Last year's hottest supermarket craze -- low-carb products -- can be found in this year's clearance aisle. In a country obsessed with dieting, we've seen low-fat, fat-free, sugar-free, low-carb, and no-carb foods come and go with little impact on our girth. In fact, as a nation, we're heavier than ever.
So what new foods can you expect to see next on your supermarket shelves? WebMD asked the experts for their predictions on the latest trends.
As with most everything else, baby boomers are affecting how the nation eats, according to the NPD Marketing group. Boomers made their mark with fast food in the '60s, fern bars in the '70s, microwaves in the '80s, take-out in the '90s, and a trend toward healthier foods today, according to Harry Balzar, NPD's vice president. As the boomers age, they are coping with health and weight concerns that drive their eating patterns.
But boomers aren't the only ones behind changes in food buying habits.
"Increasing Latin populations have had an enormous impact on our food trends," says supermarket guru Phil Lempert, editor of the Facts, Figures and the Future newsletter. "They don't drink sodas with high-fructose corn syrup, and their diets are more abundant in fruits, vegetables, and fresh foods."
Among the once-exotic fruits and vegetables Hispanic cuisine is bringing to supermarket shelves are mangoes, cherimoyas, and a host of others, says trend tracker Linda Gilbert, president of the HealthFocus market analysis firm.
Another issue that continues to exert a huge influence on food manufacturers: our ever-increasing desire for convenience.
What's In, What's Out
To address the nation's health concerns, manufacturers are scrambling to reformulate foods that taste good but are lower in fat, salt, cholesterol, and sugar. Many are designed to help reduce cholesterol, prevent type 2 diabetes, and protect the heart.
Cholesterol-lowering, plant-derived chemicals called sterols are being added to orange juice, dark chocolate, yogurt, and margarine. The FDA has determined that some products containing sterols may carry a heart-healthy claim.
Another heart-protective ingredient comes from fatty fish and vegetable oils -- omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Higher intakes of food that contain these fats are an option for the heart-healthy conscious. Flaxseeds, walnuts, and their oils are among the richest sources of these fatty acids.
Another trend is foods that are enriched, fortified, or otherwise pumped up nutritionally. Manufacturers are adding nutrients such as calcium and folate to foods to help fill the nutritional gaps in our diets.
"This is great for minerals such as calcium for people who have trouble tolerating dairy," says Linda McDonald, RD, editor of the Supermarket Savvy newsletter. But she notes, "some food manufacturers have taken it too far." Eating some foods or beverages is similar to taking a vitamin pill -- and they don't always taste so great, she says.
At the same time, manufacturers are rushing to remove another ingredient, artery-clogging trans fats, from their products. Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated fats, are found in many processed foods and are made by turning liquid vegetable oils into solid products like margarine and shortening.
On the heels of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines' recommendation to limit trans fats, many manufacturers are reformulating products to reduce or eliminate them. In January 2006, all food labels will be required to list the amount of trans fats the foods contain. (In the meantime, be sure to read labels and compare brands.)
Of course, new food technology is about taste as well as health.
Consider slow-churned ice cream technology, which makes lower-calorie ice cream taste like the real thing without artificial sweeteners or fat substitutes. This means manufacturers can deliver the creamy taste of full-butterfat ice cream at a fraction of the calories -- now that's progress!
The Magic Number: 100
One of the hottest trends in weight control is portion-controlled, 100-calorie packages. Coca-Cola, Cheese Nips, Wheat Thins, Pringles, Oreos, and Ritz crackers have all jumped on the bandwagon with portion-controlled versions of their snacks and drinks.
These 100-calorie packs are ideal for people who crave snacks but can't control their own portions, says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Still, she points out, they're not exactly health foods.
"These are essentially small portions of calorically dense snack foods, and a lot less nutritious than a piece of fruit, handful of nuts, or a low-fat yogurt," she says. "Approach them mindfully, and try to limit these snacks to once a day. It is better to fill up on fruits and vegetables."
Whole Grains on the Rise
The 2005 Dietary Guidelines' recommendation for three servings a day of whole grains has led to an explosion of new products on supermarket shelves.
Manufacturers have launched new whole-grain breads, crackers, pasta, and cereals. General Mills has reformulated all its cereals to include whole grains, Wonder Bread has developed whole-grain flours that look and taste like refined flours, and pasta makers are scrambling to make good-tasting whole-grain blended pastas.
But what exactly are whole grains, and what can they do for you?
Whole grains contain the entire kernel of the grain, which includes antioxidants and fiber that can protect against heart disease and reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer, says Tallmadge. Dietitians note that people who eat plenty of whole grains also tend to be leaner and have a reduced risk of heart disease.
It may soon get easier to identify whole-grain products. If the FDA responds to an industry request, icons will appear on packages of products made from whole-grain sources. In the meantime, read the label and look for the word "whole" before whatever type of grain was used in the product. Terms like "seven-grain" and "100% wheat" don't necessarily mean it's a whole-grain product.
And with the new recommendations to get five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, could Mom's urgings to eat our fruits and veggies finally be sinking in?
"Stroll down the frozen or canned aisles to witness the explosion of fruits and vegetables that include seasonings and upscale sauces," says McDonald.
Natural and organic foods used to be found primarily in health food stores, but today they line the aisles in most major grocery chains. Gone are the bruised and often unappealing selections, making way for the competitively priced evolution of organic private-label store brands.
"There is a growing awareness that organic foods are more than just pesticide-free, and even if it costs more, the benefits to the consumer become real," says Lempert. "The volume and efficiency of the emerging private-label foods have kept the prices to 10%-15% more than non-organics."
Taste and nutrition, as much as ecological considerations, are driving the move toward organic, experts say. Consumers want familiar products that taste better and are priced competitively, like Frito-Lays' line of natural products.
"When Mom buys organic, she is looking for wholesome nutrition, not necessarily foods with the least impact on the environment," says Gilbert.
Hundreds of products are now labeled "organic," "natural," "homestead," "farmstead," "toxin-free" or "hormone free." But these aren't all necessarily better for you or the environment. The only term regulated by the government is "organic"; all the others are at the discretion of the manufacturer, says McDonald.
No one seems to have time to cook anymore, so consumers want good nutrition packaged conveniently. And, of course, these foods need to be great-tasting.
"Moms want solutions and convenience to buy them more time to spend with their families," says Gilbert.
Popular products include snackable items like drinkable yogurts as well as grab-n-go foods that make it easy to throw together meals in no time. Already cooked, preseasoned, and "halfway homemade" are the hottest trends, according to McDonald. And quick-cooking doesn't rule out upscale, she says.
"There are more sophisticated and innovative flavors across all food varieties that are quick and easy to prepare," she says.
According to the Institute for Food Technology, grocery stores now abound with delicate flavors and global influences to help meet our demand for quick meals with interesting flavors. Look for upscale salad mixes and prepackaged dinners, gourmet tuna, fancy cheeses, and gourmet vinegars and sauces.