The Top 10 Healthy Food Trends to Expect in 2021

The Top 10 Healthy Food Trends to Expect in 2021

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In the new year, you can expect to find more gut-friendly foods in the grocery store.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed nearly every aspect of life — and our diet habits were no exception. For example, many people stockpiled bottled water for hydration and yeast for bread making and comfort. There was a banana bread baking boom, and, with a temporary shortage of meat last year, you may have given plant-based eating a shot for the first time.

“I’m excited to see more vegetarian and vegan food options available after the onslaught of meat-heavy keto diets,” says Lisa Andrews, a registered dietitian based in Cincinnati. “More and more research supports plant-based diets for our overall health and the health of the planet.” For example, following a high-quality plant-based diet may reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease and premature death, suggests a study published in September 2019 in Circulation.

Six percent of Americans report following a plant-based diet in the past year, according to the 2020 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Food & Health Survey. (The previous year, 5 percent reported following this eating approach.) In 2020, plant-based eating ranked below another popular eating plan, the keto diet (8 percent), and above vegetarian (4 percent) and vegan diets (1 percent).

“Plant-based eating is a trend that we don’t see going away anytime soon,” says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, director of research and nutrition communications at IFIC. “There is sustained interest in eating more plant protein, while at the same time many people report eating less animal protein.”

Yet eating more plants isn’t the only way Americans have begun approaching food differently during the pandemic. To offer a preview of the most important healthy food trends of the new year, we chatted with nationally respected registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) to hear about what most stood out at the 2020 Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics virtual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, and what foods they’re hearing about in their own practices.

RELATED: The Best and Worst Diets for Sustained Weight Loss

Despite these trends, know that it’s always best to reach for whole, unprocessed foods to get the most nutritional bang for your buck. Here, you’ll find suggestions for those kinds of foods, too.

Read on to discover what’s on the must-try list for healthy foods in 2021.

1

Gut-Friendly Fare Is Still Hot

thats it protein bars fig mango blueberry banana

Here’s happy news for your tummy: Good-for-your-gut foods aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “With as much as 80 percent of the immune system tied to the gut, it makes sense that many of us will be focused on enhancing gut health,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, who is based in Sparta, New Jersey, and is the author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet.

Practically speaking, this means that the health of your gut directly impacts your immune system. “The foods we eat play a large role in the composition of the gut microbiome, the bacteria and other microbes that live in the gut,” says Palinski-Wade. “What you eat can improve or damage the microbiome, which then in turn impacts the immune system.”

Digestive health is a goal for 46 percent of Americans, per the IFIC survey. Many gut-helping foods contain probiotics, prebiotics, or both. Probiotics contain bacteria and yeasts that support the population of healthy gut microbes. Prebiotics, on the other hand, help promote the growth of healthy gut bacteria, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Gut health plays a role in more than only immunity. “The gut is where nutrient absorption happens, which provides our body with the micronutrients it needs to carry on the functions of daily life,” explains Palinski-Wade. “The gut-brain connection also plays a role in mood regulation and even sleep, so supporting gut health is critical to how your body functions as well as how you feel.”

Standard probiotic-boasting beverages like probiotic-rich Health-Ade Kombucha and GT’s Living Foods Probiotic Shots are ready to drink. During the fermentation process, probiotics essentially eat sugars to turn them into bubbles and good-for-you acids — aka kombucha. What’s new for 2021? Local Roots Kombucha offers hard kombucha, and you can even sip probiotics in Lipton’s T-Probiotic tea — a combo of matcha, mint, maté, and probiotics.

If you want to try fermented foods but kombucha isn’t your thing, you have options beyond plain yogurt. That’s It.’s Probiotic Fruit Bars contain a combo of prebiotics and probiotics. And Lifeway Kefir spreadable farmer cheese is strained from kefir and contains a dozen strains of probiotics. And then there’s Farmhouse Culture’s Kraut Krisps, made from, well, sauerkraut.

Standard probiotic foods include kvass, kimchi, and plain kefir itself. “There are good products out there with probiotics and prebiotics,” says Tara Collingwood, RDN, a performance dietitian in Orlando, Florida. “But also just enjoy eating real, fresh, whole foods that are good for the gut!” Examples of gut-friendly whole foods include yogurt, unpasteurized sauerkraut, and kimchi.

RELATED: 10 Best and Worst Foods to Fight Belly Bloat

2

If Chickpeas Are a Staple of Your Diet, Get Excited

biena honey roasted chickpeas

“You used to just see chickpeas in cans and made into hummus,” says Palinski-Wade. “Now you can find chickpeas in everything, from pasta to chips to cereal. I am excited about this trend, since it makes it even easier to reduce refined carbohydrate intake of common foods like potato chips and pasta — and replace it with a slow-digested whole grain that will be more satisfying while helping to better regulate blood glucose levels.”

Chickpeas are one smart swap. You can enjoy them in products such as chickpea pizza from Banza, savory bars made with chickpeas from Slow Up, chickpea puffs from Hippeas, chickpea cereal from Three Wishes, and flavored roasted chickpeas like Falafel Crunchy Chickpeas from Saffron Road and Honey Roasted Chickpea Snacks from Biena.

Also, enjoying these comfort-food substitutions for pizza, pasta, and chips can help you fit extra veggies into your diet. That’s because chickpeas count as a bean and a vegetable, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Few people eat enough veggies or pulses,” says Samantha Cassetty, a New York City–based registered dietitian and coauthor of Sugar Shock. Pulses are edible seeds of the plants in the legume family, according to USA Pulses. “Even if you don’t swap all of your pasta for a vegetable noodle, you can’t go wrong with boosting your veggie intake,” adds Cassetty.

3

Veggies Are Getting More Convenient to Eat

green giant simply steam garlic and herb

While registered dietitians will never tell you not to cook up a side of veggies with your meal, many convenience products are making it easier to get a dose of extra vegetables from foods you’re already eating. Take Otamot’s Vodka Sauce, for example. In addition to featuring tomatoes, the sauce contains a whole palette of veggies — including carrots, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, onions, and red beets.

You’ll also find waffles made from zucchini and carrots from Evergreen, and kale pesto and cauliflower Alfredo sauce from Do Anything Foods. And if you want a ready-made veggie side that you can pull from the freezer? Caulipower offers frozen sweet potato slices that you just pop into the toaster oven, Green Giant makes no-salt-added seasoned frozen vegetables, and Bird’s Eye sells frozen riced cauliflower.

“Every food you can imagine is being refocused with a veg twist, and we can all benefit from eating more plants,” says New York City–based Maya Feller, RD, author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook.

RELATED: 6 Expert Tips for Switching to a Plant-Based Diet

4

The Gluten-Free Diet Is Still Popular In the New Year

88 acres chocolate sea salt see nola

These days, gluten-free options abound — and they’re getting more and more creative as 2021 revs up. “Foods using grain alternatives like almond, coconut, and cassava flours are major trends we’ll continue to see in 2021,” says Cassetty. “These products are typically gluten-free, and they often satisfy requirements for popular eating plans, like the paleo and Whole30 diets. But even if you’re not following these programs, products using these grain-free flours are often healthy — with less added sugar or higher-quality oils, anti-inflammatory oils such as avocado oil compared with traditional [refined grain] options.”

In America, 6 percent of people reported following a gluten-free diet in 2020, per the IFIC survey. This number has held steady over recent years. In addition to seed-based granola from 88 Acres, almond-flour bars from Simple Mills, and brown rice flour and sprouted corn flour from One Degree Organic Foods, you’ll see quinoa croutons from Carrington Farms, cassava tortillas from Siete Family Foods, English muffins with a base of almond and coconut flour from Mikey’s, and crackers made from sweet potato and beets from RW Garcia.

One thing to keep in mind: “Just because a product’s packaging says ‘gluten-free,’ this doesn’t mean it’s the healthier alternative,” advises Feller. “Always opt for the minimally processed option.”

5

Say Cheers to More Alcohol-Free Drink Options

damrak virgin 0.0

Mocktails — whether in the form of a fancy sparkling water or an alcohol-free, alcohol-like beverage — are growing as a trend. “I think people are becoming more interested in mocktails as the field of mindfulness is growing,” says Andrews. “Alcohol consumption may blur emotions, rather than allowing a person to feel what they feel.” And thus more and more alcohol-free special sips are popping up on virtual grocery store shelves.

“People want lower-calorie options that still feel like they’re having a little celebration,” adds Andrews. And Keri Gans, RDN, a nutritionist in New York City and author of The Small Change Diet, agrees. “In 2021, I will not be surprised if more sparkling types of beverages enter the market as a healthy alternative to soda and possibly even appeal to those individuals seeking a tasty nonalcoholic beverage,” she says.

Want to toast with an alcohol-free choice? Make your own mocktail with a 50-calorie Craftstirs Cocktail Mix, colored with vegetable juice, and nonalcoholic Ritual Zero Proof Tequila, 0 percent alcohol Damrak Virgin Gin, or Ceder’s nonalcoholic “gin.” Or choose Suntory, a sparkling malt and hops drink with zero calories and zero alcohol. If it’s artisan soda you’re craving, go for a 30-calorie strawberry basil soda or lemon verbena soda from United Sodas of America.

RELATED: 10 Mocktail Recipes So Good You Won’t Believe They’re Booze-Free

6

Enjoy Fuss-Free Cooking With More Healthy, Ready-to-Heat Meals

veggieful veggie bowl garlic herb roasted red pepper southwest corn

Raise your hand if you relied on ready-to-eat and heat-and-eat entrées in 2020. “As the pandemic continues, people have cooking fatigue,” says Judy Barbe, RD, who’s based in Casper, Wyoming. “More flavor options keep home cooking more satisfying — and more economical.”

Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, who’s based in Brunswick, Maryland, thinks the same. “Meal delivery services will continue to be hot in 2021, with the possibility of people continuing to work from home, homeschooling children, and avoiding public places. Meal delivery services can cater to different food preferences and lifestyles, offer immune-friendly ingredients and recipes, and improve upon local food sourcing and sustainability.”

A little more than half of Americans say that convenience has an important impact on their decision to buy foods and beverages, per the IFIC survey. As for out-of-the-box refrigerated and frozen entrée options, think veggie and quinoa bowls from Del Monte, pear and arugula flatbread from Daily Harvest, paleo chicken entrées from Kevin’s Natural Foods, and frozen vegetarian meals from Mosaic. You’ll see more and more meal delivery services on the offer — the category is expected to grow to $19.2 billion by 2027, per a report by Grand View Research. You can choose from vegan and gluten-free Go Buddha Meals, low-FODMAP meals from Epicured, and meals for almost any eater — from plant-based and keto to Whole30 — from Territory Foods.

7

Keto- and Paleo-Friendly Foods Are Staying Trendy

quevos egg white chips dill pickle sour cream onion rancheros

Eating plans for desired weight loss aren’t waning in popularity. In 2021, you’ll find food labels promoting specific dietary patterns, such as paleo and keto. Think keto-friendly egg white chips from Quevos, air-dried steak snacks from Stryve, and keto and grain-free paleo snack puffs from Lesser Evil.

The great thing about these snacks: In addition to fitting into their advertised eating style, they’re made with whole-food ingredients and are helpful for other types of eaters — for instance, vegetarians aiming to incorporate more protein into snack time get the nutrient from Quevos.

Of course, be sure to talk to your doctor before trying any restrictive diet plan, including keto and paleo, and keep in mind that just because a food is compliant in a particular weight loss plan doesn’t mean it is considered healthy (even more so if it’s processed).

RELATED: A Complete Keto Diet Food List and 7-Day Sample Menu

8

Naturally Sweetened Foods Abound to Help Satisfy Cravings

gluten free coconut sugar spice instant oatmeal

“Americans eat far too much added sugar, so I’m always excited to see new products designed with lower amounts of unnecessary added sugars,” says Cassetty. “As people are getting savvier about added sugars and how a sugary diet can influence your risk of illnesses like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, memory problems, and mood disorders, they’re seeking products that are using less added sugar. I’ve seen cereals sweetened with dates and flavored yogurts that contain no or low amounts of added sugar, to name a few. I’m excited to see more of these enter the scene in 2021.”

These products include instant oatmeal sweetened with cinnamon from One Degree Organic Foods and no-added-sugar yogurt flavored with fruit and spices from Siggi’s.

“Now that the food label has officially been updated, it’s easy to spot added sugars on the nutrition facts panel,” says Cassetty, who notes that about 75 to 80 percent of packaged foods contain added sugars. “And there are about 50 types used by manufacturers to make food sweeter and more appealing,” she says. “With the label updates, many products have either been reformulated or introduced with less added sugar than we’ve seen in the past. Keep in mind that even when a product has a reasonable amount of added sugar, you still need to check the ingredients to make sure it’s also made with mostly whole-food ingredients such as oats, nuts, and seeds.”

9

Food Samplers Help You Expand Your Palate

melissas exotic fruit

This past year was the time to find new ways to excite and entertain ourselves — and that includes making food discoveries. Enter subscription boxes for everything from coffee samplers from Mistobox and Brothers, hot sauce boxes from Gindo’s, exotic fruit deliveries from Melissa’s produce, and spicy condiments from Bushwick Kitchen.

You can even tour the world with Japanese snack boxes from Bokksu, get a monthly snack shipment via Snack Crate of around-the-world eats, or get a curated delivery of international foods from Try the World.

What’s more, many of these samplers support small businesses, a goal for many of us in the year to come.

RELATED: 20 Food and Nutrition Myths You Shouldn’t Believe

10

A Greater Variety of Packaged Plant-Based Foods Make Caring for the Environment Easier

outer aisle plantpower sandwich thins

“Plant-forward products will continue on trend for 2021 — not only for their known health benefits, but because of their relationship with sustainability,” says Gans. “More and more consumers are becoming concerned with where their food comes from and how it affects the environment. Those companies that share a positive environmental story will be sought after.”

The plant-based packaged-food category is more expansive than ever — sales of plant-based foods have soared by 29 percent over the past two years, according to data from The Good Food Institute. “The plant-based movement ties into a number of trending consumer priorities, including health protection, environmental stewardship, and ethically driven eating,” says Cynthia Sass, RD, MPH, who is in private practice in New York City and Los Angeles. “My clients constantly tell me they feel better physically and feel good about how they are spending their food dollars when they eat more plant-based foods.”

When it comes to new finds, think pumpkinseed butter from 88 Acres; loaves with fruits, nuts, seeds, and grains from Read the Ingredients; and cauliflower-based sandwich thins from Outer Aisle.

“I am loving the persistence of plant-forward eating, along with eating with sustainability in mind,” says Feller. “Both of these trends focus on increasing whole and minimally processed, plant-based foods that provide a plethora of phytonutrients that impart health benefits.”

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