COVID-19 Pandemic Dominates Food News in 2021 and Drives a Fundamental Change in America’s Relationship with Food According to the 18th Annual HUNTER Food News Study


COVID-19 Pandemic Dominates Food News in 2021 and Drives a Fundamental Change in America’s Relationship with Food According to the 18th Annual HUNTER Food News Study
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Restaurant Mask Mandates and Labor Shortages Top the List of Leading Food News Stories According to Consumers

New York, NY – Dec. 16, 2021—For almost two years, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on nearly every industry in every corner of the globe has dominated headlines. The 2021 HUNTER Food News Study confirms the significant influence these stories have had on consumers with mask mandates in restaurants and labor shortages leading the list of top food stories in the past year.  The study goes on to find that not only are consumers spending more time cooking and altering their meal preparation, but we are also starting to see a fundamental shift in America’s relationship with food.

Since 2003, HUNTER, a leading food and beverage marketing communications consultancy, has commissioned the only annual longitudinal study of its kind to identify the top food news stories according to the opinions of Americans.  In 2020, HUNTER conducted two waves of research (Special Report: Wave One; Special Report: Wave Two) to better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on consumers’ behavior related to eating, drinking, cooking and sourcing food. This year, in partnership with Libran Research, HUNTER resumes the annual Food News Study and its focus on uncovering the most significant food news stories of 2021. Additionally, the study finds the impact of these stories and of the pandemic as a whole on Americans’ food-related attitudes and behaviors.

In the wake of COVID-19, many local officials instituted safety regulations to curb the spread of the virus such as mask mandates in most public places, including restaurants, which is the No. 1 story of the 2021 HUNTER Food News Study. Global, national, and local media alike kept the public informed about the issuance of mask mandates, their efficacy, and the economic impact of these mandates on the restaurant industry at large.

In the No. 2 spot, the pandemic forced many restaurants to close their doors, as diners and workers chose to stay home in response to fears of virus transmission which then caused widespread labor shortages.  As eating establishments began to open their doors in 2021, many restaurant owners faced issues with employee hiring and retention. 

Consumers are feeling the impact of COVID-19 at retail as well. Claiming the No. 3 spot, U.S. inflation is rising at the fastest pace in more than a decade due to rising costs of raw materials, labor, and shipping. To offset increases in these costs and preserve profitability, many food and drink brands are increasing prices on their products.

The remainder of the top ten stories in the 2021 HUNTER Food News Study cover the continued importance of food safety, security and sustainability as well as rising dietary trends and the powerful impact of celebrity:

  • In the 4 spot, Tyson Foods, the world’s second-largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork announced a recall on ready-to-eat, fully cooked chicken products due to Listeria risk. Recalled products, including Tyson grilled and fully cooked chicken, and Jet’s Pizza, Marco’s Pizza, Little Caesars, and Casey’s General Store chicken products, were sold at major national grocery chains as well as distributed to institutions like hospitals, schools, and the Department of Defense.
  • On a lighter note, Air Fryers became an in-demand product for at-home foodies. Content featuring air fryer recipes and “hacks” were among the most viral on TikTok in 2021 and accounted for thousands of pieces of editorial coverage making this the 5 story.
  • The return of the Brood X Cicadas had some consumers covering their ears due to the bug’s unrelenting mating sounds, while others saw a culinary opportunity. In the 6 spot, these high-protein critters became a buzzy food trend for a satisfying snack. 
  • Climate change continues to contribute to food insecurity across the country. The 7 story underscores how worsening droughts and floods contribute to decreased food security.
  • Plant-based diets continued to rise in popularity in 2021. Reports of improved heart health and links to longevity further encouraged consumers to give it a try, sealing the 8 spot.  
  • Celebrities reign supreme to round out the top ten stories. In the 9 spot, consumers enjoyed the celebrity-inspired fast-casual meals offered by Burger King and McDonald’s. No. 10 highlights Oreo’s partnership with Lady Gaga. The collaboration aimed to spread messages of kindness. 

To summarize, the top food news stories of 2021 according to HUNTER’s 18th Annual Food News Study are as follows:

  1. Mask Mandates in Restaurants
  2. Labor Shortages in Restaurants
  3. Inflation & Higher Food Prices 
  4. Tyson Chicken Recall 
  5. Air Fryer Recipes 
  6. Cicadas as Food 
  7. Impact of Climate Change on Food Insecurity 
  8. The Nutritional Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet 
  9. Burger King & McDonald’s Celebrity Inspired Meals 
  10. Lady Gaga Partners with Oreo

More Americans Identify As Foodies

The 2021 HUNTER Food News Study reveals a fundamental shift in America’s relationship with food, as a greater portion of Americans begin to identify as “foodies.” Meal preparation behavior has also dramatically shifted with 42% of American dinner meals being cooked from scratch, up 14% from before the pandemic. We also see the increasing importance of recipe usage (+21%). Meanwhile, sit-down meals at restaurants have declined 33% from 2019.

“This is one of the most fascinating findings in this year’s study,” said Heddy DeMaria, Chief Insights and Strategy Officer at HUNTER. “Based on last year’s Special Reports, we were expecting to find consumers continuing to increase the amount they cook, as well as improving their enjoyment and confidence with cooking, but this year’s study also uncovered a more lasting impact from the pandemic – it is reshaping consumers’ priorities with regards to food.  A greater portion of Americans consider food quality and discovery the most important factors defining their relationship with food and many are less concerned with convenience. These are fundamental changes we expect to continue long after the pandemic ends.”   

Food News Influence on the Rise 

Food news influence has accelerated in the wake of COVID-19 across the entire consumer engagement continuum. After reading food news, Americans are more likely to change their opinions, take action and share top stories. While roughly the same percentage of consumers are aware of the top food news stories this year versus pre-pandemic, the stories are increasingly changing consumers’ opinions (+4 points to 62%), behaviors (+6 points to 54%) and likelihood to share (+6 points to 53%).

Americans Are Turning to Fewer Sources for Food News

Americans source food news information differently vs. pre-pandemic. Although Americans are as likely to search for recipes, nutrition or general food news, they are now turning to fewer sources. Almost everyone continues to turn to at least one source when searching for recipes (90%), nutritional information (84%) and general food news (87%). While this overall source level is consistent with pre-pandemic levels, specific source usage has declined fairly consistently across all sources, as consumers reduced the number of sources being referenced by ~15%.

For additional information about the HUNTER 2021 Food News Study, including detailed study results, visit

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Founded in 1989, HUNTER is an award-winning consumer marketing communications firm with offices in New York, Los Angeles and London and a footprint across North America. Beginning with research-driven consumer insights, Hunter executes strategic, integrated programs that build brand equity, increase engagement and drive measurable business results for consumer products and services. The 200-person firm employs a powerful blend of marketing solutions including strategic planning, social and digital media, talent and influencer engagement, media relations, experiential and multicultural marketing, and content creation and distribution for all platforms and channels to consumer attention on behalf of some of the world’s best known and most beloved brands. The agency is a member of Stagwell Inc. (NASDAQ:STGW).


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