Trends on 2008's front burners

Local, ethnic, niche: Some words of the year.

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Bartenders are creating new cocktails using fresh and health-oriented (including organic) ingredients, from fresh herbs to fruits, along with combination dessert-cocktails.

Count yourself a "locavore" if you dine on and utilize foods grown or produced foods locally whenever possible.

That also puts you on top of one of the biggest food trends to hit the industry in years.

Indeed, locavore is not just the reigning food buzzword, it has also been designated Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary.

The movement brings with it support for fresh foods, farmers markets, family farms, sustainable agriculture, the reduction of greenhouse gases, and, in general, a healthier environment - and healthier consumers.

Shoppers want, and are getting, bolder flavors, more spices, stronger cheeses, and more crisp and crunchy textures - all subtle changes in taste attributed to the dulled taste buds of an aging population.

On the ethnic food front, Indian, Indian-fusion and Japanese fare are moving toward the mainstream, while the adventurous are trying Korean and African foods. And Olympic hype from Beijing is sure to boost cravings for Chinese food.

In the kitchen, steaming has surged with the tripling of products calling for that cooking method. You're also apt to find more men in the kitchen, attracted by more high-tech "power tools" (adult toys) from espresso machines to vacuum sealers.

Here's a rundown of hot-button food subjects likely to have the greatest effect on what and how we eat in the coming year:

Local, fresh, natural, organic. Ongoing and affecting every level and aspect of food, from farmers markets to convenience stores, even fast-food chains.

Probiotics. The friendly bacteria that keep us healthy are moving beyond yogurt to a wider range of foods, even chocolate bars. While most aid digestion, one strain targets cold and flu symptoms.

Natural no-cal sweeteners. The introduction of erythritol (zero-calorie natural sugar) sweeteners and Coca-Cola's move toward gaining patents and FDA approval for the food use of stevia (up to 300 times sweeter than sugar) put that longtime industry goal within reach. And artificial sweeteners on the "out" list.

Umami. The satisfying but hard-to-describe taste sensation is linked to high levels of glutamate in foods like Parmesan cheese and mushrooms. As more foods are stripped of fat, sodium, sugar, calories - and with that, flavor - chefs are starting to use umami (oo-MA-mee)-rich ingredients to compensate and heighten remaining flavors naturally.

Eco-friendly. From individual foods and packaging to sustainable agriculture, wind- and solar-powered farming, fair-trade foods, it's the wave of the future. And to reinforce that. . . .

Farmers. These new food stars are moving into the high-profile territory ruled by celebrity chefs. Locally, that puts the spotlight on our own Farmer Glenn - Glenn Brendle, owner of Green Meadow Farm in Gap, which supplies produce to area restaurants, including the sweet berries used by chocolatiers John and Kira.

Food on speed dial. Quick cook, quick serve, it's all about convenience and saving time. Placing orders (and paying) by cell phone while en route to pick up food from a take-out, a supermarket or a neighborhood restaurant is about as quick as you can get.

Online groceries. A slow starter, but catching on as delivery service improves.

Niche restaurants. Coffee bars spawned chocolaterias. Sushi bars led to seviche bars. There are "restaurants" focused on mac-'n'-cheese, others dedicated to desserts. Restaurant consultants Joseph Baum and Michael Whiteman call then "slivers" in the market. Among the latest entries: shops for Korean frozen yogurt, the tart stuff, not imitation ice cream.

Gastro-pups. Coined by Rozanne Gold, author of Kids Cook 1-2-3, the term refers to the revival of serious kids' cooking. Kids' cooking classes are cropping up across the country, and we're seeing more prepacked kids' foods in stores. On the downside, that includes more beverages like Crayola-colored vitamin waters and bottles reusable as toys.

Bottled-water backlash. Still a huge chunk of the beverage market, bottled water is seen by activists as a major source of environmental overload, however recyclable. Why spend billions bottling and shipping water around the world when it comes free from a tap?

What's next?

Yumberries. This subtropical fruit from China, with its cranberrylike taste, is the next hot "superfruit." It's already being teamed with familiar flavors in blended juice drinks.

Caffeine. Eggs are back in the good graces of the food police, and even some fats have their blessing. Now caffeine is being not deleted but added to foods from oatmeal to mints to potato chips.

Gastro-thrills. Talk of pork bellies these days is less about investments and more about menu additions, as less familiar cuts and animal parts, nose to tail, turn up on menus - making it all the more important to know and trust the chef.

Clean labels. Ingredient lists are getting easier to read, more consumer and eco-friendly, less like a chemistry experiment. About a quarter of new food products last year made claims of being additive- and preservative-free.

Mintel International Group, which monitors the food industry, predicts that labels also will be more informative, listing where ingredients come from as well as processing and packaging notes.

Nutrition ratings. A universal system to clue health-concerned shoppers in to the relative nutrient value of foods is near. Topco (an Illinois-based supermarket cooperative) is due to launch a 1-to-100 food-scoring index developed at the Yale Griffin Prevention Research Center. Hannaford markets in Maine plans to license its own system, Guiding Star, with ratings from 1 to 3 stars. And restaurant consultants Baum and Whiteman predict that such ratings will prompt consumers to expect similar guidance on menus.

More monitors. Food safety issues - from E. coli-contaminated ground meat and greens and salmonella in peanut butter to dangerous additives in imports - have consumers and legislators alike calling for stricter FDA oversight of the food supply.

The bar chef. Gastro-bartenders are making creative, constructed cocktails, using more fresh and health-oriented (including organic) ingredients, from fresh herbs to superfruits, along with combination dessert-cocktails.

Food travel. Tours and trips planned around food experiences, a country's cuisine or cooking lessons - once just for dedicated foodies - are attracting ordinary vacationers.

And finally, in the realm of the possible, but not yet price-viable. . . .

Laboratory meats. Envision a future with meats grown "in vitro." Don't worry. Barring major breakthroughs, scientists are still years from producing much beyond pricey chicken-nuggetlike nibbles.


Contact food writer Marilynn Marter at 215-854-5743 or mmarter@phillynews.com.