Quality, nutrition drive food forecast for '07

healthy shoppingAs 2006 slips deeper into the past, as resolutions are committed to paper and we look into the formless ether of the coming year, what everybody wants to know, of course, is, what's next?

Edible trends, especially, are slippery devils to predict, which is why futurists and prognosticators are paid bucks deluxe to consult with restaurant groups and food manufacturers to give them a leg up on the competition. Still, their foresight may only be as good as the next bend in the path, since growing cycles and ingredient procurement can make quick turns difficult when it comes to what ends up on your plate.

While some product pushers are quick to show and tell us what the next-next thing should be, we only have to look at the ghost of meals past to have a good idea where our grocery and restaurant bills may be heading.

To that end, health and sustainability seem to be the watch words for food trends this new year. Americans are becoming increasingly interested in where their food comes from and how it's farmed.

However, we haven't come to this place whistling a willing tune. Fear has been a big motivating factor, what with deaths and illnesses from spinach at the grocery store and tainted onions at Taco Bell. It also rang our terrorism bells, shifting fear from dirty bombs to dirty food.

And as we look at our children, with rising rates of obesity and diabetes in young people, label-watching becomes the hot reading list as we scan for culprits like trans-fats and high-fructose sweeteners.

But that was then and this is now. What will carry over, and what just might fade away? We asked some local and national food experts, along with yours truly, to weigh in on predictions for what might be coming down the pike in 2007.

Stick close to home

For many, the next logical step in the organic trend is to bring it home and buy locally. That ties into the notions of eating seasonally, paying for vegetables themselves instead of the diesel fuel to truck them across the country, supporting local economies and the sense of safety that comes with the knowledge of provenance.

One person who has long advocated the buy-local trend is chef Margot McCormack of Cafe Margot and the new Marché market and restaurant in east Nashville, but with an increasingly cautionary caveat. "We certainly support local product, but you have to support the ones doing a good job. We've parted ways with some (growers). There are large companies setting up stakes here, preying on the consumer, and riding the 'poor farmer' wave, but their product is not very good."

McCormack says she has taken a more regional approach for some products, finding out who's doing the best job. "Just because it's local doesn't mean it's good."

Foray into fermented foods

Barry Burnette, owner of The Produce Place in Sylvan Park, says he has to be careful about chasing trends. "We don't have the space to give six inches to anything that isn't hitting the mark," he says. So what has gotten his attention? "Kombucha. It's huge right now." He has customers who buy the product (made from fermented mushrooms) by the case, which is why it occupies two coveted shelves in his cooler.

"The first time I tried it, I said, 'Man, that stuff's gone hard,' " he says with a laugh. However, many health-food advocates see drinks like kombucha, along with other fermented foods like sauerkraut, Ethiopian injera bread and Korean kimchi, as a growing trend in everything from cancer control to keeping HIV in check. "My customers glow when they talk about it," Burnette says.

Thirst for jungle juice

For the past few years, it's been all about the pomegranate when you talk about exotic juices, driven by clever marketing and the seemingly unstoppable anti-oxidant train. While pomegranates will most likely continue strong this year, other exotic juices have jumped aboard and are picking up steam. Most come from steamy tropical climes like South America, where the Brazilian açai berry grows in abundance, and now Tahitian noni juice and Thai mango-steens are riding along.

Meat, cheese get fancy

Artisinal cheese came on strong last year, and cheese plates are popping up on menus all over town now. Web sites such as www.chow.com and food-centric publications Saveur and Gourmet are now touting the joys of boutique butchers grinding out haute charcuterie. Spain's famed Iberian hams made their debut in '06, and sausage makers like L&M in Oxford, Miss., continue to win fans. Now, cementing the Southern prosciutto craze and proving some trends are right under our noses, East Tennessee country ham maker Alan Benton recently enjoyed heaping praise in TheNew York Times.

Import expertise

This month, Michael Swann, executive chef for Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, will travel to Korea to recruit anywhere from 30 to 50 culinary students to return to work in Nashville at the hotel. He expects them to bring with them "extreme loyalty and a passion for food." He'll also count on their expertise to help introduce more international flavors. In July, the hotel will revamp its Rachel's Kitchen, converting it to the River's Edge Market, where mini-exhibition kitchens will offer pan-Asian, Indian, Latin, Greek and Italian cuisines.

Superfoods on a roll

Steve Souders has been a health-food store manager and trend-watcher since the 1970s. Now, as the general manager of the Turnip Truck in east Nashville, he sees things like the green tea craze getting stronger. He's also watching supplements like resveritol take off, after the compound was isolated from the skins of red grapes and found to be a super anti-oxidant.

"All fruits have anti-oxidants," says Souders, with a gravelly grain of salt in his voice, pointing out how cyclical these trends can be. "Coffee's good, coffee's bad. Chocolate's good, chocolate's bad. Now it's 'red wine's good.' "

How sweet it is

The Turnip Truck's Souders also has taken note of the backlash against artificial sweeteners.

"The new can design for Blue Sky Sodas actually says 'Made with real sugar.' You would never have done that four years ago. People don't want high-fructose sweeteners because it comes from corn, and just about all of the corn they use is genetically modified," says Souders. "The American palate has been ruined. Most foods are now so damned sweet, (we) don't know what anything tastes like anymore."

And while the trans-fat backlash is expected to grow, all the people we spoke with agreed it shouldn't be legislated, as it has been in New York.

While chef McCormack understands that many people don't take personal responsibility, she doesn't want the government telling her what to do. Her solution is simple. "Don't eat it. Don't buy it."

source - Tennessean.com