The Produce Marketing Association‘s annual Fresh Summit — held this year in New Orleans, one of just seven U.S. cities capable of hosting the massive trade show — is a big deal in the agricultural world because it unites growers, shippers, distributors, retailers and nearly every other industry positioned to profit from the sale of apples, green peppers and pears. But for regular eaters, the event’s fascinating because it offers a glimpse of trends about to overtake the produce departments of their local grocery stores.
Having pounded the floor of the New Orleans Convention Center this past Saturday, I’d advise bracing for the following six healthy food fads:
1. Little is big
If the fruits and vegetables displayed at the show are any indication, plenty of strategy meetings over the past few years ended with produce growers demanding their research teams find ways to make their output smaller. Sunkist touted “kid-sized citrus”, Windset Farms pushed cocktail-sized cucumbers and fingerling potatoes were everywhere. Apparently preying on the average consumer’s fruit ignorance, apple growers even bagged normal-sized apples and labeled them as snack-friendly. But my favorite example of the trend came courtesy of Shanley Farms, which introduced single-serving avocados packed in an egg carton.
Throughout most of American cooking history, butchers have sliced up specific cuts of meat. But vegetable buyers who wanted just this part or that part were out of luck: If you needed the white of a leek, your only choice was to purchase the whole onion. Starting this year, though, Melissa’s is selling leeks without their slender green leaves, and microgreen specialist Kerry’s Kitchen Gardens is selling excellent radish tops without radishes attached.
3. Drink up
Although none of them appeared to make much of a splash with summit-goers, new plant-based drinks angling for a share of the coconut water market included maple water, derived from tree sap. And for coconut water fans who feel the liquid’s too removed from its tropical roots, there’s now a convenience package housing a tiny coconut (see trend number one, above) and a straw.
4. The dark side of convenience
Kale’s reign shows no sign of ending: Familiar salad mixes have been remade with the dark, leafy green. And Green Giant’s hawking pre-shredded Brussels sprouts in bags.
When pitching products which date back eons, the right packaging can make a huge difference. Although there were a few new fruit and vegetable varieties available for tasting — among the new apples is an Autumn Glory, which is supposed to have undertones of cinnamon — many more exhibitors emphasized novel packaging strategies.
Interestingly, while many locavores have long bemoaned the difficulty of discerning the provenance of a pork chop when it’s plopped atop Styrofoam and cellophane-wrapped, their beloved vegetables are now becoming increasingly removed from their natural states. Plums are dried, diced and packed in canisters sized for coffee-cup holders; brightly-colored baby carrots and grape tomatoes are presented in segmented, Lunchable-like containers. For the genuinely lazy, there are foil-wrapped sweet potatoes ready for grilling.
6. Added flavors
Latin American and Asian distributors eagerly offered up samples of fruits still unknown to most Americans, such as rambutans, but it appears folks still prefer to come by their flavor sensations chemically. The show included lots of examples of produce made to recall something else, such as the apple chips coated with chili-lime seasoning. Yet the category standout was surely the baby carrots treated to taste as though they’ve been dipped in ranch dressing.