Food’s tasty future

Eating habits have changed over the years. This generation’s grandparents would be baffled by culinary curiosities like kale chips or blackened burgers and they would shake their heads at the pre-dinner ritual of snapping a photograph instead of saying grace. But the brave new world of food has many other interesting shifts in store, including a passion for pulses and fascination with ancient grains. These table trends will translate into what happens within, and beyond, the farm gate.

From hedonic to healthy

Move aside, monster milkshakes. Australian eating habits are shifting away from hedonic preoccupations with taste towards a greater concerns about the health properties of different foods, says Dr Anthony Saliba, Professor of Perceptual Psychology at Charles Sturt University. This mirrors a global trend, with UK supermarket chain Waitrose noting in its Food & Drink Report 2016 that “healthy eating is no longer a bolt-on to how we live – it’s an integral part of who we are.”

This has ramped up demand for so-called superfoods, including ancient grains like amaranth, quinoa, teff, spelt, and freekeh. High-protein quinoa, for instance, is one of the few plant foods containing all nine essential amino acids, according to Australia’s Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council. A research project funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) which began in April 2015 has trialled quinoa seeds sown in different locations across Australia to better understand where and how this Andean crop grows best.

Teff, originating in Ethiopia, is another one to watch, says Simone Austin, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. Although it’s the world’s smallest known grain, it packs a real nutritional punch. Australian farmers include Fraser McNaul in Wakool, New South Wales, have begun growing the crop, and experimenting with different marketing and packaging, ABC News reports.

Modern grains, too, are getting a makeover. Sorghum, for instance, is tipped to make a grand entrance in breakfast cereals, baked chips, protein bars and biscuits, according to US media dietitian Christy Brissette. Locally, the CSIRO has successfully bred a range of new barley grains featuring beneficial properties. For example, Kebari barley has 10,000 times less hordeins, the type of gluten found in barley. This will benefit people with coeliac disease or non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, adding diversity to gluten-free diets which can often be expensive, high in fat and sugar, and low in fibre, minerals and vitamins.

Another health-related trend, noted by Innova Market Insights’ Top Ten Trends list for 2017, is that of ‘Disruptive Green’ – that is, relating to plant-based milks, meat alternatives and vegan offerings moving into the mainstream. Market Research firm Euromonitor International estimates Australia’s packaged vegan food market is currently worth close to $136 million, and predicts it will reach $215 million by 2020. The popularity of programs such as Sarah Wilson’s “I Quit Sugar” have also led to growing interest in alternative sweeteners such as stevia, rapadura and agave nectar.

From paddock to plate

Local artisan foods using seasonal produce, local labour and innovative concepts, is another major mover, according to Silver Chef’s Hospitality Industry Success Index 2017. Amanda Garner, Chair of Australian Native Food Industry Limited (ANFIL), agrees that Australians’ interests in provenance, sustainable agriculture, and paddock to plate eating will only gain momentum. When combined with consumers’ current focus on health, this is very good news for farmers considering growing native foods such as desert limes, lemon myrtle, bush tomato, quandong, pepperberries and Kakadu plum. “There’s nothing more sustainable than growing native foods which are localised for your region, and adapted to the soil,” Garner says.

Native foods have been on Australians’ radars for a few decades. They have, however, shrugged off their earlier ‘bush tucker’ tag which brought to mind foods like witchetty grubs which “were not palatable or of any interest to the average Aussie”, Garner explains. Now, native foods are emerging as a force to be reckoned with. A chef, and farmer, Garner has long been interested in the potential of the desert’s bounty. “With eight years of severe drought in Central Western NSW, I developed a need for drought tolerant crops on our property,” she explains. “I researched saltbush plantation, native grain and pasture crops and … discovered a relatively untapped area of expertise.”

Boutique producers and providores are also poised to benefit from this trend and by tapping into the growing gastro-tourism market. Coolamon Cheese in New South Wales, for example, handcrafts mouth-watering wheels of cheese – including a range featuring native flavours such as bush tucker. It is also a destination in its own right, after transforming an historic 1920’s co-op building into a cheese kitchen, deli and courtyard, plus a factory and production facility where visitors can view the cheese making and maturation process.

Finger on the pulse

TV shows like Masterchef has spawned cooks keen to experiment in the kitchen. Pulses such as chickpeas, broad beans and lentils, may offer them a nutritious new frontier, Saliba says. “Pulses have been around for a long time, but they haven’t risen to prominence,” he explains. The latest data suggests, however, that their popularity is about to “explode”. There will also be pockets of strong demand growth in emerging economies for Australian products such as nuts, according to the RIRDC’s Rural Industry Futures: Megatrends impacting Australian agriculture over the coming twenty years report. Austin says almonds have nutritional properties that make them “an important part of our diet”. According to the Almond Board of Australia, this year’s crop will be the largest on record. That’s something to crunch on.

© 2022 Denise Cullen