Cannabis will be a major food trend in 2018. Here’s why.

fancy food cannabis superfoods
Fancy Foods, all: Native Seed lift bar, Utopia Farms Macaroons, CBD toasted sesame miso broth, Flourish Honey in the Dank, Fruit Slabs, and Swerve Snooze Bar. | Photo: Liz Hafalia

Spoiler alert for those attending the Winter Fancy Food Show today through Tuesday in San Francisco: There are no cannabis edibles on the trade-show floor. Cannabis cuisine is not the subject of any plenary panel.

However, for the first time since legalization sprouted in Colorado in 2014, cannabis is seducing the specialty food makers and marketers serving high-end retailers and well-heeled bellies across the Internet and America.

In November, the Fancy Food Show’s parent, the Specialty Food Association (SPA), ranked cannabis number eight of the top-10 food trends to watch in 2018.

“As more states legalize recreational marijuana, the varieties of pot-enhanced food and beverage will increase,” the SPA’s Trendspotter Panel wrote last November. “Look out for continued interest and acceptance in a host of snacks, treats and beverages with a little something extra.”

Shortly after, another pillar of America’s mainstream commercial food industry, Nation’s Restaurant News, predicted this will be the year restaurants in cannabis-legal states embrace cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is the plant’s second most common active ingredient. It does not cause a lift in mood (euphoria) but can treat pain, anxiety and inflammation.

“We’re continuing to see the surge,” said Kara Nielsen, the Bay Area food-trends expert and Trendspotter panelist responsible for cannabis’ inclusion on SPA’s foodie forecast.

Nielsen first noticed this brownies-to-bourgeoisie evolution while forecasting at food development agency Sterling-Rice Group in Boulder, Colo.

Food trendspotter Kara Nielsen | Photo courtesy of CCD Innovation
Food trendspotter Kara Nielsen | Photo courtesy of CCD Innovation

“It’s the same trend I’ve been talking about since 2014: more artisanship, attention to packaging and graphics, branding, flavor profiles, craftsmanship, quality ingredients and buzzy products like cold-brewed coffee, hand-made chocolates and marshmallows,” she said.

Nielsen is vice president of trends and marketing at CCD Innovation, an Emeryville food and beverage development agency. She’s attending the Fancy Food Show today through Tuesday at Moscone Center. As a member of the Specialty Food Association’s Trendspotters — an expert panel comprised of marketers, journalists and other tastemakers — she’ll roam the Fancy Food Show trade-show floor looking for new and innovative products. 

There are no cannabis edibles at this year’s Fancy Food Show, but the SPA’s Trendspotters won’t have to go far to find them. There are five retail cannabis stores reachable via short walk, taxi or rideshare. And many of the edibles on sale in these stores look like they might have sneaked over from the show.

“This is a specialty-food category,” Nielsen said of cannabis edibles, referring specifically to the Best Edibles category winners of the San Francisco Chronicle’s GreenState Awards.

“They are totally packaged and marketed as specialty foods. All these products are very hipster: posh, beautifully designed, all targeting a certain user.”

A jar of Chile Crunch, a chiles-and-nuts condiment promoted on the Specialty Food Association’s website and trade-show floor, looks enticingly like Chili Crunk, a chiles-nuts-cannabis condiment made in Berkeley by Flourish Cannabis, an edibles company founded by a chef with a fine-dining background.  

“When I said something about cannabis to these big food companies in 2014, they were like, ‘Oh, my god. That’ll never happen,’” Nielsen said. “But it’s happened and what I think could happen could be like the rise of the natural products channel.”

Nielsen said CCD Innovation is preparing its report on cannabis cuisine and cannabis edibles for clients and subscribers, highlighting trends in retail edibles, cannabis dinners and homemade cannabis foods.

“Low-dose edibles are the next opportunity for the cannabis industry,” Nielsen said. “These products are going to be marketed to a lot of different kinds of users. There needs to be education. Curious folks who may be hedonists with certain drugs that they know, like alcohol, may be trying cannabis. Younger people are going to come of age at a time when the stigmas have started dissolving.”

Nielsen placed herself in the curious category — a lurking majority that broader society hasn’t yet identified but which will “expand the notion of what it is to be a cannabis user.”

“I’m over 50,” Nielsen said. “When I was in college, pot was really yucky. It wasn’t something I pursued. However, I’m a big hedonist and a wine and food lover. So if you can put something that seems like medicine or is going to make me happy in a really nice piece of chocolate, I get double benefits: a lovely piece of chocolate and a lingering high. It’s just a safer route.”

You Won’t See Frito-Lay Coming

Do you own a major snack-food or candy company that wants to capitalize on CBD-infused edibles marketed as healthful, possibly therapeutic, snacks to mainstream, even upscale, America?

Nielsen suggests companies look at one of the biggest snack-food giants in the world, Frito-Lay. In order to sell organic versions of Doritos and Cheetos at high-end grocer Whole Foods, Frito-Lay launched a new brand, Simply, that met the retailer’s packaging specs and didn’t resemble Cheetos or Doritos, even though the words scream from the packaging.

“If a major food company or retailer wants a piece of this, they just may start a cannabis food company,” Nielsen said. “It won’t always be entrepreneurs and open-minded folks trying to get in on this.”