Boomers vs Gen Z eating habits
Boomers have driven the fresh, less processed movement, while Gen Z is driving the ethnic cuisine trend.

NEW YORK — Baby boomers and Generation Z have different eating behaviors and attitudes, but together they are driving profound changes in the food industry, said Melissa Abbott, vice-president of culinary insights at the Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash.-based consumer insights firm.

Both segments, each representing 23% of the population, have catalyzed a shift in consumer food culture from predictable to diverse, Ms. Abbott said during a presentation at the Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 26-28 in New York.

Melissa Abbott, The Hartman Group
Melissa Abbott, vice-president of culinary insights at the Hartman Group

“In the not too distant past, it was production that was driving economy,” Ms. Abbott said. “Things coming off conveyor belts signified quality and safety. Meals were at a set time every day. That has completely gone out the window.

“Now you see consumption driving economy. It’s much more fun and experiential… What this means is our modern eating culture is marked by fragmentation and a complete upending of tradition. And who is doing the planning, shopping, cooking? It’s very much decentralized. Mom is no longer the gatekeeper.”

Boomers, those aged 51 to 69, view food as a key to living a higher quality of life for longer. Ms. Abbott said.

“Boomers have driven a lot of what has been going on in terms of the fresh, less processed food movement,” Ms. Abbott said. “They not only led it; they shaped it. They also led and shaped how the organic food movement is happening.”

She added, “This is the first time in history we’ve seen an aging generation approach food in this way.”

Generation Z, those 17 and under, are the most ethnically diverse cohort. While boomers generally prefer familiar American fare, Generation Z is more likely to seek innovative and ethnic cuisines, Ms. Abbott said.

Multicultural teens
Gen Z’s diversity is fueling food culture trends around the exploration of authentic, global food experiences.

“Nearly 50% of Gen Z are non-Caucasian, compared to boomers, at 28%,” Ms. Abbott said. “Gen Z’s diversity will continue to drive food culture trends we already see around the exploration of authentic, global food experiences, and the impacts of this diversity are going to include how they eat.”

Early exposure to digital technology has spurred a demand for ingredient transparency among younger consumers, she added.

“Gen Z is the first generation to completely grow up in the digital age, so to them there is no question that can be unanswered,” she said. “This is really affecting the food that they eat because they want to know where it’s from, how’s it grown, who made it. We see this behavior will be integrated into their everyday lives as they continue to grow up.”

Boomers and Generation Z approach cooking in different ways. While the older cohort prefers recipes and instructions, the younger set may prepare a dish based on wordless pictures posted on-line, Ms. Abbott said.

Baby Boomer woman cooking with a recipe
Boomers prefer to cook with recipes and instructions.

“In the long run, Gen Z might just be much more intuitive cooks than the rest of the population because they won’t need to rely on written recipes the way we all have in the U.S.,” she noted.

Consistent across both demographics is the instinct to scrutinize nutrition labels. About two-thirds of Generation Z consumers prefer food and beverages containing only ingredients they recognize, Ms. Abbott said. Additionally, nearly a third of this segment has tried at least one type of diet over the past year.

“But that doesn’t mean they’re dieting,” Ms. Abbott said. “It’s about different ways of eating and how personalized and how prescriptive it can be. In the consumer’s diet lexicon today, dieting as it once was known seems shallow now. You don’t hear people say, ‘I’m on a diet.’ … Today, it’s: ‘I’m avoiding dairy.’”

Both cohorts experiment with specialized approaches to eating, she said.

“There are a lot of different types of eating, but what’s interesting is whether it’s Gen Z, boomers, Gen X or millennials, they may avoid dairy in the morning and by the afternoon trying something vegetarian, and then all of a sudden they’re paleo by dinner time,” Ms. Abbott said. “We don’t see consumers sticking to any one particular way of eating for very long. They’re customizing bits and pieces from each one of these different ways of eating. It might be local, but it also might be gluten-free for a moment.”

Organic grocery aisle
Perceptions of organic food differ between Generation Z and boomers.

Perceptions of organic food differ between Generation Z and boomers. More than half of the younger generation perceives organic as healthier, which compares to only 39% of the older segment.

“Gen Z views organic as a symbol of healthy food, while boomers see it as an absence of negatives,” Ms. Abbott said. “Gen Z sees organic as tasting better, too, but boomers don’t necessarily see the organic symbol as tasting better or even worth it in many instances.”

An important commonality across all demographics is the connection consumers are making between food and health, she said.

“One thing consumers have been explaining to us for the last decade is they are much more aware of putting food into their body and how it makes them feel,” she said.