In the world of food, there's one thing that's constant -- nothing stays the same. What was chic a few years ago may be a distant memory today. Food trends that started as a ripple in a big city quickly escalated into a tidal wave that swept across the nation. Take the New York cupcake phenomenon that resulted from a mention in a TV episode of Sex And The City several years ago. Cupcakes were suddenly the rage, and bakeries everywhere were selling them as fast as they could frost them.
When it comes to food trends, there's always something new and outrageous to try. But how many of these "foods of the moment" are actually good for us? New York City is home to The Food Network, after all, not to mention some of America's top restaurants. To find out what's hip and healthy, let's hit the streets of the Big Apple and a handful of other major U.S. cities.
What's Cooking in New York?
Everyone's Going Organic. The word "organic" is popping up more and more in restaurants, food markets, and bakeries all across the city. From organic grains to greens (and other produce), eating organic is hot right now.
Wheat Is Where It's At. Pizza and subs just got a lot more nutritious in New York City. Some pizzerias are now offering pies made with whole-wheat crust. You'll also find whole-wheat or multigrain bread options in bakeries and delis, such as Amy's Bread at the Chelsea Market. Amy's now sells whole-wheat Irish soda bread and other multigrain breads. The Grill at All About Food, Rockefeller Center, offers several sandwiches on seven-grain baguette or grilled whole- wheat bread.
Ban on Trans. New York City is also leading the nation with its ban on trans fat cooking oils and spreads in all restaurants starting in July 2007. According to the new citywide regulation, restaurants may not use partially hydrogenated oils, shortenings, or margarines for frying, pan-frying, or grilling if they contain 0.5 grams or more of trans fat per serving. Trans fats are found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and shortening, and they contribute to clogged arteries and heart disease in part by increasing "bad" cholesterol and lowering "good" cholesterol. Technically, restaurants can still use cooking oil that's high in saturated fat; however, the city is encouraging restaurants to switch to heart-healthy oil while trimming away the trans. Restaurants will have an extra year to remove all trans fats from baked goods. That ban goes into effect beginning in July 2008.
Upscale Fro Yo. A low-fat frozen yogurt chain popular in Southern California is now helping residents of New York's Chelsea neighborhood to chill out. Pinkberry frozen yogurt has become a local obsession, says Shari Forman, senior account supervisor for Edelman Public Relations in Times Square. Pinkberry frozen yogurt is delicious and virtuous, made without preservatives, additives, or excess sugar. A 5-ounce serving adds up to 125 calories, with 5 grams of protein and 0 grams fat, cholesterol, trans and saturated fat, and 30 grams of carbohydrates. Each 5-ounce serving also offers about 20% of the Daily Value for calcium and vitamin C.
Salad Sells. City dwellers do seem to love their salads, but can a restaurant survive on salad alone? At least two New York City chains are hoping so. Tossed and Chop't -- both fast-casual eateries specializing in salad -- have sprung up all over town. Besides healthy greens and toppings, Tossed also offers two fat-free salad dressings (cucumber dill and honey dijon) and a nice basic vinaigrette made with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
Savvy Shopping. Many locals I spoke with, including Anthony Starpoli, MD, a well-known New York City gastroenterologist, named the newly opened Whole Foods Market among the biggest food crazes to hit the Big Apple recently. A quick visit to the store quickly confirmed that even in the middle of a sweltering weekday, this hip new supermarket is hopping. Whole Foods offers city dwellers variety in food and meal options, says Forman.
Mini Desserts Make Headlines in Atlanta
The stylish southern city of Atlanta has a few food trends of its own. Minidesserts are big in all sorts of restaurants across town, says Susan Puckett, food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. When it comes to dessert, the first few bites are usually the best, and this way you don't get too far into the triple-digits in calories. One restaurant chain in Atlanta has made "mini-indulgences" a cornerstone of their casually sophisticated menu. From red velvet cake to pecan pie with vanilla bean mousse, at Seasons 52 restaurants, $2 will buy you dessert in moderation. At just 40 calories, the fresh fruit mini is the most virtuous choice. Strawberry shortcake clocks in at just 154 calories, and even a more decadent dessert -- the 283-calorie tiramisu, for instance -- is still low-cal by most restaurant standards.
This restaurant chain (originating in Florida), now with two locations in Atlanta, has helped kick-start the trend of lower-calorie dining. "All their entrees and sandwiches seem to be under 500 calories," notes Puckett. How do they keep the calories so low? To start with, they use natural cooking techniques such as grilling over open fires, which gives their food fantastic flavor with fewer calories.
Drinking in Atlanta has even taken a turn toward health. According to Puckett, many restaurants and bars are featuring fresh, healthful ingredients in their cocktails, such as antioxidant-rich tomatoes and herbal teas.
Hungry in Seattle?
Seattle is setting its own food trends on the left coast. "The biggest Seattle trend is the overabundance of 'small plate' restaurants, allowing people to have a delicious meal without having to overeat," writes Nancy Leson, restaurant critic for the Seattle Times, in an email. By serving smaller portions, these restaurants are encouraging their patrons to eat sensible amounts of food.
And if farm-fresh organic eggs count as "health food," then add them to the list of healthy food trends making waves in Seattle, notes Leson. "Simple farm-fresh organic eggs have become the star of the show at restaurants everywhere: poached and served over grilled asparagus; soft-boiled and placed over a frisee salad; or baked in salt and turned into saffron-colored strands of fresh pasta."
A Little Bit of Everything in Chicago
There's a food ban going on in Chicago, too, and it's got some fancy restaurants crying "fowl." The city of Chicago has banned foie gras (goose or duck liver), reports Carol Haddix, food editor at the Chicago Tribune. The high-fat, high-cholesterol gourmet item has been officially taken off city restaurant menus. And it sounds like goose liver may be just the beginning of food bans in Chicago. "Now the city council is aiming to ban trans fats, but that doesn't seem to be going anywhere right now," notes Haddix in an email.
Chicago may be halfway across the country from Seattle, but the small-plate craze is very popular there, too. According to Haddix, lots of restaurants all over town are going the "tidbit" route and serving smaller portions to happy patrons.