Fancy Food Show Reflects the Healthy Side of Gourmet

NEW YORK -- The hundreds of booths comprising the just ended 51st Fancy Food Show here, did not only represent the broad selection of specialty foods now available, but also the specialty industry's response to Americans' evolving focus on consuming healthier foods.

One nutrition expert at the show, Julie Upton, a registered dietitian with American Dietetic Association, said that based on her observations, more companies in the gourmet world are catering to demands and desires for food that can help consumers improve their diets as well as indulge.

She also saw some voluminous new product activity in areas that surprised her. "I didn't expect so much tea, including tea-infused beverages," she admitted, noting "the sheer number of tea companies." Still, Upton noted, "The science behind tea just keeps growing," with such benefits as a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease now attributed to the brew, so in retrospect it's no wonder that more and more companies wish to capitalize on its healthy profile.

Another trend Upton saw on display at the show was the proliferation of 100-calorie-or-fewer snacks, such as Snyder's mini-crackers and Healthy Hummus to Go, which offers a product with more moisture added as a way to significantly reduce calories. These examples indicate that more companies' realize "when you're dealing with obesity, calories count," she said. The Snyder's snacks, along with mini packages from Late July and Vitalicious' brownies, also reflected another trend, that of healthier snacks geared to kids. These products offer good-tasting treats that children love, but without the fat, cholesterol, and other undesirable ingredients health-conscious parents deplore.

Upton was particularly excited about the presence of low-mercury canned tuna at the show, manufactured using smaller species of tuna, which collect lower levels of the element in their bodies over time than larger fish do. "In the past, I was at a loss what to tell pregnant women and others concerned about mercury what [seafood] to eat," she said, noting that fish is an integral part of a healthy diet.

Asked why she thought U.S. consumers finally seem ready to pay more attention to their health, Upton replied, "Having hit the pinnacle with obesity in the United States, Americans finally said, 'Enough.' There's now a concerted effort on the part of at least some of the population to eat better."

The more educated retailers are, noted Upton, the better they can understand the properties of the foods they sell, and she described such grocers as the "key gatekeepers" of information on healthy food, since people shop their stores once a week or more. She suggested that more retailers should use newsletters, overhead announcements, and local dietitians to help spread the word on healthy eating, so that those companies are "not part of the cause, but part of the solution."

Upton's opinion on where all this healthy eating is leading? "I think [fewer] calories are going to stick," she said, noting that consumers had had enough of low-fat or low-carb fad diets in their efforts to shed pounds. Upton predicted that there would be "sweeping changes in portion and calorie size" in an effort to combat obesity, but also noted a somewhat contradictory trend toward "ubercalories," in the form of superindulgent items. However, she thought that calorie cutting would ultimately win out, as fattening treats were OK once in a while, but consumers were increasingly recognizing the importance of eating good-for-you foods on an everyday basis.
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