Tag Archives: Gluten-free

Top 5 Observations! – National Restaurant Show (Part 2)

Posted on

This is part 2 of coverage of the 2014 National Restaurant Association show – too much great stuff to fit into one post.

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 3.32.59 PM

I’ve ranked my top 10 observations; this post features my Top 5.

(If you missed my previous post, you can see #6-10 here).

Again, all links are live so please click through with abandon.

OBSERVATION #5.  School Lunch is a Battleground.

Remember when school lunch was a PBJ, apple and Twinkie in a paper bag or Superman lunchbox? How many ways would that not work now?

Two trends are making school lunch planning fiendishly difficult.

A) FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 sets limits for sodium, fat, sugar and calories, among other things.
– What’s happened is that compliant healthy meals are often too skimpy (or not tasty), kids are not eating them, and some schools are dropping out because they are losing money (even with subsidies).

Check out these funny-yet-sad tweets from kids complaining about their lunch offering:

Screen Shot 2014-05-23 at 3.22.14 PM

B) Separately, allergens (like nuts) are becoming more of a center of the plate issue.

The result of all this is that there were numerous products specifically positioned as not only allergen-free, but also satisfying the school lunch nutritional requirements.

Home Free, Skeeter and Funley’s are on the market touting such mouth-watering claims as ‘Nut Free’, ‘School Compliant’ and ‘Gluten Free’ and other ‘free-from’ things.   Which is a shame, because beneath those claims they all tasted really good – a message that seemed somehow forced into 2nd place.

Cookies

Separately, organizations like Wholesome Tummies are offering alternative programs providing ‘fresh, nutritious and exciting foods’.

There were a lot of school nutritionists asking lots of questions.  And ultimately the market will decide.

 

OBSERVATION #4.  Liquor-flavored meat.

With these two manly ingredients, how could you lose? There were quite a few examples of meat flavored with some sort of macho alcohol. We’ve seen things like Jack Daniel’s barbecue sauce for years, but these examples had the flavor infused into the meat.

A few examples:
Family Brands has just introduced meat products infused with Ole Smoky White Lightnin’ Tennessee Moonshine. You can get pulled pork, sausage and other products flavored with with regular, apple pie or other moonshines. They taste great, but don’t overdo it – – you may get Dukes of Hazzard flashbacks.

OleSmoky

– Over at Zoe’s Meats, they’re offering Ghost Pepper Salami with tequila

– And my friends at Kronos Foods were sampling their brand-new Beer Can Chicken, which I can testify is better than anything I get from my smoker.  Perhaps one reason is that they use PBA (Premium Brown Ale), while I use PBR.

OBSERVATION #3.  Food Trucks Mainstreamed.

Food trucks have long been thought by some of as being on the funky fringe of foodservice, operating from recycled ice cream trucks. Well, this year served notice that food trucks are now driving right down the middle of the road.

FoodTruck

FoodTruckInt

Several companies offered custom foodservice trucks, built to spec and coming in at around $150,000. These are impressive, well-equipped, heavy duty vehicles specially built to bring the finest cuisines right to your doorstep.

At that point, whether you go for kimchi, po’ boy, pupusas or paletas is entirely up to you.

 

OBSERVATION #2 – RUNNER-UP:  Kallpod.  ‘What’, you say?

How many times have you had an otherwise great meal spoiled by:
– waiting for a refill on your drink
– waiting for your check
– otherwise having your server disappear into the ether never to be seen again

Well, this tech innovation gets super-high marks because it focuses on diner satisfaction.   What a concept.

The best analogy for Kallpod is the ‘Call Attendant’ button in an airplane – – only in this case it’s on your restaurant table and it’s wirelessly connected to a special Dick Tracy-like device that your server wears.

Kallpod

The concept is simple: you hit a button (refill, check please, etc) and your server gets a small vibration/shock and message like ‘check, table #8’. How great is that?  Awesome, although possibly less so if you’re a server, I suppose.

Reminds me a little of the Burger King Subservient Chicken that was compelled to respond to commands from strangers (shown in redemption video here):

http://adage.com/article/news/burger-king-s-subservient-chicken-video/292953/

So Kallpod offers something for everyone:

– Diners get quicker, better service and for a select few, the opportunity to indulge hidden sadistic tendencies
– Operators convert more drink requests, and can turn tables more quickly
– Servers get the opportunity to see their guests more, and for a select few, the opportunity to indulge hidden masochistic tendencies.

Kidding aside, this is a palm-to-forehead great idea, well executed.

 

And the winning #1 observation at this year’s NRA is:  SCHMACON!  

Yes, Schmacon. It’s not a trend or even a fad, it’s the sort of cosmic occurrence that we unfortunately see all too infrequently in our short time here on this mortal coil.

Schmacon2

My first minutes at NRA, at 9am, took me directly into the olfactory territory that the modest Schmacon booth was invisibly marking.

Schmacon is ‘smoked and cured glazed beef slices’ , but think of it as beef bacon, which by one account tastes like ‘crispy glazed pastrami’ (thanks Kevin Pang). By all accounts it is delicious, as demonstrated by the growing line for samples (of which I had two, for research purposes).

In addition, it is lower in calories, fat and sodium than traditional bacon.  A bit ironically, it is not pork but neither is it kosher.  But who are we to quibble about a technicality?

Schmacon is from Schmaltz Products in the Chicago area – a company with a funny name, but serious deli DNA.

Schmacon was a Food & Beverage 2014 award-winner.  I took home Schmacon literature and a scratch ‘n sniff button to remind me of my experience.  It’s mostly just for foodservice now, but you can taste it for yourself when it hits retail shelves later in the year.

———–

So that’s it for the Top 10.  I do have some Honorable Mentions directly below:

Ice Beer.  Basically a beer slurpee, complete with alcohol.

IceBeer

 

Nutella Poppers.  Like little chocolate beignets – awesome (and proof that carbs are alive and well)

Carbs!

 

Neat meat replacements.  Mixes made from nuts, beans, grains and other ingredients.  Really tasty with great texture.

Neat

Poppies Dough.  Terrific products (but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a little Seinfeld moment…)

Poppies

 

Cruising IFT 2013 – my Top 10 Trends (Special Double Issue!)

Posted on

Don’t let the unsexy ‘Institute of Food Technologists’ name throw you; IFT’s members are basically the source of the Nile for foods and beverages.  IFT’s national Expo was just held in Chicago, where I walked the many miles of the McCormick Place floor so you didn’t have to.  It was where you could see ingredient innovations that will show up without warning in tomorrow’s new foods and beverages.

IFT2013 Main Hall

IFT 2013 – McCormick Place Floor

So for your edification, I hereby present my Top 10 Observations.

1) Chia.  No, not Chia Pets (although it’s the same plant) or even Chia LaBoeuf. An ancient grain, chia seeds promise high levels of Omega-3, ALA, fiber, calcium and minerals.  One marketer, Salba, targets their ‘super chia seeds’ at ‘smarty-pants’ consumers.  And you will need to think about it a little: like wheat germ, chia seeds aren’t generally eaten alone; they are typically sprinkled on or mixed in with other foods.

Chia Seeds

Chia Seeds

2) Matcha. This finely ground, premium green tea powder has been used ceremonially for millennia in Japan, and is offered in top restaurants worldwide.  For culinary purposes, matcha’s high amino acid content delivers a umami taste profile that can enable lower salt content.  Matcha can also be used as a colorant, due to its distinct green hue. The matcha makers were pushing all manner of green foods made with matcha, not all of which were ready for prime time.  High in antioxidants, you will likely have your first matcha moment at some point soon.  Arigatou gozaimasu.

Matcha 1

Ceremonial Matcha Tea

Matcha 3

Matcha Green Tea Jelly

Matcha scones

Matcha Scones

3) Saskatoon Berries.  So I’m at the Canada pavilion (they’re so nice there) and there’s a display showing Saskatoon berries (aka Prairie Berries) positioned as the next super fruit, with higher antioxidants than all your previous favorites (acaí, goji, etc.).  I try them — and they’re good!  Blueberry-sized but more fleshy, with just a hint of tartness.  Already well-liked for the obligatory preserves, pies and such, you may well be seeing Saskatoon berries showing up in more foods and beverages.  Trivia:  the province Saskatoon was named for the berry, not the other way around.  Who knew, indeed.

Saskatoon berries

Saskatoon Berries

SaskatoonFestival2Saskatoon pie

4) The word ‘pulse’. OK, I don’t live in Legume World, so maybe you’re familiar with the word; it’s always been just beans, peas and lentils to me.  But a lot more grain processors have started using the word pulse; my guess is you’ll be hearing it a lot more in the future.  Probably because it sounds a lot more sophisticated than talking about lima beans. (‘I’m in the pulse business, yeah baby!’)

Pulse grains

Pulse Grains

5) Bamboo Fiber.  This ingredient has long been used for textiles; I just hadn’t seen it in food.  Providing fiber’s benefits of texture, as well as bulking properties that accelerate one’s, ahem, transit time, it is used in juices, baked goods, pasta, sauces, among other applications, and is non-caloric.  And it’s label-friendly, too, being able to be called ‘vegetable fiber’.  I just don’t know the cost for all these benefits – – maybe we’ll sort that out next time around.

Bamboo

you know what this is

6) Natural food dyes.  Not surprisingly, the EU clean label trend has finally waded ashore from the Atlantic and is starting to make greater inroads in US food formulation.  Consumers increasingly want to see natural colors on the label (and of course, we know that everyone who claims to read labels always does).  So instead of CSPI whipping boys Yellow 5 or Red 40, get ready for more paprika, lycopene, annatto, turmeric and of course, cochineal extract.  But if you find out that the color comes from crushed insects, or algae, or your Velveeta doesn’t have its characteristic hi-glo orange-yellow hue anymore, don’t come crying to me.

Natural food coloring - Tribune

Natural food colorings (from Sensient Technologies)

7) Safety testing.  Ever since Roman praegustators, there has been a need for food testing.  And as the stakes have risen recently (see: melamine), based on my observation, so has the number of companies offering testing services to meet SQF and BRC standards (some great tech-speak that can score you some major points in the IFT cocktail hour – – but perhaps not in too many other places).
Tests for pathogens, listeria, salmonella, E. Coli, as well as fraudulent ingredients, can be done using HPLC, genetic molecular testing, straightforward micro testing, mass spectrometry, colony counting and zone sizing, and numerous other approaches that I don’t understand, using chemicals, software, and machinery.  As a consumer, it’s good to know that there is such a focus on safety.  As an IFT show-goer, it was disappointing – the food safety guys don’t tend to give out free food or tchotchkes.

IFT2013 testing

This software helps detect ingredients that shouldn’t be there, in this case tartaric acid. It can also see if that gluten-free claim is really true, or if there actually was any Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine.

8) Sodium reduction.  The holy trinity of ingredients to avoid are fat, calories and sodium.  The consequences of over-consuming the first two are visible.  Sodium reduction helps with non-visible dangers like hypertension (dangers that Americans typically are excellent at ignoring), and as a result there has been less urgency.  But it seems that this is changing.  There were quite a few sodium reduction products offered promising great taste, using approaches as disparate as different crystal shape, blended granules, microspheres, starch and baking solutions, and more.  You heard it here first, the age of real sodium reduction has arrived.

IFT Salt

9 in 10 Americans over age 2 eat too much sodium

9) Alternatives to traditional ingredients.  What do you do for news when the main building blocks of food (like wheat flour) are not only mature, but facing new challenges (like GMO-free, gluten-free, etc.)?  You introduce new ways to get there.  Hence flours from sweet potatoes, soy, sesame, flax, coconut, rice, spelt, almond, buckwheat, spirulina and more.  Each has its own taste profile, nutritional benefits, and processing limitations.  You won’t see this stuff in your Twinkies, but it’s coming elsewhere, and it will be great to have more taste, texture and nutritional options.

IFT Sesame Flour

Sesame Flour

10) Maple Water.  Still trying to wrap your head around coconut water?  Well, clear out some mindspace for maple water.  It’s so new, it wasn’t even in the show – – I heard about it from a friendly Canadian.  It seems the Quebec maple producers have launched this product as a thirst quencher, ingredient, and in any case, an all-around transparent strategy to extend revenues from the maple crop.  It is supposed to have a distinctive flavor, slightly sweet.  Coconut water from the south, now maple water from the north, it seems the US has its flavored water NAFTA obligations covered.

IFT_maple-water

(actually, it’s not yet clear exactly what they want us to do with this stuff)

—————-

Bonus points for using this ingredient in YOUR product.

IFT2013 pop-rocks

Open to suggestion.

That’s it – see you at next year’s show!

10 Observations from the Real Man’s NRA Show

Posted on

What sort of a charmed life is one living when Chef Robert Irvine factors into it twice in a single month?  I had the pleasure of walking the floor at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago this week, and was treated to a delightful array of sights, smells, tastes, huge portions of protein, and in the case of Chef Irvine, sounds!

RonSwanson2a

Overall, while there were no gangbuster introductions, the show seemed to achieve a cosmic balance of the healthy (e.g. gluten-free), the indulgent (pastry galore), the novel (spinach balls) and the old-school standbys.

Here’s a sampler from this roving do-it-yourself Lazy Susan:

1)    MO’ MEAT!  An unlimited assault of meat.  Australian Wagyu beef (unbelievable!), Ditka’s chicken sausage (should real men eat it?), bangers from Jolly Posh, jamon iberico de bellota, plain old hot dogs, and the list goes on.  A veritable on-the-fly charcuterie.  Ron Swanson’s vision of heaven.  Perhaps the only product equally welcomed at either NRA show.

AustralianWagyu

2)    Celebrity!  The boundary between cooking as craft and cooking as entertainment has been erased forever.  Anthony Bourdain, a few of Food Network’s A Team (Aarón Sanchez, Robert Irvine, Alexandra Guarnaschelli – and that was just the day I was there), and many others.  They attracted long lines, and in the case of the showcase demo area,  made a lot of noise (yes, that’s Chef Irvine wearing a tight black short-sleeved shirt for a change).

RobertIrvine

3)    Rising international influence.  The international representation of exhibitors was exceeded only by the internationality of the attendees.  Not just many countries, but lots of delicious cross-fertilization of ingredients and techniques. More proof of the unstoppable globalization of foods and flavors.  Peru debuted at NRA this year.

4)    Salmon –  oak or maple smoked, flavored, salty, delicious – – and in unlimited supply.  Like the brunch table at that swanky Bar Mitzvah you heard about but weren’t invited to. Maybe it’s been there all along, but I was astounded at all the options this year.

5)    Tchotchkes – Flo bobble-heads (from Progressive Insurance), t-shirts, cozies, pens, etc.  I was lucky to be on the floor close to the show’s end, and scored a nice bottle of Magueye Sweet Sap – – an old-but-new, tasty alternative sweetener.  You heard it here first.

Maguey Sweet Sap

6)    Umami – OK, there are 5 flavors now, just like there are 8 planets.  Forget what you learned as a kid.   It’s here, it’s savory, and it means great taste.  A whole area was devoted to just umami.

7)   Greek Yogurt – – it’s alive!  And not just in plastic containers any more.  Not only were Greek yogurt-based dessert options shown that more closely resembled ice cream sundaes, there was also Greek yogurt cheesecake, mac and cheese, and more.  Hmm…starts out as a healthy option, now loaded with sugar and other stuff.  We’ve seen this before:  energy bars, muffins, etc.

7)    Technology – from the large booths of companies like NEC and IBM, to small software entrepreneurs, at times the NRA looked more like a technology convention.  Whether hi-tech signage, online menu management software, or nutritional scoring, technology seems almost as important as the food in enabling operators to compete profitably.  Judging by a lot of sameness in some of the standard food offerings, perhaps it’s already passed food in importance…

9)    Alternative ordering/delivery  – GrubHub/Seamless, MobileTummy and others were pitching all manner of new ways to hook people up with food.  Order online, order by mobile, have it delivered, have it ready – – another case where technology is enabling options that are designed to match the way people live.

10)  Focus on kids’ health – consistent with NRA’s own Kids Live Well program, there were quite a few exhibitors focusing on not only healthier fare that kids might actually eat, but techniques to evaluate nutritional content and make good choices as foodservice operators, as well as consumer-friendly apps to make it easier to find a restaurant with kid-friendly offerings.

And now to the Stairmaster.

Butterfly Bakery: Heading back into the cocoon

Today’s news brings us the cautionary tale of Butterfly Bakery, which is no doubt trying to find a cocoon to hide in after an onslaught of mostly self-inflicted pain.  This is primarily a lesson on the importance of transparency, authenticity and speed in the age of 24/7 public scrutiny.

ht_butterfly_bakery_blueberry_muffins_nt_130314_wblog

The short story:  Butterfly Bakery, a small Clifton, NJ baker of special baked goods (e.g. sugar-free, no sugar added, gluten-free, etc), is suffering through its 15 minutes of fame courtesy of the FDA, which forced it to close its doors after discovering that sugar and fat levels in several of its muffin and cookie products were well above what was claimed on the label.  Selected products had 3x the stated levels of sugar and 2x the indicated amount of fat.  This has led to some explanatory statements on the BB Facebook page and caused the charming looking website to be taken down.  The Twitter feed has also stopped.

ButterflyBakeryScreenShot

So — what’s the big deal?  Isn’t this just another case of the government unfairly picking on the little guys while ignoring ‘big business’?  After all, only 3 products of 45 were cited.

Well, yes and no — but mostly no.

– it turns out that the original FDA complaint is almost 2 years old, and that BB was well aware of the issues.  Here is an excerpt from their Facebook statement:  “Butterfly Bakery, Inc. acknowledges the claims in the FDA press release dated March 13, 2013. Butterfly Bakery voluntarily entered into a consent decree and has been working with the FDA and a team of technical and regulatory experts since May 31, 2011, to improve its processes and ensure compliance with all Butterfly Bakery products”. [bold added]

– May 2011?  Based on comments on their FB page, their customer base was clearly not aware of anything, and they are now suitably outraged.  2 years is plenty of time to reformulate, repackage, explain to customers, and flush out all inventory.  An FDA inquiry would seem to have been a strong hint to watch nutritional claims closely.

A matter of health – these products draw heavily from diabetics and celiac sufferers, for whom safe, tasty treats are often difficult to find.  BB’s products apparently tasted great, which is now not surprising since that’s largely what sugar and fat are for.  So whether intentional or not, BB enticed customers with better taste, while simultaneously putting them in danger because of misleading labeling.  This is not just a case of ‘I’m mad you didn’t tell me’, it’s a case of putting consumers at risk.

You never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression – – Butterfly Bakery has now gotten its first national publicity, which is hugely negative, and they will forever be associated with this scandal.  They will immediately forfeit retail distribution and may have trouble regaining it. But perhaps most importantly, they have violated the trust of their most important constituency – their customers, which may be impossible to restore.

Collateral damage – – other unrelated Butterfly Bakeries have already had to start issuing disclaimers that this doesn’t apply to them.  But clearly potential customers will have pause before buying from them.

The upshot:  Hindsight is 20/20, but Butterfly Bakery could have positioned themselves most positively back in 2011 if they had acknowledged some inaccuracies in labeling, offered refunds, and pledged to a new level of scrutiny.  They would have been seen as being committed to their customers.  Now the opposite is true, and their options are limited.  At least they have not made the mistake of trying to fight hand-to-hand on Facebook (see Applebee’s case).

Natural Products Expo West – My Top 10 Observations

Natural Products Expo West, just completed in Anaheim, bills itself as the largest natural and organic trade show in the world.  At 1 million+ square feet, almost 2500 exhibitors and 63,000 attendees, it is certainly large by any measure.  Having just finished walking most of those 1 million square feet, while my feet are temporarily elevated I have assembled an (unscientific) list of 10 noteworthy observations from the show (in no particular order).

NaturalProductsExpoWest

1) Gluten-Free – – sure, it’s been a reliable presence for years, but it now seems that every other product at the show carried a gluten-free claim.  For the most part, the products were delicious.  Clearly this trend is maturing nicely and is here to stay.

2) Kale!   Yes, kale.  In all of its green, seaweed-tasting glory, manifested in all manner of baked goods, chips, and more.  Let’s check back in about 3 years to see how this trend hangs in there.

3) Bars, bars, bars and more bars.  Energy, fruit equivalence, satiety, muscle-enhancing, alertness, virility – – you name it, there’s a bar for it.  Conservatively more than 100 entries.  The good news: most of them actually taste very good.  The bad news:  there’s not enough shelf space in the world for all of them to survive.

4) Jerky – long a pariah at natural foods (aka aspiring vegan) shows, the snacks-with-parents segment was alive and well at Expo West 2013.  Beef, turkey, chicken, bison, and many other animals as well as faux-meat soy product, this was a year where the trucker target was well-served.  A regular Von Dutch treat, if you will.

5) the non-GMO conversation – Whole Foods changed the conversation at Expo West.  By announcing its commitment to labelling all products that contain genetically modified organisms by 2018, WF elevated this topic from a subject you might bring up to show off your Euro-knowledge, to a regular (functional) water cooler staple.  Everyone was talking about it; this announcement could be the tipping point in establishing non-GMO as a mainstream desired consumer benefit.

6) fewer ‘free from’ claims – with the obvious exception of non-GMO, there didn’t seem to be as many ‘free from’ or ‘less’ (fat, calories, sugar, etc) claims.  Instead, it was all about what was in the foods – – whether protein, antioxidants, minerals, or any of a lot of other things.

7) Chips – apparently, at this show if a food was left unattended, someone came along and zapped it with the chip gun.  How many things can you make into a chip?  In addition to the now-mainstream PopChips, there were also falafel chips, pineapple coconut chips, chia chips, cookie chips, spinach chips, lentil chips, and yes, Virginia, there are kale chips too — lots of them.

8) High-end chocolates – – right up there in abundance with chips and nutrition bars, it seemed that every time you turned around, some smiling young person was shoving a piece of $7/bar chocolate in your face (which of course, you were too polite to refuse).  The venerable gourmet segment pioneered by the likes of Lindt, now goes for $2-3/oz (and more) after being reinvented about 10 years ago with the unique entries from companies like Vosges (e.g. bacon, chile inclusions) and competitors have been piling in ever since.  Mostly excellent products; again the sad part is that not all will survive.

9) Raw foods – this is an increasingly common theme for many new natural/organic products (and companies); it’s about foods that are the ultimate in closeness to nature – – unprocessed and uncooked.  In a variety of different products – -and candidly there were a few I’m not sure I’d ingest before a 4 hour flight.  The concept was really brought to life for me when a spokesperson for a nut and seed bar (with raw chia seeds!) explained that if he unwrapped his bar and planted it, it would grow.  And all those childhood fears of orange trees growing in my stomach suddenly came rushing back.

10) Naturally enhanced – – I’m talking about the incredible variety of beverages (and just maybe also about some of the attendees).  In a continuing crusade to provide the world with healthier and perhaps more politically correct alternatives to sugar/HFCS-sweetened drinks, Expo West really came through.  Coconut or oatmeal (or chia) based, probiotic, macrobiotic, kombucha, it goes on and on and on – and this doesn’t even include the supplements.  Yowza.

The only downside to the show was the sheer number, depth and quality of displays.  Would have loved another few days – well, there’s always next year.