NEW YORK - "Loaded with Omega-3s . . . rich in live cultures and probiotics . . . helps with cellular renewal . . . safe for expectant mothers . . . contains all essential amino acids."
Listening to these claims being touted by many of the 2,670 exhibitors at last week's 62nd annual Summer Fancy Food Show, you might think you had stumbled into a medical convention rather than the country's biggest gathering of specialty-food purveyors. That is, if you managed to ignore the wafting aromas of roasting meats, baked muffins, creamy cheeses, aged wines, rich chocolates, and brewed coffees, to name just a few of the olfactory sensations - not to mention the accompanying tastes - being offered to the 25,000 attendees who trolled the miles of aisles at the Javits Center for three days looking for the latest food and drink trends.
Attuned to consumers' growing concerns over their foods' origins and ingredients, identifying products' health benefits took precedence over promoting their flavors. So-called super foods, products touting multiple health benefits, played a starring role, such as those with seeds, honey, ginger, maple, cruciferous vegetables, pumpkin, and coconut. But simplicity was also highly promoted.
Products made with few ingredients, or even just one, were popular, like Dang's onion chips, which was nothing more than a slice of onion flash-fried to a crispy and tasty finish, or Nutterly's hand-baked cookie snaps - made only with nuts, sugar, salt, and egg whites - that had a nice crunch from the ground nuts and didn't suffer from the lack of butter. So were those that involved little or no processing, like CocoRau's raw cacao power bites flavored with lavender or espresso, which sounded better than they tasted, or Laughing Giraffe Organics' Snakaroons, raw vegan coconut macaroons that were quite delicious.
Seed- and grain-based products have exploded, with chips, drinks, cereals, and ice-cream toppings now laden with chia, flax, pumpkin, sesame, sprouted quinoa, sprouted barley, and the latest entry, hemp seeds. While noting hemp's superior protein and Omega-3 content vs. chia and flax, John Durkin, a vice president at Hemp Hearts drinks and snacks, pointed out: "It tastes a lot better, too." (I concur. I loved the crunchy, nutty hemp bites.)
Many food producers have pushed the boundaries of defined categories. Some typically savory foods have taken on sweeter profiles, such as Delighted By's new line of dessert hummus, while sweets masqueraded as savories, such as the yogurts introduced by Chaat Co., whose owner Shiraz Noor noted that, "in the rest of the world, yogurts aren't supposed to be sweet."
Snagging the best-appetizer award from the Specialty Food Association was Pacific Pickle Works' tangy Brussizzle Sprouts. "We thought: Brussels sprouts are all the rage on every restaurant menu, why not try pickling them?" said company founder Bradley Bennett, who also displayed a full line of brine-based drink mixers.
Another winner was Little Red Dot's bak kwa, a hickory-smoked, candied bacon that tapped into three trends: protein-laden, Southeast Asian cuisine, and street foods. Beating out dozens of jerky for the best-savory-snack prize, this year-old line of roasted meats from Ching Lee was modeled on the Malaysian street foods she grew up on. "It's a snack I had since I was a kid," Lee said, "but nobody had anything like it here."
Perhaps more valuable than snagging an award is catching the eye of a Whole Foods or Trader Joe's buyer seeking a new product. Asta Plankiene and Andrius Plankis, a young Lithuania couple, brought their native Dziugas cheese to the show for the first time this year.
"We had sent Whole Foods so many samples and never heard from them. Then they came by our booth yesterday and tried the cheese, and now they're going to carry it," said a beaming Plankis. "Our country is small, but we make so many good things, and nobody knows about us."
Lithuania was one of five new countries exhibiting at the Fancy Food Show this year and among 55 countries represented, including large contingents from Italy, Spain, Mexico, and France. The mood in the U.K. section was notably subdued, with exhibitors worried about how the recent Brexit vote to separate Britain from the European Union would affect their businesses. "It's been a terrible week for us, between the vote and our football loss to Iceland," said Julian Dyer, owner of Pots & Co. potted desserts. "I don't even want to go home."
Specialty-food companies from across the United States see the New York show as a chance to expand their reach and exposure. Philadelphia's Little Baby Ice Cream had one of its iconic red-and-white tricycles at the show to launch the company's new line of hand-dipped ice creams, boxed in fully recyclable containers. Karen Mosholder, a beekeeper in Somerset, who started her line of Bumbleberry Farms honeys and skin-care products a few years ago, was hoping this would be her breakthrough year.
"I've been getting a lot of attention from bigger companies this year," said Mosholder. "Honey is really trending right now. It's the only food that has everything in it that you need to live, and the only food that never spoils. And with the country in such a state of unrest, people are looking for things that remind them of simpler, more-settled times."