Food Trends: Mood Food

By Ami Lawson
Group Brand Manager, quench

It’s become cliché to blame Millennials for ruining everything from the real estate market to craft beer and even sex. What we should be giving this generation of consumers credit for is driving healthier options for all of us in the store and on the plate.

“The majority of consumers recognize the importance of health, with thoughts about current health slightly outperforming that of future health and healthy aging,” according to Mintel’s The Millennial Impact: Food Shopping Decisions. Millennials do not focus solely on nutritional value. Millennial consumers and shoppers are seeking and demanding more from their food options.

This is a generation hungry for more – more choices that support their lifestyle, including foods that boost their mood, support their emotional well-being or help with the quality of their sleep.

It’s also a trend backed by some serious spending power. Millennials are looking beyond the USDA’s food pyramid and are driving the growth of the functional food category – which includes mood food – an industry worth more than $9 billion, according to the American Botanical Council.

The food and beverage industry is taking note of the thriving interest in this trend and jumping on the opportunity to meet the expectations of the mood-food consumer.

Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, has launched the “OptUP” app, providing in-store dietitians and apps to steer shoppers to better choices. Simplifying the often-complicated retail aisles, loaded with hundreds of products, these services look at consumers’ personal health and wellness goals and recommend clean, healthy (or at least, better-for-you) options. Knowing what’s in consumers’ baskets, along with any data the retailer collects in the OptUP program, is a potential boon for its business. Similar health-focused programs are on the way to traditional grocery retailers as they look to protect marketshare from the likes of Sprouts Farmers Market and Whole Foods Market.

On the foodservice side, restaurants such as True Food Kitchen, part owned by Oprah Winfrey, and the New Jersey-based Mood Brands, Inc. – which includes the restaurants Mood’wiches, Mood Food and ready-to-eat (RTE) product lines such as Mood Juice and Mood Baked – offer a wide variety of natural, non-GMO, sustainably grown, locally sourced and plant-based items. But more than that, they’re focused on a sensory experience that’s intended to make diners feel good long after they’ve eaten the quinoa bowl or finished “Fatigue Fighter” mood booster shot. The food itself – made from recipes formulated and designed by nutritional staff – is intended to work wonders on your body, including boosting serotonin levels.

While it’s predictable that specialty shops would be first-movers on this trend, as the logical next step from the foodie-driven farm-to-table movement, fast-casual chains and ubiquitous fast-feeders have also become active in the mood-food trend.

Pizza Hut created a depression-busting pizza in the U.K. and debuted the creation in the dreariest part of January. The mood-boosting pie is topped with mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, red onion, tuna, olives and sweet corn – all chosen because studies suggest the ingredients can increase the brain’s mood-elevating chemicals such as endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.

But, not all mood-food offerings promise a happy ending. Burger King made headlines at Halloween last year with the launch of its “Nightmare King” burger, which the marketer said would intentionally cause nightmares. Although BK’s bad dream burger was more of a stunt, products like Nightfood’s ice cream – available in flavors like Cookies n’ Dreams and Midnight Chocolate – have a more pleasant promise: It’ll help you sleep.

Fast-casual chain B.Good, quickly expanding across the country, is one of the latest entrants in a now-fiercely competitive salad-eateries segment that includes Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, Just Salad and other healthy options that break from the burger-and-fries or comfort-food models.

Technology is also playing an important role in the trend, not only in gathering data at the retail or restaurant level but also in offering consumers their own DIY solutions. An app, for instance, from Oxford University scientists uses facial expressions to assess mood and suggest recipes and foods to lift spirits or quell anxiety. (Walnuts are good for the former, and a dose of dark chocolate can help the latter.)

So, what does all this mean for forward-thinking food and beverage marketers? Almost no CPG category is exempt from the ability to tap into the mood-food trend, but how you embrace it is up to you.

  1. Target a new audience. Anxiety and stress have overtaken weight as the top conditions being managed among consumers, highlighting the prominent role of mental health in consumers’ minds. Mood food that speaks to these concerns could help brands reach new audiences and engage with them on a personal level that Millennials and Generation Z consumers crave.
  2. Keep it simple, and don’t be afraid to have some fun. Exploring new innovations, such as mood food, doesn’t need to be a complicated or complex endeavor, and limited-time offerings or promotions celebrating holidays or events can be effective. Burger King’s tongue-in-cheek nightmare-inducing burger, launched as part of a Halloween celebration, is a good example of how brands can tap into mood food in a unique and unexpected way.
  3. Stand out in a crowded functional food category. If your product is in a functional food-rich category, embracing the mood food trend can separate your brand from the pack. According to Mintel, 20 percent of consumers purchased a better-for-you ice cream product in the past six months. Nightfood recognized that, and its sleep-friendly ice cream lineup helps it stand out in a category filled with similar voices.
  4. Think beyond the label to build loyalty. Consumers expect more than clean-label products and experiences. They are hungry for food that helps meet their lifestyle and wellness expectations. While consumers are focused on what they’re eating today, brands can build longtail loyalty by providing healthful options that satisfy today’s hunger and tomorrow’s desire.

Ami Lawson is a group brand manager for quench (, a full-service food and beverage marketing agency with offices in Chicago, Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.