said, I feel there is something invaluable about shopping regularly- about seeing what is in season when, for touching the food, choosing the head of broccoli that sings loudest to you. I definitely come from one end of the spectrum -consumers who can shop regularly and want to- but I think that distancing ourselves from food, as it is grown, harvested and sold, has been to our detriment in many ways.

Phil Lempert interview questions

But back to the interview. Phil and I had fewer than ten minutes to chat, so I knew I needed to keep my questions few and flowing. I decided on three, and off we went.

1) Em-i-lis: With recent attempts to ban sodas and in light of studies on childhood and adult obesity rates, do you see a mass move away from processed foods? Any legislation moving in this way?

Phil replied that what we're seeing from supermarkets and food companies alike is increased dialogue with consumers. We've seen them remove certain ingredients -sodium, for example, replaced with red wine, or reduced fat, replaced by apple- based on customer feedback. Consumers are reading labels more thoroughly than ever before, and they're looking for ingredient and nutritional infomration that they want. In the case of pasta sauce, for example, consumers are purchasing Hunt's Crushed Tomatoes and then adding a splash of olive oil and such so that they're not getting the added sugars or extra sodium.

E: A consumer concern is that labels can still be misleading, for example, all-natural, which really means nothing.. Do you see additional oversight, by the FDA for example, so that labels are more accurate?

PL: You're 100% correct about all-natural. There is no federal guideline for that. I do think there will be some federal regulation on that... Everything that we need to know, basically, is in the label. You need to look at the nutritional facts and ingredients labels and then determine if that product is right for you.

2) E: There is a trust issue, and that really leads into my next question which is about the organic/local movement. It certainly has its detractors, not least those who feel it's only something folks of enough means can access/care about, but I really believe that there's something to be said for voting with your fork and in terms of which foods are subsidized and which aren't. That makes a difference in terms of what people can afford. Will we see greater accessibility to purer foods that are also more affordable?

PL:  Let's separate organic and local for a second. No question, when you get fresh fruits and veggies that are local, they have more nutrients and flavor. But the reality is, if you live in the middle of the country, you don't have as many fresh options as folks in California, say. A lot of food is flown, 3,000 or 4,000 miles, to its destination. So what we're seeing is the growth of bio-regions; foods are grown in the parts of the country where they thrive. An example is Hunt's tomatoes, which are grown just in California. There's a move from local to locale. For example, Marie Callender's- all their berries come from North America or Oregon, and that's right on the label. People are really looking for that.

When it comes to organic, let's not forget that there's no research out there that says that organics are any more nutritious than conventionally grown foods. You might choose organics for different reasons but from a health and nutrition standpoint, there's no difference which is why we're starting to see that pullback by consumers who aren't willing to pay that extra 10, 20, 50% premium for organic. You want to pick and choose. I would never buy an organic banana because of the thick skin. I would buy organic raspberries because they're so porous. I think we're seeing consumers getting smarter about what they buy organic and what they buy conventional.

3) E: That leads in nicely to my third point. I believe that one of the most important things about organic is what it signifies for the welfare  of the land and climate and animals that are producing many of these things. Do you see a turn away from factory-farmed meat towards more natural ways, away from feedlots toward more natural ways?

PL: We have to understand that we've got a lot of people on this planet. Lots of these practices came about because we need to feed many people affordably. Not everyone can afford $30 for a steak. So we have to look at a balance in terms of our food supply. Some people want to buy a steak for $30 and others want to buy ground beef for $2.99. A supermarket's job is to provide both. And we're seeing a very positive response from consumers with regards to markets providing a wide range of products. Taste is #1, affordability is #2, in terms of consumer priorities.

And so...

Brief but interesting. Though Lempert is not a policy wonk, I just had to ask about the future of the meat industry because that sector of agriculture has so many implications for the health of our land and animals. He's absolutely right that not everyone can or wants to pay $30 a pound for filet mignon but I suspect a growing number of folks also don't want to purchase truly substandard hamburger meat. We have many to feed, an intimidating fact that we must reckon with. Degrading the land is not the answer. Making healthful food affordable is very much part of the necessary salve.

I'm glad that markets are talking with and allowing themselves to be influenced by their consumers. That's really my entire point about voting with our forks. We do deserve to know where our food comes from and what was used to grow it. We deserve to know on whose backs the labor fell and if they were paid a living wage in doing so.

Industry has to listen if their customers demand different, or else. So, it makes me hopeful that Marie Callender's and Hunt's hear that people care and change their products accordingly. Even baby steps can usher in grand changes.