- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Peanut butter in squeezable tubes, Thai meals in a box and protein bars in flavors ranging from Key lime pie to chocolate chip reflect modern society’s desire for what observers say are the three biggest food trends of this decade: convenience, nutrition and variety.

But the way culture determines diet is predictable, food-trend forecasters say, when viewed through the lens of history.

Convenience, the longest-running of the three trends, has motivated the invention of “car friendly” food and meals designed to be ready in seconds, says Beverly Bundy, author of “The Century in Food: America’s Fads and Favorites,” which mushroomed from a series of articles she had written on 20th-century food as the food editor of the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram.

Mrs. Bundy says portability, which comes under the heading of convenience, is consumers’ biggest demand. “Men used to go home for lunch,” she says. “Now we eat the majority of our meals on the go. The minivan is the new dining room.” Shops and restaurants are recognizing that and striving to offer food that tastes good, is healthy and can be eaten in the car.

The other two big trends — ethnic flavors from America’s growing immigrant population and nutritious alternatives to snacks like the traditional Cheez Doodle — are newer but growing, Mrs. Bundy says.

Not all of the industry’s innovations have been high-fat snack foods. “People often forget that we didn’t just get the Twinkies from the 20th century,” Mrs. Bundy said. “We also got vitamins and enriched breads.”

Once a self-described elitist convinced that “we should be eating better, not eating Ding-Dongs,” Mrs. Bundy said writing a book altered her views and now she believes the country’s problems with diet could be rooted in the public’s attitude.

Instead of taking health warnings and government mandates too seriously, she thinks Americans should learn to balance their choices: Be healthy, but when you want one, eat a Twinkie, drink a Coke, have a few Oreos or an Eskimo Pie.

That said, she and her colleagues don’t dismiss the problem of American obesity. Public concern over America’s expanding waistline, calorie-packed dishes and giant portion sizes has influenced market providers.

“I believe the food industry will make determined efforts to address obesity and general health problems,” said Art Siemering, editor and publisher of Trend/Wire, a food-trends newsletter.

Producers motivated by the fear of litigation similar to that leveled against the tobacco industry will begin to alter unhealthy product lines, Mr. Siemering says. Trend-watchers have indicated the possibility of taxes on junk foods to counter the problem of obesity.

Mr. Siemering said the health-food trend parallels an overall push to live more simply. This “simplicity movement” came after the September 11 attacks as people turned inward and “chose to live with less baggage.” Since then, he says, New Year’s resolutions have included shedding material possessions in addition to shedding pounds.

Beyond convenience, Americans are hungry for food that enables them to live well in addition to living longer.

“Living to 100 and being debilitated does not sound like fun to me. We’re looking for foods that can increase the quality of life as well as the quantity of years,” said nationally renowned Denver-based dietitian Mary Lee Chin.

This genre, dubbed “functional foods,” are products that provide health benefits beyond the traditional nutrients — their draw being that they are marketed as helpful in preventing chronic and life-threatening disease.

Vitamins have helped Americans “avoid scurvy, goiter or rickets,” but now “we want food that helps us avoid cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease,” says Miss Chin.

To make these functional foods, sometimes also called “nutriceuticals,” food scientists tap the naturally occurring compounds in fresh fruits and vegetables.

Right now, biochemists at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind., are altering tomatoes to contain more lycopene, a compound believed to decrease the occurrence of prostate cancer by 30 percent to 80 percent. Miss Chin says people would have to eat 8 to 10 regular tomato-product servings daily to get the health benefits of lycopene.

As well as increasing the compounds found naturally in foods, biotech experts are experimenting with adding health-saving compounds into other products.

Apples containing a protein that decreases tooth decay and lettuce with the heart-health benefits found in red wine are examples of bioengineered products that might one day be found in local produce departments. For now, they are still in the laboratory.

“I see this increased functionality of foods coming in the next 5 to 10 years,” Miss Chin says. This trend appeals to those who want to go “natural,” she says — getting the compounds through foods rather than popping pills.

In the variety category, the restaurant culture has made international cuisine a novelty with an increase in affordable ethnic-food establishments, said Gail Forman, the director of the international education program at Montgomery College in Montgomery County, Md.

“Every little town in America has a Chinese restaurant,” she says. “Now, a Thai restaurant is being built right next to it.”

America’s awareness of ethnic food began early in the 20th century with the first wave of European immigrants, who introduced the country to new dishes, spices and ingredients.

Mrs. Forman said people today consider foods like pizza and bagels “quintessential American foods” and many are ignorant of their true national origin.

The 1960s ushered in a second wave of immigrants — Asian, African and Hispanic — as well as an increased awareness of other cultures through television and more international travel.

“The American palate becomes more and more sophisticated,” says Mrs. Forman, who notes that salsa now exceeds ketchup sales and almost every grocery store has an international aisle. The appeal of many trendy foods is their ability to appease what Mr. Siemering calls America’s “appetite for escape.”

Despite the shift of the modern family’s dining room from the home to the car, cookbooks and kitchen appliances are enduring, maybe even expanding, aspects of the American landscape.

“Women like to think that one day they will take that Julia Child cookbook and bake that souffle, when really they are going to go buy fried chicken from Boston Market. Yet, they still want that,” she says.

“It goes back to memories and the hope that one day life will slow down and they will start cooking.”

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