In Lockdown: The food revolution

The world is changing in significant ways and marketers need to understand and navigate the new landscape. In our In Lockdown series, our Research & Insight teams from around the world delve into different sectors and trends, and share their learnings. Here, Research & Insight Analyst Paula Navarro examines changes in the food behaviours during the pandemic.

While governments are taking stronger measures to tackle the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 3 billion people globally are being called upon to act against the new international enemy through quarantine.

As in wartime, streets are deserted and supermarket shelves are being emptied. And even though we now know that there is no shortage of food, many wanted to create a bunker with enough food to overcome the pandemic that is now affecting the world. The first noticeable reaction of the supermarket rush was the turn to high processed foods, rich in sugars and saturated fats. ‘Comfort food’ is becoming a means of reassuring oneself in these anxious times, so much so that the WHO published a guide on good food practices to avoid negative effects on the immune system on a global scale.

Quickly though, many countries such as France and Italy advocated a return to simple joys, with a big focus on cooking. This is not surprising when we know that, according to a survey conducted by Harris Interactive in 2019, 93% of the French people surveyed recognized that food had an important place in their lives; even very important for 40% of them. 

But today, after blaming the consequences of an unreasonable food industry, people had to rethink their consumption habits and their cooking time. In France, Italy, China and New Zealand, for example, half the population say they have spent more time cooking since the beginning of the quarantine, according to a study conducted by GlobalWebIndex about the impact of Coronavirus on people’s habits. Although this trend is less strong on a global scale and affects around a third of people, it is nonetheless significant and shows that quarantine is an opportunity to return to basics, by strengthening an already existing passion and a commitment to the future.

Fighting boredom in the kitchen
Since the beginning of the lockdown, the culinary creations have been numerous … and also very sophisticated. Food is becoming more and more prevalent in households: Still according to GlobalWebIndex’s study, Millennials and Gen Z devote respectively 38% and 30% of their online shopping to food, thus becoming the main part of their spending. On Twitter, Internet users claim that for the first time in a long time, they are taking more time to cook:

Cooking in times of quarantine becomes a way to keep going, but also to keep the whole family busy, as in Derek’s family on TikTok who goes through quarantine with themed dinners shared in a humorous way. The cooking French app “Marmiton” went from 499th most downloaded application in France, to 121st as part of this trend. And although it’s time for social distancing, the French remain faithful to the conviviality generated during mealtimes by increasing their use of social networks: if they can’t share a dish with friends, they can at least share the recipe. 

So it’s not surprising to see that more and more recipes are appearing on feeds all over the world, with hashtags (#bakecorona, #confinementcooking, #coronafood, #kitchenquarantine, #quarantinebaking, #quarantinecooking etc.) and challenges that have become a global phenomenon. Since the beginning of the quarantine, for example, more than 369,000 mentions worldwide on social media were about people sharing their bread making ventures. Some renowned chefs, and brands such as Burger King France jumped on this trend to share the recipe for homemade Whopper, which amused many YouTubers who tried to reproduce the recipe of the famous Whopper. 

On Instagram, the most prominent chefs such as Taku Sekine, Yotam Ottolenghi or Massimo Bottura propose recipes for culinary gems to warm our hearts. Every day, chefs and gourmets, who usually limit themselves to sharing tempting photographs of their most refined dishes, are now taking over social networks to reveal their secrets, to a great reception. 

Interestingly, many chefs declared themselves the spokespersons of quarantine, urging their communities to stay home and respect the rules imposed by the government. For example, Jean-François Piège’s posts conclude with the same message – “Take care, stay home and cook” – while Hélène Darroze punctuates her recipes with #StayAtHome. The goal? Showing that there is no better way to fight the spread of the virus than by cooking.

Cooking to maintain our humanity
More than ever before, many chefs have become new guides of societies shaken by the health crisis. From chefs to almost spiritual chefs, the new gurus of gastronomy use Instagram to demonstrate their solidarity, especially towards hospital staff. The French chef Julien Sebbag is one of them: recognizing that medical staff had a small meal to handle its working hours, the young independent chef decided to fight alongside dedicated organizations. His movement, “La Résistance des Chefs” was launched on Instagram and is committed to mobilizing chefs, suppliers and deliveries to ensure the delivery of quality food to our caregivers. 

And what better way to spread the word about this movement and to raise awareness than through social networks? In any case, the wager has paid off, as the young chef at home keeps receiving messages from people asking how they can, at their level, contribute to the national effort. 

Numerous Instagram accounts meet this desire for citizen participation: the example of @vosgateaux invites Parisians to prepare cakes for medical staff and to inform the borough boss who takes care of delivery. But the urgency of the situation means that new sustainable economic models are being considered: The Ecotable collective, a label promoting eco-responsible restaurants, sets the tone, and on the day after Emmanuel Macron’s quarantine announcement in its manifesto:

“Our mission is to support caregivers by orchestrating what we know how to do best. Every day, we will prepare and deliver healthy and tasty meals to restore their bodies and their strength. At the same time, it will allow our producers to continue to provide us the results of their labor.”

The idea is to rethink our consumption and exploitation habits beyond the crisis, but for this to happen, suppliers, deliverers and cooks must be given the opportunity to continue their activity beyond the crisis. This is where citizens come in.

A new relationship to the plate
In the model advocated by Ecotable, there are no volunteers. The label is financed by crowdfunding, which allows each actor in the process to be paid in order to ensure its sustainability over time. Gradually, organizations seem to take up these sustainability issues to establish a new way of consumption by any means, while individual behaviours do show that our chefs are embracing a widespread trend at this time of crisis. 

The Israeli start-up Tastewise released a new data report about the food and drinks that Internet users have been searching for since the start of the coronavirus crisis. There has been a staggering 66% growth in interest in foods having functional benefits. If the start-up aims to help the food industry to better support buyers, other individual behaviours should make it more aware of our consumption habits. Some Twitter users had fun taking pictures of leftovers following the coronavirus crisis. The world’s number one taste pariah, pineapple pizza, remains neglected by consumers even in times of alleged food shortage. 

But the pandemic we are living through highlights more than ever the concerns that existed before, showing that cooking is not only about consuming but also about committing to environmental issues. A GlobalWebIndex study about the future of food shows that younger generations worry about what they consume, both in terms of health and the environment. Thus, purchases of foods considered as healthy are now more numerous among 16-22 year olds (32%) and 23-36 year olds (35%) than purchases of high processed and frozen meals (29% among 16-22 year olds; 33% among 23-36 year olds). It is also interesting to observe that this trend is reversed among 37-55 year olds. And because meat production is increasingly considered to be environmentally unfriendly, there is a growing interest in vegetarian and/or vegan diets: In 2019, 38% of American consumers, 53% of British consumers, 67% of Dutch consumers and 69% of German consumers were flexitarian, according to Innova Market Insights. 

The flexitarian diet is increasing in popularity, especially with people who do not want to commit to a full vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Moreover, in 10 years, research on a global scale related to the term “vegan” has experienced a meteoric growth, showing that users are becoming more aware of other eating habits. 

This goes hand in hand with an overall drop in the number of fast-food visits despite the meatless alternatives offered by the junk food giants: Mcdonald’s worldwide attendance dropped by 11% since the first half of 2017 despite the arrival of the Grand Burger Veggie on its menu. 

Based on this, it is clear that distrust of fast food, the preference for sustainable agriculture, vegetarianism, the proliferation of cooking shows and podcasts are dynamics that can already be observed among Millennials and GenZers. Our cooks have been able to crystallize these growing trends and grasp this window of opportunity to make them effective. When Julien Sebbag repeated on his Instagram that being sustainable also means eating seasonal products, he was simply embodying the desires of a generation that increasingly worries about environmental issues. Commiting to the environment is above all a question of “eating well” and “knowing how-to-eat”, and Sea Shepherd France’s Twitter account reminded us in a tweet about responsible eating.

*“The responsibility of cooks and the media giving them an audience would be welcome. Let’s use this period of confinement to cook, of course, but also to think about the consequences of our actions, starting with our food choices.”

Hence, the interactive recipes on Instagram, in addition to democratizing cooking, raise awareness about the food we eat which are usually eaten thoughtlessly.  However, in these times of a general health crisis, consuming local and seasonal food has never been so topical as foreign imports have slowed down: while today French farmers’ cooperatives produce only 40% of the agricultural products sold in supermarkets (i.e. 1 brand out of 3), brands and supermarkets could be better off by being part of a desire to return to the local level. This is all the more important since many are realising once again the importance of local agriculture. The French supermarket firm “Intermarché” published an advertisement thanking these “discreet heroes”. The agri-food industry has a duty to accompany these transformations within the population that might consume more local food in the future. Everything suggests that the isolation we are experiencing, because it puts our hectic pace of life on hold, will accelerate these dynamics.