Allison Beadle, MS, RD, LD
Editor, RDBA Weekly
Each year, the Specialty Food Association puts on a big show—the aptly named “Fancy Food Show”—where over 180,000 products from over 80 countries and regions are showcased. Browsing the foreign aisles, you get a taste of tradition. Italy is everything you’d expect—cured meats, olives, cheeses, olive oils, and coffees. But if you take a walk through the quieter alleys of the show, you get a glimpse into what’s happening to the food fabric of America—our beloved American staples are getting a makeover.
The trends we’ve been talking about for a few years now—ancient grains, seeds, coconut, health, gluten free, ethnic flavors—are transforming the foods American’s have grown up with. We’re not simply overhauling our diets, replacing everything with new foods that we’ve never eaten before. No, we’re taking what we “know”—condiments, chips, cereals, pickles, popcorn, BBQ sauces, ice creams, beef jerky, etc.—and evolving them with new ingredients, creative flavor combinations, and ethnic influences of all stripes. It’s a classic example of American innovation at work.
Let’s take quinoa, for example. An ancient grain brought to us from South America, quinoa began appearing on our stove tops several years ago. That’s cool, you can take quinoa out of a box and cook it. But what else can you do with it? American’s love to tinker, and we’re just not content to serve quinoa as a pilaf or salad. We like watching cooking shows on television, but let’s face it, American’s will always love the convenience and ease of a package. So, we’ve taken quinoa and transformed it into a super-ingredient, using it to upgrade and enhance some of our most beloved staples—chips, cereals, granolas, snack bars, even chocolate!
When it comes to flavor, the American palate seems to be on overdrive these days—we want heat, smoke, and interesting combinations. But by and large, we don’t take these flavors and create foods that have never been made before. We use them to enhance our comfortable companions—mango, chili, and lime potato chips; black cherry barbeque beef jerkey, cold smoked chocolate chips.
And true to the melting pot that we are, we find ethnic ingredients and traditions most applicable when used to give old-time American favorites a new twist. We’re not learning how to perfect a traditional Korean barbeque recipe (ok, maybe some of us are), but we’re using the flavors of Korean barbeque to transform our popcorn and marinate our chicken before we throw it on the grill (American-style).
A thread throughout all of this is the paradigm shift of healthy and clean eating. Vegetables are appearing in the most unlikely of places (snack leathers, yogurts, chips, and snack bars). Ingredients list are shorter and more understandable than ever. And kids products are healthy, clean, and a little on the mature side (we no longer believe a food has to be super-sweet for American kids to love it).
So retail dietitians, use these trends to your advantage. Sometimes the gateway to healthier eating is simply taking a staple (broccoli) and giving it something to be excited about (a splash of Thai peanut sauce). American consumers are at a critical point of openness, providing ample opportunities to give our favorites a healthier, more flavorful edge.