Food in 2016 is a lot like television in 2016: It's both better, and worse, than it's ever been.
On the negative side, there are more choices than ever, and most of those choices are pure junk. (Plus, TV is even more like food, because now both are subject to guilt-inducing binges.)
But on the positive side, the 35 Hottest Healthy Restaurants in America are paving the way for some amazing trends. And if you spend a little time hunting, and sharing tips and recommendations with friends, there's even more smart and delicious fare to enjoy than ever before. So while we won't try to alter your TV viewing habits, we do hope we'll have a little bit of an impact on your eating habits. Here's a look at some of the most interesting food trends of the coming year, and what you can expect to be tasting.
How Much Do I Tip the Tablet?
After 90 years of serving Americans impersonal meals through the steel doors of a massive vending machine, the last Automat closed in 1991. But over the next several years, many of the restaurants you visit may start to feel like giant vending machines. Last fall, Ruby Tuesday began testing tabletop tablets in its restaurants, allowing customers to order and pay without having to interact with the wait staff. And you don't even have to interact with your family: While you wait for your food, you can play games on the device. It follows Red Robin, which rolled out its own set of touchscreen tablets in early 2015. Chili's, Johnny Rockets, Applebee's and Olive Garden have also been playing with the use of tablets. Meanwhile, the concept of automats is growing around the country, like the 2014 opening last year of the Cupcake ATM in New York City. The only thing we wonder is how can we then take advantage of secret menu options at popular restaurants?
"I Recommend Today's Vintage"
Word association: I say "juice," you say…
Most likely, your word was "cleanse," or maybe "fast." (Unless you have a 3-year-old, in which case it was "box.") But some juice companies are starting to rebel against the idea that you have to be on a radical weight-loss program in order to enjoy their wares. "Please drink our juice once a day…but please don't only drink juice," Ann Yang, cofounder of Misfit Juicery, told Washington Post readers. Meanwhile, a number of restaurants around the country have been expanding their juice menus to create meal pairings. The juice buzzword of 2016: chlorophyll, the lifeblood of plants that helps the body assimilate protein and calcium and improves the flow of oxygen through the body.
A Less Sloppy Happy Hour
At Kavasutra Kava Bar, you won't find the traditional selection of beers on tap and liquors against the back shelf. Instead, this bar—with locations in Colorado, Florida and New York—specializes in tea brewed from the kava root.
They may be on to something: In one study, 120 mg of kava-kava was administered daily over 6 weeks to patients who had stress-induced insomnia. The results suggested a statistically significant improvement in sleep latency, duration, and waking mood. A 2010 study out of Melbourne found its efficacy so impressive that the Kava Anxiety-Lowering Medication (KALM) project was established to lobby for its re-introduction. That said, good luck blaming your latest hookup on "tea goggles."
Meanwhile, tea bars a springing up all over, from Tea Bar & Fusion Café in Chico, CA to ZenTea Atlanta Tea Room to Brooklyn's Tea Lounge, which opened 15 years ago, is now offering franchise opportunities for people who want to bring its menu of 65 loose organic teas to other thirsty parts of the globe. They just launched their first in Kuwait, of all places. Of course, not everything new is all that new: Watts Tea Shop in Milwaukee is celebrating its 147th year of operation. To host your own trendy sipping hour, find out How to Throw the Best Tea Party Ever.
Sour Patch Kids
Thanks the to much-evolved taste buds of hipster millennials, expect to see more bitter and sour flavors emerge in 2016. Speaking at an industry event last year, Mintel global food scientist Stephanie Mattucci said that as people become more aware of the dangers of sugar, they're not just turning away from the white stuff, but from sweet tastes altogether. And food marketers are responding: Ice cream parlors are experimenting with flavors ranging from blueberry basil bourbon to foie gras, all the more to drive interest among foodies looking for the new thing to post to Instagram, says Scott Moloney, owner of Treat Dreams in Ferndale, Michigan. Whether or not you're a millennial, don't miss these interesting and timely 42 Food Qs From Millennials—Answered in 5 Words or Less.
Let's Get Fat!
In February of last year, the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee dropped their longstanding recommendation that we should limit dietary cholesterol and animal fat. And one recent study found that acids in milk fat may actually crank up your body's calorie-burning centers!
Thanks to the new research and the loosening of government guidelines, American supermarkets are now starting to sell more full-fat dairy products to meet consumer demand. "We still sell plenty of nonfat and low-fat dairy products, but the growth has come from whole-fat dairy products," says Errol Schweizer, executive grocery coordinator at Whole Foods Market, tells the Wall Street Journal. "A lot of customers have been going toward minimally processed dairy products, and that includes products that have the fat left in."
A Mas Macho Matcha
Speaking of tea: Green tea isn't just found in your grandma's fine china anymore, the trendy brew has been popping up in everything from cookies and ice cream to Greek yogurt and even salt! And it's not just a grocery store trend. New York City hotspots like Victory Garden and Juice Generation have been adding matcha into their menu items to cater to their health-minded clientele. Expect to see more tea-infused products in the year ahead. And tea itself is a growing commodity; sales of liquid tea grew more than 17 percent last year, according to Nielsen.Make the most of the benefits from tea with The 7-Day Flat-Belly Tea Cleanse! Test panelists lost up to 10 pounds in one week!
Speaking of the USDA, the government agency's new recommendation to limit added sugar to 10% of daily calories finally brings them in line with the American Heart Association and other health organizations. The move follows a 2014 study by NPD Group, an industry research firm, that found sugar has surpassed fat as the number one food consumers want to avoid in their diets. And shipments of sugar substitutes to foodservice outlets increased by 22 percent between 2014 and 2015. Stevia is the fastest growing sweetener, with shipments up 11 percent, according to NPD.
This new focus on the dangers of sugar has put companies under increasing pressure to reduce the amount of the sweet stuff they put into their products. (Same goes for restaurants. Have you seen these 23 Restaurant Foods With Crazy-High Amounts of Sugar?) Expect to see more products advertising 'natural sweeteners,' like stevia, maple syrup, agave syrup, monk fruit, dates and coconut sugar. Although this is certainly a step in the right direction, know that there's little research demonstrating that alternative natural sweeteners are significantly better than plain ol' sugar. In fact, many of them are metabolized in the same way as sucrose.
More Bacteria on That, Ma'am?
For years, Greek yogurt has been the go-to food for those looking to add more probiotics to their diets. But nutrition experts predict that 2016 will bring a proliferation of new products outside of the dairy aisle that is filled with the gut-healthy bacteria. "Looking forward to 2016, it won't be uncommon to find probiotic-fortified foods and beverages such as orange juice, cereals, and waters." registered dietitian Sarah-Jane Bedwell tells Today's Dietitian. But it doesn't end there: Expect to see vegan coconut oil spreads, high-protein muffins and vegetable juice fortified with L Acidophilus, L plantarum, L-rhamnose, and L reuteri on your supermarket shelves, too. Foods that are have naturally occurring probiotics like kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha have also seen a recent resurgence of sales.
There's no denying probiotics popularity, but is the stuff any good for you? The short answer is yes. "Bacteria in the form of probiotics may support gut health, boost immunity and play a role in regulating blood sugar," explains registered dietitian Isabel Smith. It's possible that it plays a role in keeping the appetite-regulating hormone, leptin, pumping out properly, too, making it a must-try for those trying to lose weight.
Try the Grass, Man
Medicinal marijuana labs aren't the only place where more grass is being consumed. While grass-fed beef was one of the top trends of the past few years, it's not just cattle ranchers who are going in search of greener pastures. In 2016 expect to see more grass-fed products ranging from protein powder and eggs to yogurt, cheese, and packaged meat snacks. "You're going to see a lot more grass-fed dairy products launching at Whole Foods. That's been a big push for us," Schweizer told industry trade magazine Supermarket News.
The memorandum signed by President Obama last summer encouraging the responsible use of antibiotics in meat production will only fuel this trend more, as federal agencies are now being directed to purchase meat raised with responsible antibiotic policies; that will lead to such foods becoming more available and less expensive.
Matt Damon, Food Stylist
As improbable as The Martian might seem, the idea of growing our food in space isn't as far out as all that. Last year, astronauts on the International Space Station were able to grow and eat romaine lettuce as part of NASA's Veggie project. The question is, what will be the first restaurant on Earth to offer food grown in outer space?
We're All Going to Sit Around and Stew
If 2015 was the year of bone broth, then 2016 will be the year of the soup cleanse. The tastier, warmer alternative to juicing is just what it sounds like—a low-calorie cleanse comprised of fat-burning soups. While there is a variety of companies coming out with their own cleansing programs—including Soup Cleanse and The Splendid Spoon, who deliver their soups right to your front door—many consumers hopped on the bandwagon by heading to their local grocery stores. To meet the growing demand for low-cal—yet filling—soup, a plethora of new varieties made their way onto the food scene. And thanks to Campbell, now you can even make a bowl of chicken noodle right in your Keurig! This is one trend that we don't see slowing down anytime soon.
A More Rockin' Broc?
Keep an eye out for a new vegetable called beneforté, a hybrid of regular and wild Italian broccoli, which has 2 to 3 times the nutrient glucoraphanin of regular broccoli. The compound has been shown to fight cancer and improve the immune system. A University of Reading study found that eating 1 ½ cups of beneforté a week can lower LDL cholesterol by 6 percent.
On the Plus Side, Nobody Complains if You Burp
The portion of Americans living alone has almost tripled since 1960, and more than one in four of us grown-ups now live by ourselves, according to recent research by the Food Marketing Institute. In 2014, 46 percent of all adult eating occasions took place while the person was alone.
Welcome to the Muscle Plant
Just a few years ago, plant-based protein powder was one of those items GNC workers had to climb a ladder to get down for their animal-loving customers. Now, with the recent popularity of plant-based diets, vegan protein powders and bars are front and center in store displays.
And plant protein seems to be just as effective as traditional protein sources like whey. In a 2015 report to the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, researchers studied a group of 37 people (mean age: 65) with diabetes. Half were put on a diet high in animal protein, while the other half were given a diet high in plant protein. After six weeks, both groups had reduced levels of fat in their livers and improved liver function; the plant protein group also showed improvements in kidney function. Expect to see brands like CVS and Kashi churning out new plant-based products packed with the muscle-building nutrient. Let our list of The Best and Worst Protein Powders be your reference when you're ready to get started!
A New Shade of Green
Gone are the days when kale, spinach, and romaine were the primary options for your salad bowl, and trekking to the farmers' market was the only way to get your hands on something more exotic. Thanks to companies like OrganicGirl Produce, you'll now be able to get pre- washed and prepared options like pea shoots and mustard greens at grocery stores nationwide.
Look for even mainstream restaurants to begin offering sushi-joint-style salads. Not only are underwater veggies like nori, kelp, and seaweed filled with cancer-fighting nutrients like folic acid, but some of them also contain compounds called alginate, which has been shown to significantly cut fat absorption, says registered dietitian Tanya Zuckerbrot. Expect to see an expansive selection of sea plants invading supermarket shelves and restaurant menus in the upcoming year.
Hell, No, We Won't GMO
In December of last year, industry lobbyists failed in their attempts to block GMO labeling requirements in the 2016 federal spending bill, clearing the way for Vermont's labeling laws to take effect this summer—and setting the stage for other states like Connecticut to follow suit. The FDA will also require genetically altered AquAdvantage salmon to carry labels before being taken to market.
Expect the GMO labeling issue to dominate food debates this year, and for "non-GMO" to be one of the most common things you'll read on new food packaging. Whole Foods' top growth segment in eggs has been the non-GMO verified variety. With more and more consumers concerned with the origins and the quality of their food, we expect to see this trend hold strong through 2016.
Gluten-, Soy-, Nut-, and Dairy-Free at Last!
Speaking of labels, you'll likely see two other words popping up aplenty: "Free from." More and more of your food may be free from gluten, nuts, dairy, and soy—even if you don't want it to be, according to Innova Market Insights. In fact, 20 percent of cereals on the market now carry the "gluten-free" claim, the company says. And in a recent survey by Mintel Group, 59 percent of people agree that healthier foods have healthier ingredients.
Just Try Not Eating Your Veggies
First, it was juice. Once the province of fruits, the juice world was invaded by vegetables a decade ago, to the point where "green juice" is commonplace. But the vegetables weren't satisfied. They invaded fruit roll-ups a few years ago. Now we're seeing vegetable yogurts and cottage cheese as well, and the veggies aren't stopping. They're popping up in desserts, they're taking over energy bars. Love Beets is a line of beet-centered snack bars, while Hidden Garden even has a line of beet-flavored cookies. Will these low-calorie, high nutrition heathens never stop?
Now You Can Deduct Dinner
Newman's Own has long boasted that it gives 100 percent of profits to charity, but now restaurants are popping up to do the same. COLORS in New York and Detroit is a nonprofit training ground for restaurant workers. In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silver Lake, musician Moby has opened Little Pine, a vegan restaurant that donates its profits to the Humane Society and other animal-rights organizations. And there's Oregon Public House in Portland, which promotes "Altruism" and gives customers a chance to choose from a list of local charities and vote on how the pub's donations should be distributed.
This isn't a bad strategy. A study by Cone Communications/Ebiquity Global CSR found that 90 percent of consumers worldwide would switch to a brand if it supported a cause, and 75 percent of millennials say it's important that companies give back, according to a Forbes study.
Just when you've finally mastered the wine list, there's a new game in town: the salt list. Perhaps you'd like to spice up your food with Piran Sel Gris from Slovenia, which has an "almost faint, berry patch sweetness," Mark Bittman told the Wall Street Journal. Salts from Japan can taste like oysters or seaweed. And it's not just flavor that's changing. Black crystal salt can add an exotic look to your meals while Djibouti salt pearls from Lake Assal in Africa are perfectly round pearl shaped crystals that completely change the eating experience, Mr. Bittman claims. Do know this isn't your free pass to go crazy with salt, though; salt is actually linked to rapid weight gain.