Back to April 2021

Six food trends for 2021 and beyond


Pecan sliders dressed up and served on a wooden platter. These sliders play into several food trends in 2021.
2020 was a year like no other, but what is in store for 2021? The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the way we shop, eat, and think about food, and while we now see a light at the end of the tunnel, there’s still a long road ahead as we adjust to a “new normal.” Not all industries in the food world have suffered, but many have had their ups and downs. A massive shift, practically overnight, from eating out to cooking at home and from buying foods in stores to buying online, accelerated many of today’s current food trends in 2021 while reshaping others.

Resourceful pecan growers and shellers pivoted from foodservice to retail, struck new deals with manufacturers and customers to keep their business going, and leaned into the following food trends experts expect to continue well beyond 2021.

1. Plant-Based Foods Are Where It’s At

The movement toward plant-based diets has been building up steam for several years, but in the last year, this 2021 food trend has skyrocketed. Why? Concerns about health and wellness have certainly been a driving force, but that isn’t the only reason for its surge in popularity. Plant-based foods are good for the environment, cost less than animal-based proteins, and are often easy to prepare and simple to include in meals—that’s particularly important when many people are cooking at home. Versatile pecans appeal to all these trends and more.

High in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and hard-to-get nutrients vital for health and proper immune function like zinc, vitamin E, magnesium, and calcium, pecans are nutritional powerhouses and a source of potent antioxidants. They are also high in plant protein, making them an ideal substitute for animal products. Sustainably grown and widely available in a number of forms including halves, pieces, ground nut butters, and flour, it isn’t hard for pecans to become the star of the meal in salads, pasta dishes, even pizza.

Taste is another key factor and one where pecans definitely have an edge. Over the last few years, advances in technology have greatly improved the taste and texture of many plant-based meat and dairy-alternatives, especially those using nuts as a base. This creativity has spawned a thriving market for meatless burgers, tacos, and milk alternative products. Pecans because of their high fat content and unique flavor are ideally suited for many of these meatless dishes, take for example pecan sliders and tacos.

However, keep in mind that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or vegan to follow a plant-based diet. Most times it simply means increasing the vegetable or whole grain portion of your meal and reducing the meat, poultry, or seafood portion. In fact, one of the biggest trends to come out of the plant-based movement is the rise of low and no-meat eating, where vegetables and grains are mixed with small amounts of meat (consider the mushroom burger) to improve nutrition and increase plant foods. Pecans make the perfect partner for these low meat options.

2. A Hunger for Quality Foods

Faced with travel restrictions and limited dining out options, many people are looking to recreate the dining experience at home and splurge on unique, high-quality ingredients, like gourmet coffee, chocolate, cheese, pasta, and specialty sauces. According to IRI, a data analytics and market research company, this growth in premium products currently cuts across all income levels as people gravitate toward more indulgent foods to reduce stress and break up the monotony of cooking at home. High-quality pecans naturally enjoy premium status and can easily be paired with other luxury ingredients like chocolate, cheese, and premium drinks to create new and exciting products. Other times pecan can raise more mundane foods like oatmeal or granola to premium status. Position pecans as a specialty treat that consumers can indulge in every day.

3. Spices Are Heating Up the Marketplace

Over the last few years Americans have developed a love affair with big, bold spicy flavors inspired by frequent trips abroad and a melting pot of cuisines and cultures here at home. When the pandemic hit, everything changed. While many people turned toward comfort foods and familiar favorites, it wasn’t long before their desire for more exotic tastes kicked in.

In fact, 2020 saw heightened interest in adventurous and ethnic flavors like hot sauces, chilies, ginger, and garlic. Globally inspired flavors, in particular, amplified and accelerated during the pandemic, as people used authentic spices and seasoning blends in culinary creations to “travel” without leaving home. Some of the global flavor profiles which garnered attention, especially in the snack food category, include Indian, Southeast Asian, Eastern Mediterranean, and Latin American.

Sweet-spicy blends featuring honey or maple syrup have also taken off. Pecan’s distinct rich, buttery flavor and hardy texture are a natural fit for sweet-spicy combinations with chili peppers, smoked paprika, turmeric, or ginger. This flavor also allows them to stand toe to toe with other bolder, more exotic spices. Thanks to our growing penchant for snacking, pecan snack mixes stand to benefit most from this trend, but pecan-based sauces, appetizers, and desserts can also profit.

4. Local and Regional Foods Rule in 2021

Stay-at-home directives compelled many people to look for foods closer to home, fostering a renewed interest in local and regional cooking styles and ingredients (think barbecue, local fish species, and native American nuts—like pecans). But even when restrictions lift, local and regional foods are still expected to thrive. Besides satisfying our need for transparency and knowing where our food comes from, it also helps support local businesses, keeping communities intact. Like most farming industries, many pecan growers and shellers are family-run operations with strong community ties and generations of history behind them. Take advantage of this local connection by highlighting regional specialty dishes and products when marketing pecans.

5. A Continued Craving for Comfort Foods

Throughout the pandemic, consumers turned to comfort foods for both physical and emotional wellbeing. Favorite family meals provided much-needed security and a sense of familiarity during times of uncertainty. Experts expect these nostalgic foods to remain strong throughout 2021 as ties to family and happy times continue to dominate the food culture. Many iconic pecan-filled dishes like pecan pie, pralines, and tartlets hark back to long Southern traditions, while newer meals like pecan topped salads or pecan-crusted salmon can create more modern family favorites.

6. e-Commerce Bridges Generational Lines

The final food trend for 2021 centers on e-commerce. Fear of leaving home and supply shortages forced many consumers to buy food and other products online. As a result, e-commerce sales soared to record levels in 2020, increasing more than 30 percent (almost $200 billion) from 2019, reaching nearly $800 billion in sales. While this was an easy transition for younger Millennials and Generation Z who were already using e-commerce, the biggest challenge came from Baby Boomers and Gen X. However, once adjusted, this group quickly adapted and continues to be big users—now there’s no turning back.

In the future, experts predict e-commerce will flourish and grow beyond B2C. Pecans are ideal for online purchasing because they have a long shelf life and, depending on the product, are relatively easy to ship.

For those in the food business, it’s vital to maintain a well-organized, updated website with an online portal for sales (if appropriate). Here are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • Be sure all content, contact information, and telephone numbers are accurate and up-to-date.
  • The site is easy to navigate and achieves its objective (i.e., do you want to sell product or just provide information about your company?).
  • The site is compatible with all browsers and is mobile-friendly.

For more information on pecans, visit the National Pecan Shellers website or Facebook page.

Author Photo

Diane Welland

Diane Welland MS, RD, is the Director of Nutrition Communications at the National Pecan Shellers Association (NPSA). NPSA supports and promotes the interests of pecan shellers and the global industry to assure the quality, safety, and integrity of pecan products worldwide.