Food & dining

Fancy Food Show offers glimpse into our future obsessions

Lavanya Selvaraj and Neethu Viswanath, of Two Friends, flavor their chocolates with only spices or honey.

Lavanya Selvaraj and Neethu Viswanath, of Two Friends, flavor their chocolates with only spices or honey.

NEW YORK — The time wasn’t too long ago when kombucha, hemp seeds, and bee pollen were the rarified currencies of LA health fanatics, hipster homesteaders, and anxious new moms. That was then, this is now. As the 2017 Fancy Food Show, which was held at New York City’s sprawling Javitz Center last month, demonstrated, Americans are increasingly health-minded, and imaginative entrepreneurs around the world are heeding the call, creating food and drinks that are small batch, artisanal, sustainable, organic, hand-crafted, exotic, and all the other au currant buzzwords that go along.

The annual event, the 63rd, featured more than 2,800 exhibitors showcasing about 180,000 products, which translates into displays covering the length of roughly six football fields. The show draws many buyers from retail outlets ranging from behemoth chains to independent shops. Wandering the floor offers a glimpse into Americans’ future eating habits. This much can be said for sure: Birch water is the new coconut water and chickpeas are the new nuts, down to the chocolate-covered options. Gochujang, a Korean hot sauce, is poised to get hotter than Sriracha. And never mind cold-pressed juice. Drinkable soup is the new way to get a mega-hit of nutrients. Health tonics like drinking vinegar? In. All the way. Soy and gluten and GMOs? Out. Way out. And that’s just to name a few.

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The story of the show is very much the story of eating and drinking in America. It’s produced by the Specialty Food Association, a nonprofit founded 65 years ago as a trade organization to help importers bring ethnic foods into the United States. Today, as Phil Kafarakis, the association’s president, points out, ethnic food, once niche and specialized, is just mainstream food. He sees that same emergence happening with upstarts focused on eco-minded, healthy products. Titanic food companies are taking notice and developing so-called healthier products accordingly. He likens what’s happening in artisanal food to craft brewing.

“We went from an eclectic group of people in the ‘gourmet’ environment, and now we’re part of the mainstream marketplace. Our members have become a big part of the business — not just in specialty markets, but in big grocery stores and restaurants. This is where the action is in food. It’s the fastest-growing part of the food ecosystem. Depending on what categories we’re talking about [snacks, drinks], the specialty food section has grown from 15 percent to 18 percent, which is exponential growth above and beyond mainstream food. Consumers are drawn to our product categories, and that’s what attracts the industry’s attention.”

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New England, with its rich heritage of farming and manufacturing combined with the spirited startup culture that nearly defines the area’s contemporary business mind-set, gave a strong showing. And the region’s foodstuffs are very much attuned to the tastes and preferences expressed by today’s shoppers and diners.

People will never stop craving sweets, for instance, but with reports about the risks overconsumption of sugar making headline news in mainstream media and the US Food and Drug Administration’s urgings that Americans reduce their sugar intake, little wonder producers are seeking alternative sweeteners and healthier ingredients, particularly chocolate-makers. Julie MacQueen, who started Pure 7 Chocolates in Lynn in 2013, uses only honey to sweeten her chocolate items, all of which are made by hand in small batches with entirely unprocessed ingredients. Two Friends in Boxborough makes radically creative truffles and bars with Fair Trade Belgian Chocolate and flavored only with exotic spices or honey. Nothing else. Andrew Dunbar, owner of Kakosi in Manchester, making his Fancy Food Show debut, waxed rhapsodically about the value of pure cacoa, which he uses in products like intense chocolate nibs, and how adding sugar takes the focus away from the bean’s flavor. He gave out samples of one of the show’s more striking sweets: Two-Minute Mousse, which comes as a mix of cacoa powder and chocolatey bits. Add whipping cream and two minutes later it’s like something out of a white tablecloth bistro. And eight-year-old Strawberry Hill Candy in Waltham specializes in novelty lollipops containing cane sugar, tapioca syrup, and honey.

Attention to sweeteners was particularly evident with drinks. As sodas become what essentially amounts to a public health scourge, creative types, including several from this area, are turning to natural sweeteners and flavors. Magbe Makomas started her company, Makomas, in 2014 in Greenfield to make drinks flavored with ginger, hibiscus, and baobab, a fruit from her native Ivory Coast. The baobab is dry and filled with a vitamin-packed powder when it’s harvested, and Makomas, who started a foundation to source the fruit directly from women villagers, doesn’t hesitate to call it the next acai, not least because her business is growing at a fast clip.

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Evy Chen, appearing for a second year, is testament to the increasing excitement around the naturally sweetened drink craze, having just raised $1 million in seed-funding for Evy Tea, her company that evolved from a project she hatched while an undergraduate at Emerson College. Her product is the first cold brew tea to market and she’s on track to make 10,000 gallons this summer. It’s grown from a one-woman operation in 2014 to having a staff of 30 and a tea bar in Jamaica Plain. A second is slated to open in Charlestown later this summer.

Liza Weisstuch can be reached at liza.weisstuch@gmail.com.
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