As the food and beverage industry rings in the new year, trends such as the reduction of “negative” ingredients, growth of natural products and increased attention to sustainability are expected to remain top of mind, albeit in slightly different ways than in the past.

Consumers are still concerned about salt, sugar and high-fructose corn syrup in their foods, but the way companies position this reduction will need to be reevaluated in order to effectively relate to consumers, said Suzy Badaracco, president of Culinary Tides, Inc.

“Do not focus on the negative, focus on what the product does offer,” Ms. Badaracco said. “Reduce the negative by actually showcasing the positive.”

With this Ms. Badaracco said food companies must also explain the end result, such as the tie between lower sodium and heart health. Consumers don’t just want to know what a product doesn’t contain; they want to know what it does have and can do for them.

But this is an area where companies are struggling, according to Mintel International, Chicago. The market research firm said it sees companies taking efforts to reduce “negative” ingredients without much fanfare and discussing the reduction efforts they are taking. Additionally, Mintel is seeing an overall shift from overt reductions to covert reductions.

When it comes to spending patterns, Ms. Badaracco said consumers won’t be as focused on frugality in the coming year, and they will begin to “trade-off” in purchases. She said when a consumer makes a “trade-down” in purchases it is a total sacrifice, but when a consumer makes a “trade-off” they are sacrificing in some areas in order to justify spending more in other areas. With this, she said some consumers will switch from private label back to brands. The attraction to brands is their longevity, history and legacy, and there is no such affinity and bonding with private label, Ms. Badaracco said.

“There are other ways brands can make a comeback other than just they have legacy and loyalty,” Ms. Badaracco said. “They have the technology and the dollars there to put in that private label may or may not. Private label is still cost-driven.”

When it comes to the natural market, Ms. Badaracco said consumers finally are beginning to understand that the market has no definition.

“This whole issue is going to force the hand of government at some point because there are so many abuses right now in the marketplace for this term,” she said. “There are a whole lot of other spaces to play that are better and more reliable and more trusted than natural.”

Mintel also agreed that regulatory intervention in the natural category is expected, and vague terms that are not well defined will come under criticism. With this in mind, Mintel said

highlighting the positives of what is in a product is more important than emphasizing what it does not contain. Considering price will be important, too.

“We think we are likely to see a bit of a shift in terms of the way natural is talked about on pack — more likely an accentuation of the positives rather than the negatives, possibly a decline in the use of very emotional language like “junk-free,’” David Jago, director of innovation and insight at Mintel, said in a webinar discussing the research firm’s trend predictions.

Overall consumers, especially baby boomers, are focused on realistic results from products and do not believe the hype behind some claims. They desire simple, clear messages, Mintel said. Oftentimes less is more for consumers in terms of packaging and products that combine economy and convenience are also seen as positive.

Sustainability is another area where consumers are becoming more skeptical and mistrust is growing, Ms. Badaracco said. For example, there are regulatory measures in the works that if passed into law may nullify hundreds of sustainability claims and emblems. Overall, she said the focus needs to be on not simply telling consumers a product is sustainable but proving it. Mintel said there will be a greater focus in coming years on reduced packaging that promotes environmental responsibility in combination with uniqueness, such as cereal bars not in a box or more cereals without the inner bag.

Water usage may be another issue for consumers in 2011, and companies will look for ways to conserve water and change consumption habits, according to Mintel.

Ms. Badaracco said one of the biggest problems with sustainability is consumers automatically associate it with higher expense, a sentiment that Mr. Jago agreed with.

“Consumers will engage in all kinds of green living provided it doesn’t cost them any more,” he said.

Another trend highlighted by Mintel is “professionalization of the amateur,” or mainstream brands getting into a more serious “professional” area, such as chef-endorsed, restaurant-style meals. Also, the Gatorade Pro beverage products emphasize the professionalization of the amateur athlete.

Manufacturers will continue to blur product categories as a way of increasing appeal, with beverage products designed to be consumed as snacks and snacks designed to be consumed as meals. In addition, there will be an increase of revitalizing old products and advertising campaigns to appeal to nostalgia, Mintel said.

Ms. Badaracco said some trends that will increase in importance in the coming year include Middle Eastern foods, seasonal foods, focusing on couples and risk taking. She said the Middle Eastern trend hasn’t caught on yet in retail, but it is emerging in the street food scene and in fast casual concepts, and she expects to see more growth in this area.

She said the local trend most likely will shift to seasonal with an emphasis on the healthfulness and benefits of consuming products in season. She said local isn’t practical for everyone in all areas as some products simply aren’t able to be grown in certain areas of the country. When a crop is grown in season it has a higher vitamin and mineral content than if it is grown in a hot house out of season, and this will lead to consumers desiring products that are grown in season but possibly shipped from further away, she explained.

For a long time companies have focused on individuals, but Ms. Badaracco said it is time to focus more on couples. She also said while the country has not been in a risk-taking mode recently, she expects to see a turn back to this with consumers becoming more adventurous. Ms. Badaracco said flavors will become more extreme with chilies making a comeback, and more experimental eating becoming popular. She said now is not the time to “Americanize” anything but rather to focus on authentic flavors that pertain to certain regions of the world.

Mintel agreed that luxury is making a comeback, with consumers often buying value and premium level products at the same time.