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Meet the Food & Drink Team: Kara Nielsen

It may seem odd to launch a new product during a global pandemic and in the midst of mass protests, but one thing we’ve learned here at WGSN, confined to our homes during this period of uncertainty, is the importance of life’s essentials. Which is why WGSN Food & Drink is such an exciting new journey for us to be embarking on. 

In recent months, food and drink has come to represent so much more than simply sustenance. It’s been a way to connect with our families and friends, a way to bring joy and achieve a sense of ‘home’, a source of comfort and often, just a way to pass the time.

The absence of travel and hospitality spaces has prompted many of us to explore all corners of the globe from the confines of our homes, experimenting with new flavours, ingredients and recipes – once we had mastered the new slower art of grocery shopping. Whether you’ve been baking banana bread or brewing dalgona coffee, what’s undeniable is the power of food and drink to rejuvenate, restore and refresh our bodies and minds.

Introducing WGSN Food & Drink

Our highly specialised Food & Drink team of analysts are experts in understanding how the events unfolding around us will reverberate and generate new behaviours and practices, and impact how people will eat, drink and dine in the future. 

I caught up with Kara Nielsen, Director of Food & Drink, to ask her the question we get asked all the time: how do we know what’s going to be the next oat milk or the next turmeric?

Kara Nielsen, Director of Food & Drink, WGSN

 

Before her life at WGSN, Kara was studying food and beverage trends for strategic innovation and new product development for over a dozen years; researching, writing and presenting on how to translate the dynamic happenings in the broader food world into actionable insights and inspiration for some of the largest food brands in the world. 

She practiced her unique talents at several agencies including CCD Innovation, Sterling-Rice Group, Innova Market Insights and CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insights. She has written over 60 market research reports on culinary trends, delivered trend content at numerous food industry conferences and events, and is a frequently quoted food trend expert for consumer and industry media.

So tell us, where did it all begin? Have you always been a food lover?

Kara Nielsen: Ever since childhood I’ve had a sweet tooth! I baked cookies, cakes and quick breads for my family every week. I still have a sweet tooth and if you’re ever looking for a doughnut, I can tell you where to find the best one in pretty much any city. I majored in French Studies at university and spent my junior year in Paris and fell in love with French pastry and confections. This led to me spending seven years as a pastry chef in San Francisco restaurants, where I also managed restaurants and learnt all about wine. Pastry is still my first love and I follow Pierre Hermé and visit his shops every single time I’m in Paris.

Dusty pink doughnut

When you’re looking for a sweet treat closer to home, what’s your go-to? Tell us, what’s the next macaron?

KN: I’m really rooting for mochi sweets to become more ever-present. My local Berkeley bakery, Third Culture Bakery, is famous for its mochi doughnuts and muffins, made with gluten-free sweet rice flour. The doughnuts are covered in pastel-tinted shades with Asian flavour profiles. Third Culture’s signature item is the pandan-scented muffin, made with coconut sugar and black sesame seed topping. Its chewy mochi texture was inspired by both butter mochi, a pan dessert, and Indonesian sweets. It’s especially delicious accompanied by iced Vietnamese coffee.

Neo Mint Macaroon in stack with oat milk coffee

With all those years in fine dining in San Francisco, you must have seen a lot of food trends emerge. How did you transition into studying trends? 

KN: So many of the food trends we saw emerge in those years have become mainstream, such as sourdough bread and craft beer, even local, seasonal produce appreciation. From the restaurant industry, I got into food and wine education, managing programmes at an innovative food cultural museum in the Napa Valley. Thanks to my three years there interacting with artists, wine makers, chefs, gardeners and celebrities across the food world, I was inspired to study food more closely. I have a master’s degree in Gastronomy from Boston University, one of the only liberal arts food studies programmes in the world. By studying food anthropology, history and sociology, I gained a deeper understanding of how food has meaning in people’s lives.

Is that how you got into forecasting food trends?

KN: Yes! I landed in a food product development company as trendologist and there I practiced the art of tracking trends and translating them to inspire new food ideas. At the roots of trends are people’s needs and wants; those are the drivers of trends and this aligns perfectly with how we analyse trends at WGSN.

As the Director of F&D at WGSN, my role is to leverage WGSN’s trend experience and bring its expertise to the world of food and drink. One of the most exciting projects is the Trend Curve, where I work with a dedicated team of Data Scientists and Analysts that show how we believe a trend will grow and become adopted by bigger groups over time. Our first report mapped adaptogens, something I’ve been tracking since 2015. I’m excited to watch how they will burst in 2020 due to many people’s interest in supporting their immune systems with natural functional food.

Find out more about WGSN Food & Drink

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