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Coming to a grocery near you: a roundup of new food trends

CHICAGO -- You could walk for hours and never get hungry or thirsty at the Food Marketing Institute Supermarket Industry Convention and Exhibition.

More than 1.3 million square feet were jam-packed with the booths of 1,500 exhibitors during the recent food fair at McCormick Place. Familiar names like Kraft, General Mills and Del Monte vied with lesser-known brands for the taste buds of the 35,000 attendees.There were pizzas and pastas, hot dogs and grilled meats, salad kits, meal-starting kits, sauces and dressings. There were snack foods and soft drinks. Health foods. Premium ice creams. European-style butter. Herbal teas. All designed to attract grocery retailers and wholesalers on the lookout for new products and new trends to hone a competitive edge.

So what's hot?

No surprises here. People are time-pressed and predisposed to takeout, fast food and other restaurant options. So food manufacturers are focusing on ready-to-eat meals to lure consumers back to the supermarket along with shortcuts to home-cooked meals. In fact, 84 percent of grocery stores now offer prepared food options, according to FMI.

For those who prefer to cook the meal at home (and Kraft research finds that more than 60 percent do), complete meal kits made with fresh, frozen or shelf-stable ingredients were widely available at the show.

There were also meal starters that assemble most of the components for a dish, except for a few fresh ingredients that the consumer adds in the cooking. And there was a plethora of meat marinades, sauces and seasoning mixes to jump-start cooking. A winner in the speed race, Kraft Easy Mac takes less than five minutes to make a single serving of macaroni and cheese.

In the past decade, there have been huge advances in providing fresh produce in convenient forms. More than 93 percent of American households purchase packaged salads, according to industry pioneer Fresh Express Inc., now in its 10th year in the business. Numerous companies offered a variety of choices, including organic greens and custom salad mixes.

Other meal helpers included precut fruits and vegetables ready for cooking or snacking. Fresh ingredients from Ready Pac included chopped onions in a resealable bag, microwave-ready spinach and ethnic vegetable cooking mixes. For potato lovers, Mann Packing Co. Inc. offered precut fresh potatoes, ready to saute, fry or bake in minutes.

In addition to convenience, producers are betting uniqueness and enhanced quality will attract purchasers. Mann also introduced Broccolini, a cross between broccoli and Chinese kale; it looks like an asparagus stem with a fluffy broccoli top.

Melissa's-World Variety Produce Inc. introduced Seaphire, a vegetable with a distinctive, crunchy texture and salty flavor grown in sea water. Also known as samphire, sea asparagus or pousse pierre, the unusual vegetable is native to the coasts of Brittany and the United Kingdom.

Melissa's also is promoting heirloom tomatoes, those great-tasting, long-lost varieties that were phased out of conventional supermarkets with the advent of mass production.

Also prevalent were products that offer health-related benefits. Aging baby boomers want to ensure long-term good health, and manufacturers are responding. Foods and drinks with added herbal supplements such as echinacea or ginkgo biloba were common.

The trend in these "functional foods" has attracted mainstream manufacturers, including Snapple Beverages, which launched Elements, a line of enhanced fruit drinks and teas. Snapple acted on research that showed consumer spending of $12 billion on herbal supplements and the phenomenal growth rate of functional beverages -- up 400 percent in 1998.

Soybean products are the current darlings of the health world, with new research that seems to show they have cholesterol-lowering and estrogen-enhancing properties.

Edamame, soybeans cooked in the pod and eaten as a snack, is gaining a following of Americans who discover them when they dine in Japanese restaurants. Wel-Pac is selling edamame in frozen form, ready to boil in salted water to make the snack. Freida's introduced a dry-roasted version called SoyNuts, salted and unsalted.

Organic also has gone mainstream. Filippo Berio introduced extra-virgin organic olive oil, and General Mills has launched an organic cereal. So pervasive is the interest in natural products that nearly 50 natural-products companies registered for the convention, an increase of 20 from last year and 30 from 1997.

On the technology front, expect supermarkets to become more convenient places to shop. NCR Corp., the company that scanned the first UPC bar code 25 years ago, displayed some cutting-edge technology addressing common shopping woes -- long check-out lines and a lack of product information and consistent pricing:

--A self-checkout system allows shoppers to scan, bag and pay for their groceries using cash or credit card.

--A streamlined, touch-screen computer kiosk offers product information and advice, including recipes for ingredients you plan to buy.

--Wireless electronic shelf labels linked to scanners at the checkout counter and the master computer can make sure prices are consistent and accurate.

Another technological aid for the supermarket, from 3M, is designed to give consumers some food-safety insurance. Temperature-sensitive labels attached to refrigerated food packages verify freshness and proper storage. The labels change from off-white to black over time and darken more rapidly at higher temperatures.