The Food Ingredient Panic Meter

Apr 20, 2018, 07:24 PM

Food shortages have been making dramatic headlines for the past half-dozen years. The end of the avocado is in sight. Maple syrup could become a luxury ingredient, just like peanut butter. Hummus will go from snack food staple to special-occasion snack.

The panic is based on genuine factors, including a years-long drought in California’s Central Valley, the heart of the U.S. almond industry. Weather has also affected Madagascar’s vanilla producers and India’s chickpea crops. Meanwhile, demand has squeezed supplies of seafood.

Still, your favorite foods aren’t necessarily going anywhere. Tech breakthroughs have helped steady supply and price, and many ingredients have staged dramatic comebacks. (Eels, though, are in big trouble.)

Avocado 2.4 billion projected consumed in the U.S. in 2018, from 539 million in 2000

What you’ve heard: California’s five-year drought led to panic-inducing headlines such as this one in New York magazine: “Have You Eaten Your Last Avocado?” Then in late 2017, devastating fires added to its woes.

The truth: The 2018 California crop is estimated to grow 50 percent from 2017. Supply also remains high in Mexico, which produces 75 percent of the fruit in the U.S. Ken Melban of the California Avocado Commission says confidently, “You will never eat your last avocado.”

Maple Syrup What you’ve heard: Maple trees have quit growing!

The truth: Tree size doesn’t matter the way it used to, because smart-tapping tech is revolutionizing production. Vermont syrup—40 percent of the U.S. supply—has grown in 10 years, from 640,000 gallons to 1.9 million. Canada’s has climbed 225 percent, to 12.2 million gallons a year, over the same time.

Almonds 99 percent of all U.S. almonds are produced in California

What you’ve heard: In 2017, it was too much rain; this year, it’s a freeze. And then there’s the indisputable fact that it took 1.1 gallons of water to produce one almond, while the Central Valley, the epicenter of almond production, was suffering a five-year drought.

The truth: Daniel Sumner, an economist at the University of California at Davis, maintains that the drought didn’t significantly affect production. In a nutshell, “we took water away from the cotton and kept it on the almond trees. And planted more.”

Chocolate $98.2 billion in total retail sales, worldwide

What you’ve heard: Climate change is happening, so your candy bars are in danger. Environmental shifts and fungal disease in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, which produce more than half the world’s cocoa beans, have pushed up prices almost 40 percent this year.

The truth: Cocoa can be—and is—grown outside of Africa; Brazil and Ecuador are ramping up production. Scientists are also at work on a hybrid disease-resistant cocoa plant, the CCN-51. “But the cocoa is not good,” warns chocolatier Jacques Torres.

Peanuts Prices rose over 30 percent in 2016 following alternating droughts and floods in America’s southern, peanut-growing states. But the 2017 U.S. crop was 3.5 million tons, the largest ever.

Chickpeas Earlier this year, a drought in India led to a sharp increase in the cost of hummus in the U.K. The shortage appears to be short-lived, however: Indian production in 2018 should hit a record 11.1 million tons.

Octopus Ubiquitous on menus, top-quality product from Morocco is getting harder to find. Ian MacGregor, owner of the Lobster Place in New York, has scrambled to find alternate sources. But there’s hope for these suckers: Areas around North Africa have begun decreasing the size of catches to allow populations to rebound.

Vanilla $278 wholesale price per pound, up from $40 in 2015

What you’ve heard: Last year’s Cyclone Enawo devastated vanilla bean fields in Madagascar,which provides 80 percent of the world’s supply. That came after demand spiked when major consumer food companies such as Nestlé SA moved from artificial to real vanilla.

The truth: It’s not pretty. But Craig Nielsen, vice president for sustainability at Nielsen-M...