A magic blend of healthy, exotic, tasty - and convenient - is what it takes to make food fly off the shelf these days.
But in the rush for natural and authentic, don't think we've left behind the days of industrial or manufactured food. The fact is, contradictory consumer demand for healthy but plastic-packaged or authentic but precooked is creating a new genre of teched-up food, dismaying environmentalists who hope to leverage the new food consciousness for meaningful green change.
You can see these strains clearly in Food Technology, the magazine with the tech fixes to help food manufacturers fake it and bake it for any shift in food fashion. The April edition, using a range of insider surveys and sales tracking records, gives the dope on what's hot in foodieland.
Interesting that despite the new trends, the top 10 new product pacesetters for 2006 and comers for 2007 definitely look old-school. Slow-churned and double-churned icecream, black cherry vanilla pop and soft and smooth bread were big winners last year, and twists on pop, granola bars and frozen pizza are well out in front for 2007.
But Food Technology notes that of the movers and shakers in the convenience market, more than a quarter feature a nutritional or weight-loss element. About 17 per cent feature natural and organic ingredients.
Food is also where modern conveniences meet postmodern explorers of food identity and culinary adventure. "Nothing says trendy like emerging cuisines,' the mag notes. Latin America and Thai are just behind Italian among exotic food front-runners.
Arugula, chipotle chiles and edamame will be among "the vegetable darlings of 2007.' Green tea, white tea, oolong tea chewing gum, yerba mate, ginseng, Thai basil and shiso are hot. Vinegars, dips and salts must also meet the new standards for well-travelled kitchen products.
Weight loss is the key to many new items, a fact that may be driving dairy alternatives, now a $1.4 billion market in the U.S. Keep an eye out for Enviga, a green tea drink with calcium and caffeine that burns calories, brought to market through a team effort by Coke and Nestle.
Health interests extend beyond dieting. Sales of trans-fat-free products shot up 120 per cent, while chemical-additive-free products jumped 35 per cent, Food Technology reports. When asked, 44 per cent of people say "grown without pesticides' is very or extremely important to them, while 42 per cent want meat free of hormones or antibiotics.
But speed leads. That's why snacking is the trend to watch. Snacks are the traffic draw in constantly expanding convenience stores, and will also top sales in restaurants. One chain will have wraps that fit in car cupholders, perfect for a safe and calm meal while fighting traffic. Two high-powered multinationals are flogging snacks for in-between meals, trying to make four fuel-stops a day the norm.
So nice to know that all the health claims about low-cal snacks are unregulated by health authorities that pay for the inevitable heart surgeries.
Helping people eat in the now while coping with a deadline that's due an hour from now is what makes food techies worth their salt (the root of the word "salary"). Here's how one actually existing natural product described in the April edition gets tampered with: one company uses "a customized system that simultaneouly blocks the negative tastes of potassium chloride while keeping the true taste and mouth feel of salt" to cut salt content.
Other manufacturers worry about "flavour scalping," the migration of delicate flavours to the omnipresent plastic film in containers. One juice packager was able to slow flavour loss "by complementing the interior with ethylene vinyl alcohol, nylon polyester or some combination of them."
So we're still in the grip of industrial food. Nor have we forsaken guilt. According to John Coveney in Food, Morals And Meaning, "Few other human practices come close to eating in the ability to load us with a moral millstone."
The ancient Greeks wanted to moderate and control, rather than be owned by animal pleasures, he says, while Christians wanted to renouce the pleasures and sins of the flesh.
The main difference between present-day foodophobes and those of the past, he suggests, is that the former hope the right diet will improve their outward appearance, while the latter worried that the wrong foods would be so sinfully good that they would corrupt the soul. But it's not just body image that generates today's guilt. It's also worries about buying green - and the way this key concern conflicts with the tyranny of convenience.
What food trends suggest is that the missing ingredient in the local, organic, natural, authentic sensibility is time - time to cook from scratch or eat slowly with friends and family.
Until that time problem is addressed, the outer limits of environmental change will be stuck at product substitution: hybrid or super-compact cars rather than biking to work, and home treadmills rather than walks to the store. With food, simple product substitution leaves an unsatisfying aftertaste.