I recently returned from the Fancy Food Show in New York City where more than 73 countries and territories from around the world displayed their best specialty foods and beverages in hopes of attracting the attention of the US retail buyers. Although I spend most of my time attending educational seminars and workshops to learn about Italian food products and trends, I can’t help but notice food trends from around the world.
In the Italian pavilion the varieties of olive oil and balsamic vinegar continue to overwhelm the visitor. Just as grape varieties and wine vintages differ, olive varieties from different regions and provinces offer the consumer different flavor profiles, which often change from year to year. At a seminar sponsored by the Region of Sicily, I tasted 6 different olive oils from 4 regions of Sicily. The flavors varied from fruity, herbaceous, almond, grassy, peppery to that of overripe tomatoes. Balsamic vinegar, both traditionally made and commercially made versions were also copiously displayed. Most of the commercially produced products were inordinately sweet reductions and glazes flavored with fruits from strawberries to pomegranates, clearly marketed to the American fondness for sweets, and nothing like the complex traditional product. Other products included a varied selection of pasta, rice, condiments, olives, sauces, canned tomatoes, honey, salt, preserves, truffles, prosciutto, cheese, confections, crackers, candies, and coffee.
The desire for convenience foods has also driven the Italian prepared foods movement over the years. Although nothing could compare to those on display in the American pavilions, the Italian booths displayed a large number of prepared pasta sauces, partially cooked and flavored risotto mixes, condiments that can be used over toasted bread or pasta, soup mixes, and flavored olive oils.
The well-known Mediterranean cuisines such as Italian, Spanish and Greek dominated the show, but lesser know flavors from India, Asia, Central and South America, Africa and the Soviet Union were also represented. The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade has predicted some of the top “new” flavors to be intense and somewhat peppery, such as yuzu – a Japanese citrus, peri-peri – bird’s eye chilies from South Africa, and Melegueta pepper from Africa. Also favored are spice mixtures like Dukkah – an Egyptian spice blend of toasted nuts and seeds and Panch Poron – a mix of whole spices from the Bengal region of eastern India.
According to Euromonitor International, a new wave of functional foods, originating from Japan are heading our way. Topping that list is “black food” such as black soybeans, black rice and black sesame biscuits – all of which are popular in Japanese cuisine because of their cholesterol and weight controlling benefits. Foods that multitask are also gaining momentum – juice with calcium, whole grain foods, teas with health benefits and foods with fruits high in antioxidants. Joining the ranks of well-known blueberries, strawberries and blackberries are tropical fruits such as acai, mangosteen and the Himalayan goji berry, which has been used for 6,000 years by herbalists in China.
People are aware of the healthful benefits of foods. The typical fatty-salty potato chip is being replaced with the fruit and vegetable chip. Crackers are being made with whole grains and flax seeds. Ice creams and waters are spiked with immune-boosting green tea, extra vitamins and minerals. Coffee is soon to be fortified with vitamins, supplements and herbs. Gluten and wheat-free products such as cakes, pancake mixes, breads and snacks are now becoming more widely available since 1 in 133 Americans is thought to be affected by a genetic disorder causing a gluten intolerance.
Organic is now turning into a lifestyle choice for people. This year there was a new organic and natural foods pavilion with 650 products with no preservatives, artificial or synthetic ingredients. Here the buzzwords were gluten-free, organic, all-natural, low fat, trans-fat free and alternative proteins (flax seeds).
Chocolate continues to be a major trend and one of America’s favorite foods. Manufactures are claiming the health benefits of the cacao bean from lowering blood pressure to elevating your mood and increasing your intake of anti-oxidants. Various forms of luxury chocolates seemed to be displayed in abundance in every aisle. They also not only trumpeted their cacao content but also their country of origin. Some were seasoned with hot peppers, saffron, curry powder, wasabi, liquors, fruits, flowers and even salt.
Salt is also being rediscovered. Forget the powdery stuff in round cardboard boxes that we grew up with. There was pink sea salt from the Himalayan mountains (alleged to be the purest salt on earth – over 250 million years old from the Jurassic era), black lava salt from Cyprus, gray sea salt, ruddy Alea salt from Hawaii, as well as salt from Sicily, France, India, the Peruvian Andes, Maldon England, Wales and Maine. And to furthur enhance the flavors and finish of foods there were herb-flavored salts, Tahitian vanilla salt, smoked sea salt and even truffle-flavored salt.
Consumers love choices. We all look for specific foods at different times for different purposes – habit, healing, convenience, energy, comfort, indulgence and entertainment. There were nearly 105, 000 food and drink products launched in 2006. What will be the next super food? I predict licorice … but that’s for another column.