Millennials are killing the food industry


The culinary industry is terrified. An increasing number of millennials choose to opt out of traditional food sources – fruits, vegetables, and animal products – and are instead trying to “optimize their nutrition.” Restaurants, frozen food providers, and traditional farmers are all hurting.

“Food, intelligently designed: we engineer foods that offer complete nutrition, value, and convenience.” This is how Soylent advertises itself to a generation increasingly focused on their vitamins, minerals, and diabetes risk, with flavor only an afterthought. The trend had its first humble beginnings decades ago, when mineral and vitamin supplements started appearing on shelves of supermarkets. “The Gen Xers were the first cohort to grow up with the Flintstones gummies, or who really internalized the idea to take extra Vitamin C when sick,” says Barbara Goldmar, an agricultural economist at Brown university. But the nutritional profiles millennials view themselves through is much more complicated. We asked several twenty-somethings in the supplements aisle why they were there, and received absurd answers such as: “My cyanocobalamin levels were feeling low today”, “I’m not certain that I’m getting all my essential amino acids and this should help,” or even “Did you know that 50% of Americans don’t get sufficient magnesium?”.

This is the generation that grew up with the food pyramid, and then saw it *completely restructured multiple times* while in grade school. Goldmar explains that “eventually these kids gave up on traditional nutrition education, deeming it too oversimplified. Their teachers were never equipped to answer their questions. So these kids took the research into their own hands, or increasingly, let a company like Soylent take over instead.”

Soylent offers a simplicity in an age where a growing demographic doesn’t trust themselves to eat well. A very small set of alternatives, such as MealSquares, Joylent, Schmilk, Twennybar, Queal, and Veetal┬ácompletely dominate the industry. And this leaves any producers not in the supply chain out in the cold. Sales of most major vegetables besides soy have dropped by 5% per capita in the past year, while soy sales have risen by 40%. The trend shows no signs of slowing down and reaching market saturation – in fact, most of this “optimized” foods say that their sales are accelerating at faster and faster rates.

Food service is also suffering. Restaurants have noticed that young people just don’t come any more, and as more and more young people opt for biking or public transit to work – or even just telecommuting – drive thrus are often left empty. Long viewed as a dependable source of income, flipping morning burgers and serving afternoon fries just isn’t needed when a health-obsessed generation shuns classics like McDonalds and Burger King. Marketing researchers are trying to find ways to rebrand these staples as healthy, touting the wide variety of excellent nutrients in beef. The typical millennial response? Nah, too much fat.

In all of this tragedy however, there is one product doing even better than soy-based foods: coffee. In a recent market survey, 29% of millennials said they “absolutely need” a daily caffeine fix, while another 38% said they “regularly depend” on it. Coffee shops recently passed the 1 shop/1000 capita mark in New York City, and many chains are reporting record revenue levels this holiday season.