Food Trends Spotted at 2013 National Restaurant Association Show

We’re lucky here in Chicago.  Our city is the host each year to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show, which features 2,000+ exhibitors from around the world showcasing new products.  It’s an amazing place for food trend spotting. I was able to attend the NRA Show for just a few hours, which isn’t really enough time to adequately absorb everything in the international foodservice marketplace.  But here are a few highlights that I observed during my brisk walk through the exhibit floor.

Caffeinated Ice Cream

A brand called Bang!! is a caffeinated ice cream from a company in Madison, Wisconsin.  I didn’t stop to try it, just snapped these photos.  One scoop of the ice cream contains the same amount of caffeine as an energy drink (125 mg caffeine).  Sarah Moore, a managing partner of Bang, told the Chicago Tribune that the targeted demographic is college students, who might consider ice cream over coffee to power through a study session. The varieties include Peanut Butta, Heaps of Gold, Cooky Mint and Iced Latte-Da.


This comes at an interesting time when Wrigley just haulted the roll-out of a caffeinated gum called Alert in response to FDA concerns about the safety of added caffeine in foods and beverages.  Food manufacturers have been adding caffeine to candy, nuts and other snack foods in recent years, which has medical groups concerned — especially if children get their hands on these new, easy and tasty sources of caffeine.  FDA’s Michael Taylor told the Associated Press that the current proliferation of caffeine-added foods is “beyond anything FDA envisioned” and the agency may look closer at the way these ingredients are regulated.   IMG_2111


I saw several exhibits promoting microgreens, which have come on strong as a culinary trend over the last few years.  Microgreens are seedlings of vegetables and herbs (including spinach, arugula, peas, cabbage, broccoli, radishes, and cilantro) that are harvested for a week or two, just when the first shoots sprout.  Chefs are increasingly using microgreens as an edible garnish, a new ingredient in salads, or as a flavorful side dish.  Even though these greens are miniature in size, they can provide surprisingly intense flavors, vivid colors and crisp textures.  Microgreens also pack a rather intense nutrient punch, as revealed in this study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.   This assessment of 25 different microgreens found that some varieties contain even more nutrients, carotenoids and other phytonutrients compared to their mature counterparts.



Edible Flowers

Similarly, edible flowers are a new favorite of chefs, used as both a garnish and ingredient (from drinks and desserts to salads and soups).  Take a look at the possibilities from Grub Street San Francisco Eat Your Flowers: Edible Blossoms are Trending All Over, which includes a fun slideshow featuring edible flowers.  They’re not just showing up in restaurants, increasingly you can find edible flowers in the produce sections of supersmarkets, near the fresh herbs.

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Tea was huge, with 33 different exhibits showcasing customized tea menus, tea sommelier programs, hot tea service items and unique iced tea varieties.  The health benefits of tea was also a focus, including this booth from the Art of Tea.

One tea that you’ll be hearing more about is Matcha, which is hot on the heels of chai and bubble tea as the next big tea trend. Grown from specially shaded bushes, this green tea has been part of the famous Japanese tea ceremony for more than 800 years.  Now it’s being sold as a finely ground, jade-green powder to be mixed with water, or combined with milk for smoothies and lattes.  It’s true that this concentrated form of green tea contains high levels of antioxidants, but I think the claims are starting to go a little overboard.  Even so, many people enjoy the refreshing, grassy flavor and you’ll start to see Matcha show up in other categories beyond drinks.

IMG_2135 IMG_2136 Umami

There was an entire Japanese pavilion dedicated to umami, the “fifth taste” discovered by Japanese scientists a century ago.  It was a huge celebration of this savory, meaty, full-bodied taste, with lots of sauces, condiments and other items on display.  One part of the exhibit offered a taste test of two french fries — one seasoned with salt and the other with Ajinomoto, the MSG seasoning.

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American Indian Foods

I loved the exhibit that promoted a variety of  American Indian Foods, including wild rices, jams, jellies, and jerky.  I learned about a certification program from the Intertribal Agriculture Center that promotes the “made by American Indians” mark to indicate a product from a federally recognized Tribe.  IMG_2144IMG_2143 IMG_2145 Just a few other quick trends, I spotted lots of waffles — including fancy waffle irons for restaurant kitchens, waffle cones  and waffle desserts.  Here’s a waffle on a stick from Waffsticks.  IMG_2141

I also liked these bean-based chips, including falafel and zatar chips from a company called  Flamous.  I enjoyed chatting with the Lebanese owner of the company who was proud of his Middle Eastern-style creations.


I also spotted a lot of interesting specialty produce…



And several vendors were promoting food trucks and other alternative service options for restaurateurs.


Here’s what a few other trend trackers spotted at the NRA Show:

Nation’s Restaurant News identified 10 culinary trends at the 2013 NRA Show.

  • Healthy kids’ food — to meet new school nutrition guidelines or to qualify for NRA’s Kids LiveWell program
  • Tropical flavors — passion fruit, guava and especially mango
  • Water — zero-calorie “enhanced” waters fortified with vitamins, seltzer with splashes of fruit juice, origin-specific waters and aloe water


  • Iced tea —  33 different exhibits showcasing tea, often with tropical flavors or regional designations, such as “Pacific Raspberry” or “Georgia Peach”


  • Greek yogurt 2.0 — ingredient in Greek yogurt cheesecake, spinach-artichoke dip, mac and cheese, and virtually anything that would otherwise contain mayonnaise or sour cream
  • Gluten-free — exibitors said it remained important concern for visitors shopping for sauces, snacks and desserts


  • High-tech convenience — new technologies in the kitchen
  • Salted caramel — ice creams, cheesecake, candies
  • Peruvian — Country of Peru exhibited for first time, with Peruvian chef Ricardo Zarate of L.A.’s Mo-Chica and Picca restaurants serving of Peruvian specialities
  • Superfoods  — spices (cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne pepper), teas flavored with blueberry, pomegranate and acai, and seafood purveyors said there was renewed interest in omega3-rich herring

SmartBlog on Food and Beverages cited top 3 trends from the show floor at NRA 2013:

  • Special formulations – gluten-free, allergy-friendly
  • Healthy kids’ meals
  • Beverages bubble up

Did you go to the NRA Show?  What trends did you spot?

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