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Sylvain CharleboisSingles represent one of the fastest-growing demographics in Canada but the food industry is slow to serve up a focused strategy.

There has been a significant effort to capture the millennial market in recent years. And single-person households and millennial needs overlap. But how these markets are developed is very different.

And despite compelling research in this area, the industry doesn’t seem to be paying attention to the shift in Canada’s demographics. However, the single-serve demographic could become the remedy the food industry has been waiting for.

People living on their own make up more than 25 percent of Canadian households. Many of us often eat alone and the trend is expected to continue for some time. More than 60 percent of Canadians eat breakfast alone. The majority of lunches are also eaten alone and about 32 percent of us eat dinner alone.

From a social perspective, this is a concern. People who dine alone tend to eat more and consume less healthy foods.

And it all has wide-ranging implications for the food and beverage industry in terms of new products, packaging and positioning.

The single-serve product should be easily adaptable to specific, singular needs, which is important since not all consumers are created equal.

Males tend to eat differently than females. Males eat less traditional meals and tend to graze. Female are usually more health- and weight-conscious and count calories. The required fibre-protein mix also differs between genders.

The common denominator is the quest for the appropriate portion size and nutritional content.

The single-serve category allows food retailers to super-customize products, and the convenience of single-servings is incredibly appealing for consumers pressed for time.

But the Canadian food industry is nowhere near where it should be in producing portable single-serve food. Markets such as Japan and Europe are much farther ahead.

The single-serve offering may not stop at singles. Even large-group gatherings that include family and friends may change. A host could offer several single-serve options to guests. One can eat lasagna while another eats pot-roast or a nice tuna salad. A side benefit is better waste management. Single servings likely produce fewer leftovers and thus less waste.

Ultimately, the single-serve concept would result in an ultra-customizable food economy. The possibilities are endless. Pasta, bread, pies, cereals, salads, wines, dairy – all could be sold for the single demographic.

As well, an aggressive single-serving strategy could re-energize the weary centre of the grocery store, further reconfiguring the ready-to-eat sections we now see in many stores.

The single-serve marketplace allows the supply-driven food system to better synchronize with consumers’ ever-changing demands. Single-serve could prevent excess and the industry would cash in on the added value.

It is the perfect recipe for growth.

However, the hard, cold truth about how lonely our society has become will eventually be reflected in how food is sold.

Food should be about culture, fun, joy and sharing. Yet for a growing number of Canadians, it is about solitude and seclusion.

So this is also an opportunity for the food industry to see consumers as social beings.

Just look at what happened to coffee. The single-serve coffee didn’t exist a few years ago but now accounts for more than 35 percent of the coffee sold in Canadian grocery stores. The category needs to address environmental issues with compostable packaging, but its case for better convenience is undeniably strong.

At some point, the food industry will adjust and cater to this growing market segment and capitalize. This is not only good news for the industry’s bottom-line, it may very well change how we consume food.

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 a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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