As expected, 2019 introduced us to a slew of innovative eats that changed how we snack, shop and serve. Less expected, however, was the intention behind so many of the year's biggest food trends: sustainability.
Flavor, nutrients and cost are still important, of course, but today's healthy foodies have even higher standards when it comes to what they eat.
"Customers have greater expectations from food brands today than ever before," Mark Hyman, MD, physician, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine and author of Food: What the Heck Should I Cook?, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Conscious consumers are interested not only in the quality of the products they are consuming but also in how food brands run their companies. Are they sustainable? Ethical? Do they support fair trade? Do they use organic ingredients?"
Growing nutrition awareness and a commitment to a healthier planet were just a couple of the drivers behind the biggest food trends this year. Here, we highlight the most important research and insights from top nutrition experts to determine whether these trends are total fads or actually worth keeping in 2020.
1. The Keto Craze Continued
When the eat-fat-to-burn-fat diet started popping up in headlines and newsfeeds in late 2016, the appeal was clear: Eat more bacon, butter and avocado to shed pounds in a flash! With a promise like that, it's no surprise searches for the keto diet hit an all-time high in January 2019 — and it doesn't look like the trend will be disappearing anytime soon. The global ketogenic diet food market is estimated to reach $12.3 billion by 2024, according to an October 2019 report from market research firm Mordor Intelligence.
Thanks to that kind of market growth, 2019 was the year of accessibility for keto. Brands like Folios and Lenny & Larry's created keto-friendly versions of every food imaginable — from cookies to sandwich wraps made out of cheese — to entice keto devotees and dabblers alike.
"The opportunity was to offer a delicious cookie that's not only keto but also meets the needs of people who are eating low-carb, gluten-free, vegan or dairy-free, which is becoming a cumulatively larger group of people," Megan Crossland, VP of marketing for Lenny & Larry's, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
When keto foods are easy to find and headlines like "I Lost 120 Pounds on the Keto Diet and Got My Blood Sugar in Check" and "I Tried the Keto Diet and Lost 75 Pounds in Less Than a Year" and "This Man Lost More Than 200 Pounds Thanks to Keto and CrossFit" are everywhere, it's difficult to see why you wouldn't want to try the fad diet of the year.
But just because your favorite foods have "gone keto" doesn't mean you should, too. The keto diet was originally used as a treatment for seizures, not as a weight-loss technique. There's actually very little large-scale, long-term, human research on weight loss and the keto diet; and the limited research that is available suggests the diet's results aren't sustainable over the long run, according to an analysis of studies published in Nutrients in May 2017.
If you do decide to try the low-carb trend, keep in mind that there's no one-size-fits-all keto diet, Maya Feller, RDN, nutritionist and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
"It's based on the individual and how their body reacts to a diet over time," she says, adding that, generally, it's best to stick to whole and minimally processed foods so you can avoid overdoing it on sodium or saturated fat, both of which increase your risk of long-term health risks associated with the keto diet. Look for foods with a short ingredient list and no trans fats, often listed as hydrogenated oils on labels.
Feller also recommends looking for snacks that contain nutrients Americans commonly lack (like calcium, vitamin D, potassium and fiber), as well as being mindful of a food's actual serving size, because some packages contain more than one.
Generally speaking, a diet that focuses on reducing sugar and processed carbs and increasing quality fats and protein is a good idea; but research on keto's effectiveness is limited and suggests the diet is difficult to maintain for long periods of time. If you're looking for a clinically proven, long-term weight loss solution, keto probably isn't your best bet. (May we recommend the Mediterranean Diet instead?) If you do plan on going keto, aim to get most of your fat from plants (think: nuts, seeds, veggie oils, avocado) rather than meat. Most importantly, always speak with your doctor before starting any new diet plan.
Keto-friendly snacks we like:
- Dang Keto Unsweetened Coconut Chips ($4.24, Amazon.com)
- GG Scandinavian Bran Crispbread All Natural Bran Crackers ($16.90 for 5, Amazon.com) paired with cheese sticks
- Hippie Snacks Avocado Crisps ($19.99 for 4, Amazon.com)
2. Cauliflower Reinvented Itself (Again)
Cauliflower had the best kind of identity crisis this year. In January, Caulipower (makers of our favorite cauli pizza crust) launched its cauliflower tortillas; in February, snack brand Real Food From the Ground Up debuted a line of cauliflower-based Stars, Stalks and Tortilla Chips; in July, Juice Press began offering cauliflower as a low-sugar alternative to bananas in its smoothies; and the list goes on.
"Cauliflower has taken off because people are looking for lower-carb options — and it's not just folks who are following a keto diet," says Elizabeth Stein, founder of purely elizabeth., a breakfast brand that now offers Cauli Hot Cereal in Cinnamon Almond and Strawberry Hazelnut flavors.
Cauliflower's bragging rights go beyond being low-carb and low-cal: It's a great source of fiber — one cup of cooked cauli contains about 11 percent of your daily recommended value — and packed with key nutrients, including vitamin C, vitamin K, B6, folate and potassium.
The problem, however, is when we become binary in our thinking. When we view cauliflower pizza or gnocchi as "good" and regular pizza or gnocchi as "bad," we can start to develop unhealthy relationships with food.
But just because you can find broccoli's blander cousin in almost any food product these days doesn't mean those products are healthier than the originals.
"People often turn to cauliflower products with the motivation of reducing calories or total carbohydrates in a meal," Feller says. "I always say there is more to a meal than calories and macronutrients. It's important to read products' nutrition facts labels so that you make an informed choice."
Like with any processed food, look for a short ingredients lists, and if you're deciding between two (or three!) cauli options, pick the one with less sodium.
As for whether Feller wants to see cauli continue to reign in 2020, she's torn: "If this is a trend that is getting people in our country to increase their consumption of vegetables, then sure, I don't see it as a negative."
The problem, however, is when we become binary in our thinking, she says. When we view cauliflower pizza or gnocchi as "good" and regular pizza or gnocchi as "bad," we can start to develop unhealthy relationships with food.
Incorporating cauliflower into lots of different food products makes it easier for us to eat our veggies and reap the nutritional benefits. But the health halo struggle is real — it’s easy to be duped into buying products that are nutritionally inferior just because they contain the healthy ingredient of the moment. So enjoy your cauli swaps, but remember that your health doesn’t depend on them. Always read product labels and avoid any with long ingredients lists or tons of sodium. Keep in mind, too, that some of these lower-carb products are still made with flour.
Cauli products we like:
- Caulipower Plain Pizza Crust ($49.99 for 4, Amazon.com)
- Caulipower Cauliflower Tortilla ($37.99 for 32, Amazon.com)
- Real Food From the Ground Up Cauliflower Sea Salt Crackers ($22.50 for 6, Amazon.com)
3. Faux Meat Got Real
Plant-based eating is nothing new: People have been grilling tofu and grazing on grain bowls for decades. But 2019 saw a new plant-based boom when fake meat infiltrated even fast-food burger menus. The faux-meat market is expected to grow from a $14 billion industry today to $140 billion by 2029, according to an August 2019 Barclays Investment Bank report.
"YouTube and Instagram are full of influencers showing what they eat in a day and making a point that plant-based eating is fulfilling and desirable," Jill Edwards, CNS and director of education at the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
But this trend goes beyond internet buzz. Driven by growing concerns about the environment, our health and animal cruelty, Edwards says, plant-based food sales in the U.S. grew by 11 percent over the past year while total retail food sales grew by just 2 percent, according to the Plant Based Foods Association.
New and forthcoming meat alternatives run the gamut, with some made from whole foods (think: peas, lentils and beans) and others — like so-called "lab-grown" meats — produced from real animals' stem cells.
While lab-grown meat isn't available in your supermarket just yet, deceivingly meaty plant-based burgers, like the Beyond and Impossible Burgers, are. The Impossible Burger was so popular this year, the company could barely keep up with demand: From April to July 2019, there was a legit shortage of meatless patties. Newcomers like The Awesome Burger from Nestlé and Dr. Praeger's Perfect Burger also debuted in aisles in 2019.
If you can't fathom ever eating a meat-free burger, you don't have to: Blended burgers, which bulk up traditional burgers with better-for-you veggies, will be big in 2020, according to Whole Foods Market.
Mock meats taste like the real thing, sneak more fiber-rich veggies into your diet and help reduce your carbon footprint. Just keep in mind that plant-based meat products are still processed foods and can come with a lengthy ingredient list, so make them a once-in-a-while meal and pick a product with less than 20 percent of your Daily Value (DV on nutrition labels) of sodium (Lightlife, below, has a touch more).
Plant-based meats we like:
4. CBD Became All-Consuming
From cookie dough and sparkling water to popcorn and chocolate, the seemingly infinite number of edible products that now contain CBD overwhelmed all of our senses in 2019.
Quick recap: CBD, or cannabidiol, is the non-psychoactive component of cannabis (aka marijuana) that is said to come with countless health benefits, including soothing sore muscles, easing anxiety and inducing sleep.
CBD originally gained traction in 2018, when the U.S. Farm Bill removed hemp (a strain of the cannabis plant from which CBD can be extracted) from the Controlled Substances Act. The move made the production of CBD-containing products not only legal but also a bit more affordable. Cue the countless CBD products that infiltrated the wellness space — fast.
Chefs predicted CBD-infused beverages and foods would be the top two biggest trends in food in 2019, according to a January 2019 survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association.
Not surprisingly, brands listened. Mondelez, the maker of household staples like Oreos and Triscuits, announced that it was considering entering the CBD snack space in May (it hasn't, yet). Smaller companies have acted faster. You can now find Recess, the millennial-friendly CBD sparkling water brand that calls its product "an antidote to modern times," both online and in some stores.
But is CBD really all it's cracked up to be?
"There is a lot of promise, but the science-based evidence for therapeutic benefits for general use [of CBD] still requires further research," Feller says.
Though some research, such as a suggests CBD may be beneficial for treating rare forms of epilepsy, it's not yet clear whether the substance is indeed the cure-all it's often purported to be.
"Overall, there's no research indicating that CBD is harmful in any way, but consumers must be aware that it is being advertised for claims that have not yet been proven," Feller adds. "Additionally, CBD is unregulated, so the quality you are getting could vary significantly from source to source."
You've seen CBD tinctures and infused gummies and sparkling waters everywhere, but the verdict on whether cannabidiol is effective for anxiety, sleep and other health claims is still up in the air. Until more research is done, we recommend saving your hard-earned cash and sipping on a cup of good ol' chamomile tea instead:
5. Consumers Went Against the Grain
In 2019, new products that nix grains continued to entice people following a wide range of meal plans, including the paleo and keto diets, as well as gluten-free eaters.
"A grain-free diet is automatically a gluten-free diet, but it takes it one more step by removing gluten-free grains such as rice and millet," says Stacey Marcellus, co-founder and co-CEO of Cappello's, which launched seven new grain-free products in July 2019, including almond flour-based pizzas, pastas and cookie dough.
Dr. Hyman says he's all for healthy grain-free alternatives, but quality counts: "Gluten-free and grain-free cakes and cookies are still cakes and cookies."
"Look at the label. Are there ingredients that you can't pronounce? Is there still a ton of sugar in the product?"
The problem, he says, is that the food industry aims to demonize certain substances, then replaces them with equally questionable ingredients.
"A low-carb fake food might be higher in trans fat, artificial sweeteners and excessive amounts of sugar alcohols. And a fat-free food is surefire code for higher sugar content or artificial sweeteners," he adds. "Look at the label. Are there ingredients that you can't pronounce? Is there still a ton of sugar in the product? There are some really stellar [grain-free] brands out there. You just have to be savvy when it comes to labels."
The label for Cappello's double chocolate chip cookie dough, for example, notes that the product is free from gluten, dairy, soy and yeast, and is made from paleo, vegan, vegetarian and non-GMO ingredients. While it caters to the wellness world's growing obsession with "free from" foods, it's also made exclusively from familiar (and pronounceable) ingredients, including almond flour, organic maple syrup, coconut oil and vanilla extract.
Grown-up cereals also went grain-free this year. Magic Spoon, for one, launched its "childlike cereal for adults" (it comes in fruity, frosted and cocoa flavors) that's high-protein, keto-friendly, non-GMO and free from gluten, grains, soy and wheat.
If all that sounds delicious to you, you're in luck: Whole Foods Market predicts grain-free goods are here to stay.
Predominantly grain-based products like pizza crusts, cookie dough and cereal went grain-free this year. Just don't assume these gluten-free swaps are healthier — always look at the back of the package to make sure your snack is free from added sugars, preservatives and artificial ingredients.
Grain-free grub we like:
6. Produce Quit the Beauty Pageant
We've all passed over misshapen apples or funky-looking carrots in favor of more "normal-looking" options at one point or another. "Supermarkets couldn't sell produce unless it was perfect-looking and pretty," says Lisa McManus, executive testings and tastings editor at America's Test Kitchen in Boston. "This led to them selling us hard, unripe tomatoes that taste like golf balls, and apples that are deep red, but mealy and flavorless."
Now, a burgeoning group of businesses "rescue" this so-called ugly produce from farms and wholesalers and then sell it at a discount (about 30 to 50 percent less than retail prices) via subscription boxes.
"Finally, more people are realizing that we should not be wasting produce just because it doesn't look like a wax model of that food," Dr. Hyman says. "Anyone who has spent time around a garden, orchard or farm knows that the funny-looking food often tastes the best — and isn't that what we really want?" he says.
Many of the early startups figured that out a few years ago — Hungry Harvest started in a dorm basement in 2014, Imperfect Foods joined the market as "Imperfect Produce" in 2015 and Perfectly Imperfect Produce officially launched in 2017 — but 2019 was the year ugly produce truly went mainstream, which included lots of cute marketing (heart-shaped potatoes, "ugly" canoodling carrots) taking over our newsfeeds.
Misfits Market launched in the summer of 2018 serving just the Greater Philadelphia area. By June 2019, the company announced it had raised $16.5 million in venture capital funds and now plans to deliver to 26 states and Washington, D.C., by the end of this year. "In the past year, we've rescued more than 10 million pounds of food that would have gone to waste," Abhi Ramesh, the CEO and founder of Misfits Market in Philadelphia, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Business is so good, in fact, that ugly produce isn't enough anymore. Imperfect Produce rebranded into Imperfect Foods and branched into non-produce in the spring of 2019, rolling out offerings that include grains, dairy and eggs, proteins and pantry staples, all of which would have been otherwise wasted because of packaging issues, manufacturing surpluses or concerns over appearance. Not to be outdone, Misfits Market began offering grains, herbs, spices, coffee and other pantry staples in November.
But while the concept behind ugly produce subscription boxes is definitely alluring — who wouldn't want to put an end to food waste and save money on groceries at the same time? — the reality is a little more complicated.
For starters, most food that ends up in the trash doesn't get there because no store will sell it: 80 percent of food waste comes from homes (raise your hand if you bought more kale than you could use in last week's lunch salads), grocery stores and restaurants, according to the food waste nonprofit ReFED.
Before ugly food got its makeover, farmers were already finding good uses for it, not trashing it. They fed misshapen produce to animals or turned it into fertilizer, crop scientist Sarah Taber wrote for the Washington Post in March 2019. Or it got mashed into salsa, soups and jams, where you'd never know what the original tomato actually looked like.
"To be clear, ugly produce isn't bad. If it works for your budget and routine, use it: Our distribution systems should make food affordable and accessible," Taber wrote. "But the movement's narrative, built around tales of dented squash rotting in fields, distracts us from the data about the real sources of waste and how to address them."
Ugly produce is essentially misshapen fruits and vegetables that don't make the cut to be sold at supermarkets. Brands rescuing these fruits and veggies aren't going to singlehandedly solve the food-waste crisis, but it's a tasty start — and just as nutritious as the stuff you're used to buying.
7. Alt-Dairy Dominated
Brands have wasted no time making classic dairy staples like milk, yogurt and ice cream from a range of surprising ingredients (like peas, cashews and oats). Lavva, which launched its dairy-free yogurt made from pili nuts (a nut native to the Philippines), coconut and cassava in 2018, fuses multiple mega-trends — zero added sugars, gut-healthy probiotics and prebiotics — and doesn't skimp on creaminess.
Silk and Stonyfield have also come out with vegan yogurts. So Delicious has an oat milk-based ice cream, as does Oatly. Chobani recently launched its own line of oat-based drinks and yogurts in addition to dairy-free yogurts made from a cultured coconut blend. These options have become increasingly important as people expect to see more vegan alternatives on the market.
Ice cream giants are also stepping into the trendy dairy-free space. "Non-dairy has been a fast-growing segment for us," Sean Greenwood, director of public relations and communications for Ben & Jerry's, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Since launching four non-dairy flavors in 2016, we've now grown those offerings to over 10 flavors in pints ... and other offerings in our franchised Scoop Shops, too."
But not everyone needs to go dairy-free. "With my patients, I generally say it should be a personal choice," Feller says. "If they are able to tolerate dairy and are comfortable eating it, they should do so. If they prefer to have dairy-free products, I recommend choosing ones with limited added sugars, salts and fats."
In 2019, brands replaced the dairy in milk, yogurt and ice cream with plant-based ingredients such as oats, pili nuts and cultured coconut. If you try this trend, whether you're lactose intolerant or prefer not to eat dairy, make sure to choose products without too much added sugar.
Alt-dairy products we like:
8. Legume-Packed Swaps Swept the Market
Pasta used to be the poster child for empty carbs. But today, protein-packed alternatives have virtually reinvented traditional grain products like pasta and rice.
"When we started Banza in 2014, the legume pasta category was in its infancy," Rudolph tells LIVESTRONG.com. "More recently, we've even seen some of the largest traditional pasta manufacturers enter our space. There's no better endorsement of the inevitable future of legume-based foods than that."
Eating more legumes is good for both our bodies and the environment, Rudolph says. "Our expectation is that demand shifts toward foods that are best for people and the planet and, over time, we'll see many foods currently made from wheat, rice and corn will also have a popular version made from legumes."
The makers of RightRice — an updated grain that launched in February of this year and blends lentils, chickpeas and green peas with rice flour — expect the same: "Rice is one of the most beloved foods across all cultures and cuisines, and we believe consumer demand for healthier alternatives and more plant-based foods ... will continue to drive growth and innovation in the $2 to $3 billion rice category," the company's CEO Keith Belling tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Also nice: Because RightRice's products are 90 percent vegetables and just 10 percent rice, exposure to arsenic (which is often present in brown rice grown in the U.S.) is less of a concern.
And the nutrition details are pretty impressive, too. Both Right Rice and Banza's tricolor legume-based rice pack in over 4 grams more fiber and 6 grams more protein per serving. But who's counting?
Pasta and rice got a protein-packed makeover, and these traditionally starchy foods are now being made with fiber-rich legumes. Bean-based swaps can add serious protein and fiber to your plate, so we're all for it.
Legume products we like:
Many of the food and nutrition breakthroughs of the last 365 days are expected to follow us into the next decade — and we have a feeling health-conscious consumers will continue to seek out high-quality, functional ingredients and brands with missions they believe in. Why not eat nourishing food that tastes good and does good, too? Look for even more innovation in sustainability and transparency in 2020 and beyond. After all, you've only got one body, and we've only got one planet. Let's treat them both right.