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At the Annual Fancy Food Show, healthy innovation is all the rage


New York -- Even those notoriously sinful "foodies" will be eating more healthful, simpler and lighter food in the coming year judging by the products displayed at the 40th annual Fancy Food Show held here last week, where healthy was all the rage. Most new products were items the health-conscious could enjoy, from a plethora of grains to some innovative ways to make grilled meats more dazzling, serving them with fruit salsas, chutneys, dry rubs and marinades.

The big news in the beverage world is tea. Not only were more than 100 tea companies showing their leafs, but the quality and availability of flavored teas is on the rise. "People are becoming more interested in getting away from cocktail hour, and people are moving to softer beverages for health reasons," according to Jan Burns, co-owner of Eastern Shore Tea Company, Inc., from Maryland, who displayed a line of 48 teas.

At first glance, coffee seemed as big as ever with frothy cups of cappuccino being served to the show-goers and coffee-flavored foods in no short supply, but tea is making inroads. "The logical extension of the coffee trend is tea -- brewing it properly to get the full enjoyment." says Ms. Burns. Although tea has been around for a long time, the difference is the number of fruit teas and herbal teas, which don't have caffeine, now on the market.

The desire for a healthier diet has forced suppliers to deliver more innovative grains. Instead of just long- and short-grain rice, companies are selling varieties, including basmati and the relatively unknown popcorn rice. Pastas were available in every conceivable color and shape. From couscous to polenta, grains long ordered in restaurants but only recently made at home were out in force.

"People are eating more grains, such as polenta, rice, and pastas -- they are going back to how people ate in the revolutionary times when the grain was the main menu item," says Ron Tanner, communications director for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, sponsor of the four-day show.

And to complement those grains were lighter sauces, alternatives to the standard bottled pasta sauces available at the grocery store. "We did not see one beurre blanc or cream-based sauce in the entire show, unlike previous years when those heavy sauces were big," said Diane Feffer-Neas, a Baltimore restaurant consultant.

Among the hundreds of snack foods, dips, chips, cookies and crackers were more products marketing themselves as low-fat, low-salt, low-calorie or low-cholesterol and many of them actually tasted good. "The quality of low-fat products is getting better as people work with the products and improve them," Mr. Tanner says.

The interest in hot, spicy foods is showing no decline, from jalapeno chocolates to the more usual tomato- based salsas. The new trend is toward more complex salsas including fruit salsas and salsas with smoky flavors.

Vegetables and fruits, always a favorite of those who want to eat right, are being packaged in more creative ways. Dehydrated eggplant, zucchini and persimmons now join the ranks of sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms, cherries, cranberries and other flavor intensive treats.

Packaging is also new and improved this year, including brighter colors, artwork on labels and concerns for the environment. "But not as much over-packaging -- they are not using as elaborate packaging such as metals or boxes within boxes because it raises the cost of the product and it's not good for the environment," Mr. Tanner says.

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