Is it a trend or is it a fad…?

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We’ve just come to the end of ‘Veganuary’ – a smartly timed, month-long commitment that many people make to spend January meat and dairy free. It is now followed by ‘Sugar Free February’, ensuring that a number of us are thoroughly cleansed and toned for the arrival of spring.

My discovery of ‘Veganuary’ came at the same time that Iceland (the retailer, not the nation) announced their commitment to rid itself of plastic packaging for all of its own label products within five years.

So, do these newsworthy activities represent significant trends that will alter the way we eat, live and behave, or are they merely passing fads?

Fads tend to have a number of characteristics:

  • They emerge with a fanfare and a rush of publicity
  • They are often supported by, or led by, a celebrity – someone to give them that media attention and to lend a sense of credibility (however tenuous)
  • They offer an apparently perfect solution to a problem – real or perceived
  • They “go viral”. Social media goes wild
  • They don’t actually deliver a perfect solution
  • They fade away

Often, these fads are related to diet and well-being – either offering painless, almost immediate, significant weight loss, or a new superfood that comes close to being the elixir of life.

Remember the maple syrup diet (Beyonce may have been involved, if that helps)…? Or the rush for Goldenberries?

Perhaps fads tend to magnify the size of the problem they claim to resolve, or, more often, to exaggerate their ability to deliver the ultimate answer – a solution that requires no compromise, little effort, and delivers both pleasure and clear results.

Against that heavenly expectation it is little wonder that any hint of disappointment can lead the disciple to give up on that one and to search for the next nirvana.

Trends are more substantial and enduring, built on sounder foundations, and tend to deliver more of what they promise.

Forbes magazine defines trends as “Identifiable and explainable”. So let’s try to do a little explaining…

There had been a trend away from glass and towards plastic packaging within a number of sectors – sauces, oils, drinks. There were sound economic and (to a degree) environmental reasons; glass is heavy, so it costs more to transport it, leading to greater fuel consumption.

The quality of plastic bottles had improved significantly, so that they increasingly replicated the aesthetics of glass. Consumers were perfectly happy accepting goods packaged in plastic because they seem ‘fresh’ and practical

However, one episode of Blue Planet and a greater examination of the long-lasting damage that plastic waste is doing to our oceans and the new trend emerges. With governments and the EC recognising that public opinion is shifting towards a desire to address this problem there is real impetus towards a move away from plastics.

When words like “law”, “directive” and “tax” start getting associated with an issue you can be pretty sure that the trend will stick.

So Iceland are likely to just be the first of the retailers and manufacturers to commit to a target that will have an impact on the way food is produced, packaged, and perhaps even consumed in the future.

The beauty of plastic packaging is its ability to keep food fresh and untainted for longer – as its use is reduced, we may need to settle for shorter shelf-life and more immediate consumption in the future.

Veganism shares some of the same ‘better care for the planet’ impulses that are driving the anti-plastic trend. It is a movement that has been around for a while, but in the past has often been associated with more marginal, even cranky lifestyles.

And the food associations have been similarly…marginal; there has always been a sense that vegans suffer for their worthiness, eating food that lacks flavour and pleasure.

However, the increasing availability of tasty meat-alternative products that mimic the flavour and texture, as well as the protein delivery of meats has changed this. The ‘Beyond Burger’ in America that replicates the taste, look and aura of a great meaty burger, but is made purely from plant-based ingredients has garnered a huge following, and whilst UK equivalents may enjoy less of a profile at present, similar quality is becoming evident.

There are also a growing number of dairy-free cheeses now available and growing in size and popularity (a love of cheese can be the final barrier to switching to a fully vegan diet for many!).

With a number of retailers now offering their own ranges of own label vegan products choice has expanded hugely in recent months.

There were over half a million vegans in the UK before the January push, and plenty more ‘flexitarians’ who are happy to eat meat and dairy alternatives at least part of the time.

In the USA recent media attention has highlighted the growing numbers of NBA basketball players that have adopted a vegan diet coinciding with improved form and fitness.

The dual message of high-level physical performance and great tasting products is a pretty handy combination that suggests this trend too is here for the long-term. The obvious investment made by both manufacturers and retailers in developing vegan ranges suggests a commitment that will last well beyond one promotional month.

And that’s the key to any substantial trend – the combination of strong consumer demand (veganism is right for today, offering the opportunity to care better for your body and the planet), and the ability of the market to meet that demand with products that are entirely fit for purpose.

Fads may excite, but trends deliver.

Words by Chris Blythe