I always enjoy walking the exhibit floor at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago. The massive halls at McCormick Place are full of companies touting new products to the restaurant and hotel operators attending the annual conference and expo. What was evident to me was how taste and indulgence still rule, yet many consumer nutrition trends are moving over to foodservice — for better or worse.
GMO-free seemed to be the new gluten-free, although there were plenty of gluten-free products to be found. In fact, the show directory listed 136 exhibitors offering gluten-free foods. But that wasn’t all. Lots of products boasted about what they don’t contain — dairy-free, hormone-free, wheat-free, soy-free, high fructose corn syrup free. Why such an emphasis on what’s missing rather than what’s inside? GMO-free or gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthier.
I also saw lots of foods bragging about what they do contain — whether that’s coconut oil or real cane sugar. But again, that doesn’t make a product any healthier.
Enough with the complaints. There were lots of products I did enjoy.
Here are seven nutrition trends I spotted on this year’s NRA show:
1. Superfood Grains
Even though gluten-free was everywhere, grains were big — ancient grains, sprouted grains and convenient foodservice-friendly whole grains. Earnest Eats Hot & Fit Cereals, a 2016 FABI Award winner, was an interesting new product. It’s made from whole oats, amaranth and quinoa, nuts, seeds and berries, and coffee fruit — which was described as a “true global impact superfood.” The cereal is verified vegan and USDA-certified organic. It comes in premeasured cups or in bulk for foodservice. Here’s a video showcasing the awarding-winning product.
There were several vendors offering products to make it easier for restaurants to offer whole grains, including fully cooked frozen quinoa, wheat berries, barley and other whole grains.
Sprouted grains are still going strong. Alvarado St. Bakery sampled Sprouted Breads that were GMO-free, organic and solar powered. When did solar powered become a meaningful claim?
2. Living Greens
Is living the new fresh? Maybe so. Holland Produce, another FABI award winner, showcased living baby butter lettuce that was still attached to its roots, along with other “live” produce.
3. Healthified Treats
Here’s where I’m really torn. Do we really need a “guilt-free” ice cream? Brio! Ice Cream, another FABI Award winner, was touted as the ice cream that loves you back. The frozen treat has 35 percent fewer calories and 50 percent less fat per serving than premium brands, and is fortified with antioxidants, protein, probiotics, micronutrients, and calcium. It’s described as low glycemic, non-GMO, r-BST-free, and made from organic milk from pasture-raised cows. Well, it’s still ice cream and not a “health food.” Personally, I’d rather have a small scoop of the real deal.
These Hail Merry mini tarts were actually delicious, but they’re no miracles. Just because it’s Paleo-friendly and made with coconut oil, doesn’t mean you can eat all you want.
4. Fancy Teas, Juices and Smoothies
I was surprised to see so many juices and smoothies being promoted to foodservice. Cold-pressed, hand-crafted, small batches, no added sugar and no preservatives were the buzz words. Teas were also big, including sparkling teas, kombucha and matcha.
Matcha green tea remains a big trend, but it’s showing up in all sorts of new places and forms. How cool are these edible matcha cups from Loliware, a company that recently got a big boost by appearing on Shark Tank. I also chatted with the woman from 10th Avenue Tea who created the eco-friendly instant tea powder to use in place of tea bags and quick-brewing plastic tea cups.
5. Shrub Drinks
These artisanal drinking vinegars, with a storied history in America, are suddenly new again. Various flavors of shrubs were sampled and promoted as ingredients for crafting a better cocktail.
Flavor was evident throughout the exhibit floor, including globally-inspired flavors and heat + salt combinations like Sriracha Sea Salt, Chipotle Sea Salt and Habanero Sea Salt. Himalayan Sea Salt was available in fine and coarse grind, along with salt blocks that were on display for cooking meats and vegetables. I also loved sampling the unique spice blends, flavorful chutneys and salsas — including the Moroccan spice blends from cHarissa and Le Bon Magot products inspired by Africa, India and South Asia (pictured below).
Nancy Kruse, a trend tracker from Atlanta who spoke about menu trends at the conference, said it was the year of the alternative. I agree. Everywhere you looked you saw substitutes for meats, wheats, sweets, and dairy. A few examples include Milkadamia, a milk alternative made with macadamia nuts, and Thai Curry Tofu Nuggets from Hodo Soy.
11 Food and Beverage Trends from NRA Show from Nation’s Restaurant News
Hot and New at NRA Show 2016 from SmartBrief
Thorn and Kruse Talk Culinary Trends from NRA Show from Nation’s Restaurant News
NRA 2016: What’s Driving Menu Trends from Food Business News
Food Trends from 2016 NRA Show from Euromonitor
Top Innovations from NRA Show 2016 from Food Business News