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6 Top Food Trends From the National Restaurant Show
The National Restaurant Association Show recently returned to Chicago after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The global show was bustling with new foods and drinks, equipment, packaging and technology for the restaurant industry, including kitchen robotics and automatic beverage machines.
From among the 1,800 exhibitors filling the cavernous halls, here are some standout health-focused food trends.
Veggie Burgers Celebrating the Vegetable
Nearly every aisle featured exhibitors sampling a meatless burger, including the juggernauts of the plant-based burger category: Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. New vegan chicken and pork alternatives were also on display. But one of my favorite plant-based burgers did not attempt to mimic meat. Instead, Cutting Vedge let the vegetables shine. These plant-based burgers were made primarily from artichokes, supported by spinach, pea protein and quinoa. In addition to the tasty Cutting Vedge burgers, plant-based meatballs, sausages and crumbles were also featured.
The plant-based category is expanding into the sea. An array of new seafood alternatives were offered for sampling at the show, including plant-based shrimp, tuna, fish sticks, crab cakes and salmon burgers. Finless Foods sampled a new plant-based sushi-grade tuna for poke bowls and spicy tuna rolls. Designed to be eaten raw, the tuna substitute is made with nine different plant ingredients, including winter melon, a mild-tasting oblong fruit that is related to the cucumber.
A company called Mind Blown Plant-Based Seafood Co. sampled surprisingly good plant-based scallops made from konjac, a root vegetable that is grown in parts of Asia. This Chesapeake Bay family-owned company with a background in the real seafood industry also offers plant-based coconut shrimp and crab cakes.
The post-COVID public is increasingly focused on their health, and the sober-curious movement is growing. Companies are responding with more nonalcoholic drinks including zero-proof spirits, booze-free beers and alcohol-free wines. Restaurants are attempting to appeal to non-drinkers with new options, including zero-proof cocktails that have the same appeal as handcrafted cocktails created by mixologists.
A few of the many products at the show included spirit-free bottled cocktails from Blind Tiger, named after a term for prohibition-era speakeasies, and alcohol-free beers in various styles including IPAs, golden ales and stouts from Gruvi and Athletic Brewing Company.
Tropical Fruits and Island Cuisine
Pandemic-related travel restrictions have created a desire to travel through food, especially blissful island cuisine, including foods from Hawaii and the Caribbean. If you can’t make the trip yourself, experiencing the taste of the tropics is the next best thing.
Craving a taste of the tropics is one reason why tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, acai, pitaya and dragon fruit are trending. Drinks, smoothies and smoothie bowls made with tropical fruits were frequent sights on the show floor. Del Monte displayed new single-serve frozen pineapple spears for on-the-go snacking. One acai bowl café highlighted at the show was a chain called Rollin’ n Bowlin’, which was started by entrepreneurial college students and is spreading to campuses nationwide.
Better-For-You Comfort Foods
I spotted many different examples of America’s favorite foods revamped with a healthier twist. I particularly enjoyed a salmon hot dog from a company in Norway called Kvaroy Arctic. Now with greater availability in the U.S., these salmon hot dogs are reimagining the nostalgic American staple with sustainably raised salmon that packs in a hefty amount of heart-healthy omega-3s per servings.
Ice cream was another food frequently transformed into healthier versions, including the new Ripple dairy-free soft serve, which won one of the show’s food and beverage awards for 2022.
Cutting down on sugar is consistently at the top of the list of the changes people say they want to make to be healthier. Many beverages and frozen desserts on the exhibit floor touted zero added sugars. Other exhibitors promoted natural sweeteners, including pure maple syrup and honey.
While sweetness was once in the spotlight, it has shifted to a supporting role as people move away from overly sweet flavors. Sweet is now being balanced with other flavors, especially spicy, or what’s referred to as “swicy.” One leading example of the swicy trend is Mike’s Hot Honey, a honey infused with chili peppers. The hot honey was originally created by Mike Kurtz, who told me that it originated at a Brooklyn pizzeria where he worked.