Morgaine Gaye, food futurologist, on the ‘science and art’ of predicting food trends
What is a food futurologist?
Basically, I look at trends for the future of food. This entails both desk-based research and a lot of travel. I look at the why behind patterns of behaviour, and assess what people are likely to want in three, four, five years’ time. It’s really fun to be able to tell people what I expect they’ll be into in a few years—they inevitably say “absolutely not”.
What sources do you draw on for your analysis?
Futurology is both a science and an art. We’re really looking for social indicators: sometimes it’s just about being observant and noticing things that aren’t quite what we might consider the norm. For example, a couple of years ago I noticed that a lot of people weren’t wearing watches.
I made a little mental note of it and then started to ask questions. I then put together a premise and looked to support it with evidence. I do the same with food.
How quickly do food trends change?
There will always be fads, but real trends are much deeper social indicators and don’t change quickly. We have to see a trend’s effect in terms of economics, politics, geopolitics, social behaviour, technology—when all of those things align in a certain way, that’s when you start to see the longer curve of a trend. Food is a brilliant social indicator.
What are the drivers of food trends?
That’s really difficult to answer—it’s a complex mix of things. Individuals rarely affect change, but they may bring it to public awareness or make it more socially acceptable. For example, when René Redzepi from Noma came over to London and served up live ants, suddenly eating insects became more acceptable.
In the same way, people have been vegan for decades, but veganism became the new black because a couple of influential celebrities began to talk about it. It went from carpet bags and flip flops to being something that’s cool and desirable. But the trend itself doesn’t generally come from a person, or a company, or a brand. It’s usually something much deeper than that.
What are the main trends at the moment?
I have no idea what’s happening right at the moment, as I don’t live in the present! One thing would be disruption. We’ve been living in a time of perfection: social media has allowed us to curate our own perfect reality and that comes in many forms, but food is a big part of it—think of food snaps on Instagram, for example.
For ages, it all had to be beautifully stacked up, perfect. More recently though, we’ve gone from super-perfect, to a form of perfect imperfection: one raspberry will have dropped off, but actually it’s been deliberately placed there. Where we’re going next is towards real imperfection.
How will that manifest itself?
We’re already starting to see a breakdown of that in many areas. There was a model who came out recently and said, “Actually, I took about 25 selfies to make my stomach look this flat.” In Japan there are people having braces fitted to make their incisors push out.
Things will be a lot more chaotic, and we will see that on our plates too. Our food will be slopped and dolloped on; we won’t want the perfect cupcake, we’ll want it oozing over. We’re desperate for something real.
What else can we expect?
Going forward, one of the big conversations will be about water: supply, pollution, drought. It will have a huge impact on the way we eat, shop and think. There are going to be massive droughts in the US and Australia and because of that, it will become more expensive to grow the crops needed to feed livestock, so meat prices will go up. When we start to see problems with water supply, we also see major issues with wellness and public health.
So do trends correspond with the bigger issues we are facing at the moment?
Absolutely. One of my clients is the governing body for meat and egg farmers in Norway and they are facing particular issues at the moment, such as the fact that people are eating less meat—they are more conscious of their health, the environment and what eating a lot of meat can do.
We see food scares related to meat quite a lot, so poultry farming was a big conversation recently, as were antibiotics for livestock. It’s interesting, because my client’s job is to get people to eat more meat but they are aware that it would be irresponsible to encourage that.
They have to work in other ways: they supply all of the Norwegian schools with books on teaching kids how to cook, which is part of a wider cooking-from scratch-campaign. So they do some really good stuff.
You seem to be on top of things internationally—how global are food trends?
We’ve got to be careful when we generalise. If something is big in London, it will have almost no relevance in Norway, for example—if it’s something major they might get it in five years. They haven’t even got flavoured popcorn yet. They haven’t got ready-meals.
Think of Italy, where people are incredibly wedded to their cultural heritage, particularly in terms of what they eat. Here we tend to be much more fickle and trend-driven.
What were your experiences of food growing up?
My mum was a butcher and her thinking about food was incredibly different to mine, even as a child. Because of her line of work and her upbringing, her dinner had to consist of meat, vegetables and potatoes. But I didn’t like meat very much. We use food to show we care, particularly in a maternal way, so it affected our relationship. It probably felt like a massive rejection.
My father was a body builder so his food was very restrictive and regulated. We don’t realise but we all have food rules—“I can’t have peas next to my carrots”, “I don’t like fish but I like fish fingers”—and my father had all these rules around food.
As a young child I was very perceptive and spent a lot of time thinking about those sorts of things. So while I have only been doing this professionally for around 15 years, I have always been interested in why people have these structures that they live by, their culture and beliefs. Food is at the core of that.
What are your own food rules?
It’s very hard to see yourself and how you appear, but I know I absolutely do have them. I suppose one of my food rules is that I don’t like packets. When you open my cupboard it’s just jars—even bars of chocolate are broken up and put into a jar.
I spent 22 years growing up in the Middle East and as in any hot country we had weevils, which move exactly how they sound. I was visiting my dad in Argentina and he bought some self-weigh bee pollen. I put it in a jar (of course) when I got home, but of course it had been open in the shop.
The next time I opened the jar things flew out. So I think there’s something deep within me that makes me feel the need to get it out of the packet and into a jar so I can see it. If it’s in a jar, it’s clear, it’s clean!