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Food industry is in the throes of pandemic-induced changes

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The food industry is gathering at trade shows and events for the first time in more than two years. That means they can finally try to figure out what consumers are thinking, believing, hoping and – most importantly – fearing.

Trends, flavours and tastes have changed since March 2020. But after more than two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not easy to determine exactly how the consumer has evolved.

The Agri-food Analytical Sciences Laboratory at Dalhousie University, with the help of Caddle Insights, has just published new data concerning the Canadian food market.

If we’re to believe the forecasts found in the data, by 2025 the food market in Canada will be more home-based, more virtual and influenced by the greater curiosity of consumers who now have higher overall food literacy.

First, let’s talk about home life. One thing is clear: the work-from-home phenomenon is here to stay. Too many employers are saving immensely by keeping some employees home.

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The same applies to the employees. They’re spending less money on transportation, clothing, haircuts, makeup – you get the idea. It’s estimated that by 2025, 39.5 per cent of consumers will work at least one day a week from home.

By spending more time at home, consumers have been cooking more and learning new culinary skills. Not only have 34.2 per cent of Canadians learned at least one new cooking style since the start of the pandemic, but 51.8 per cent have also learned at least three new recipes. Almost 40 per cent of people have acquired new skills, such as making bread or pasta, and 45.2 per cent have discovered new ingredients they didn’t use before the pandemic.

So food literacy in Canada has improved since the start of the pandemic. Consumers know how to make more informed choices due to more in-depth knowledge of food. That means the industry must deal with a more curious public, who will have an informed opinion on a greater number of products.

The number of households that own at least one pet has also soared. Since the start of the pandemic, 26.1 per cent of Canadian households have adopted a pet for the first time, and half of them have adopted either a cat or a dog.

This isn’t trivial since research tells us that a pet owner will be more sensitive to ethical animal treatment, which will significantly affect protein choices. In fact, we estimate that 3.2 million Canadians now consider themselves flexitarians, about one million are pescatarians, 913,000 are vegetarians, and 560,000 are vegans.

Apart from veganism, all diet types with less meat or no meat are on the rise in Canada. This is something for food innovators to watch very closely. The prices at the meat counter lately probably encouraged the shift for many people. Beef prices have gone up by as much as 20 per cent in the last year in some cases.

With more people moving to new areas and with COVID outbreaks in some stores, many consumers are also shopping differently. In fact, 26.1 per cent of Canadians have visited stores they hadn’t visited before the pandemic. It’s pretty much the same for restaurants.

The legacy of the pandemic is to have prompted many consumers to reconsider where they regularly buy their food.

These changes represent great opportunities for the industry. Less populous regions are getting a second wind due to more people fleeing big cities in Canada, and the food industry is rapidly adjusting.

As a result, the virtual food market is exploding. Almost 40 per cent of Canadians order food, either at retail or in food service, at least once every two weeks. By 2025, 30.1 per cent of Canadians are expected to continue to regularly buy food online. We anticipate that by 2025, 10 per cent of food sales in Canada will occur online. Before the pandemic, estimates were around 1.7 per cent, which represents quite an increase.

To learn about food trends, Canadians stick to social networks. Aside from family and friends, YouTube, TikTok and Facebook are the most used communication vehicles that influence the diet of Canadians. The industry needs to increase its presence on these platforms if it wants to influence trends, especially after the pandemic forced everyone to take in more information online.

So if you’ve changed your grocery habits since March 2020, you’re not alone. And keeping the industry on its toes is always a good thing.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is one of our Thought Leaders. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Dalhousie's past Dean of the Faculty of Management and is a professor and Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

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