HOUSTON — The generational differences between Gen Alpha, Gen Z, millennials, Gen X and baby boomers are often a hot topic of conversation. When it comes to food, there are differences in shopping behaviors, flavor preferences, eating occasions and consumption patterns. Yet, food is nothing if not a universal language, so for all the documented differences, these generations also unite behind a few current consumer trends.

During the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association (IDDBA)’s 2024 annual conference, held June 9-11 in Houston, Megan Lynberg, VP of sales for Datassential, took to the What’s in Store Live stage to discuss how generational trends are shaping the US food landscape.

The digital native impact

Millennials, Gen Z and Gen Alpha are digital natives, meaning that unlike Gen X and boomers, they’ve never known a world without smartphones. Their interactions with brands, foods and flavors are more likely to be through platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and in-game ads than television and print ads.

“They’re just exposed to brands in completely different ways than Gen X and boomers ever were, and it creates new opportunities,” Lynberg said.

However, growing up in a recession has made millennials more price- and value-driven than other generations.

“As foodservice and retail think about unique foods and flavors and think about what we’re seeing in the restaurant industry right now with pricing, it certainly has an impact on millennials,” Lynberg noted. “They are also likely to have kids at home, so they’re a little bit more aware of family friendly foods and activities and experiences, and they’re certainly drawn more to that.”

Gen Z, on the other hand, presents new opportunities for foodservice, grocery retail and c-stores by elevating the dining out experience with unique menu items or stocking shelves with snacks that provide flavorful eating options, along with convenient ways to access them.


“They’re driving interest in new foods and flavors,” Lynberg shared. “They are adventurous with food, and they love experiences. As a result, they’re the largest generation to tell us they’d like to eat out more. They’re also digitally native, so AI, kiosks and mobile ordering are super important and receptive within this generation.”

Gen Alpha is perhaps the most diverse of the generations, with more than 50% being children of color. They’ve also been exposed to more global foods and flavors than other generations, and foodservice operators are taking note.

“We asked operators about the importance of Gen Alpha, and 35% of them said Gen Alpha is already important to their business,” Lynberg said. “I think this number is low, and I think we’ll see this number go up even more as we study Gen Alpha.”

35% of operators said Gen Alpha is already important to their business
Source: Datassential


Gen X and boomers also hold opportunity

By 2030, about 20% of consumers will be over the age of 65, representing a significant portion of the population. That should get the attention of foodservice and retail, especially because older adults tend to have money to spend.

Gen Xers tend to be in a range of life stages. Some still have children at home, while others are empty nesters. Each situation has implications for food purchase and consumption habits.

Boomers open even more doors for food companies.

“The older adults of today are different than previous generations,” Lynberg noted. “They are more active and want to age at home versus in a retirement community, so there’s really an opportunity not just to focus on the younger generation, which I think we do a lot, but also to bring in boomers and create excitement for them as well.”


United in global foods, indulgence and newstalgia

Lynberg highlighted three commonalities that the generations have in common: global foods, indulgence and newstalgia.

“The majority of consumers prefer to consume or buy global foods away from home versus making those foods at home,” Lynberg said, pointing out an opportunity for foodservice operators.

According to Datassential intel, 37% of consumers indulge at least once a day, with Gen Z in particular more likely to indulge once a day. About 90% of consumers indulge at least once a week, and that’s driven in part by millennials at 92%.

“When we look at what sort of flavors are indulgent, sweet, obviously, then salty, and then spicy,” Lynberg said. “Spicy especially resonates with Gen Z in terms of being indulgent. So as we think of all those new flavors, Nashville Hot, sriracha and things like that, those are resonating really well with Gen Z.”

Finally, Lynberg sees the newstalgia trend as an opportunity to introduce younger generations to new foods and flavors.

“Everything old can be new again, and there’s lots of opportunity to bring some of those popular flavors and foods back for Gen Z,” she said.

Retailers and food manufacturers who are willing to think about how they bridge the generational gap and create products that appeal to each group will find a wealth of opportunities to reach a wide range of consumers.