A consumer group more important than millennials

Move over, millennials. The most disruptive group of future food consumers, according to bestselling author and self-described futurist Mike Walsh, was born in 2007.

“If you understand how an 8-year-old thinks, you’re a long way toward really understanding a transformative change in consumer behavior,” said Mr. Walsh, chief executive officer of innovation research lab Tomorrow, during a July 13 presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ annual meeting and food exposition in Chicago.

Not only was 2007 the year of the global financial crisis; it was also the year Apple introduced the iPhone. Mr. Walsh implored the audience to consider the dramatic changes in everyday life as a result of this technology.

“What does this have to do with food?” he asked. “It’s actually essential because when you think about your 8-year-old, how they make judgments about food, about food brands, eating and dining, it’s all connected to that experience of the smartphone.”

Already, Instagram has transformed the dining experience, and food packaging is increasingly joining the connected era with scannable codes and interactive labels, Mr. Walsh said.

“Not just restaurants and supermarkets but the very products we buy will be paying greater attention to us,” he said.

Emerging food printing technologies will lead to the digitization of taste and food memes. Consumers may someday see an appetizing dish on social media and instantly print it at home, he said.

The next generation also may seek new food substances, such as Soylent, a powdered meal replacement beverage that has raised $20 million in funding.

“There’s a spectrum of consumers with decision fatigue,” Mr. Walsh said. “They’re sick of thinking about what they want to eat, and if you can take that away by just having a simple substance you can drink, they’re happy to do it.”

Explosive population growth, rising incomes, rapid urbanization and changing consumer tastes are powerful vectors that demand a rethink of conventional approaches to food and agriculture, Mr. Walsh said.

The food industry is tasked with engaging the first fully digital generation of today’s 8-year-olds as they become adults, while producing enough food for an estimated population of 9 billion by 2050.

“The work you’re doing is so important,” Mr. Walsh told the audience. “It’s more than just science. It touches the fabric of who we are as people and how we’re going to survive as a race.”