Food, then and now - a world apart

My sisters and I found some great old gems when we cleaned up the old farmhouse after my father died last year and my mother-in-law decided to move to town. Among them: boxes and boxes of old National Geographics, dating back sixty years.

The one I'm looking at now is dated March, 1942 with a whopping 52-page cover story called, "Revolution in Eating." Combining black and white and color photos, this story takes a very detailed look at nearly every facet of U.S. cuisine in war-time America.

In a nutshell, the story is about the vast processing and transportation industry that allowed oranges in California to be eaten in New York before rotting. "Your steaks average more than 900 miles of travel from cattle range to gas range," reports the article. Touting the Union Stock Yards of Chicago and the "machine food age," the story claims nutrition as the newest science. "The telephone, the automobile, even the movies - all got going before you heard of vitamins and minerals we now know the body needs," says one food expert in the article.

Fast forward

Today we take the processing and transport of food for granted. Nutrition is still important today, but there's a lot more going on in a consumer's mind as well. New food trends focus on convenience and health. According to Mintel, a food market researcher, almost 70% of adults in the U.S. are trying to eat healthier foods. That's according to a survey that examined the diet and exercise attitudes of around 30,000 American consumers. Mintel unveiled their latest food trends report at the Food Marketing Institute trade show in Chicago earlier this month.

Over two-thirds of those surveyed said calories don't count when it comes to eating foods they like, but almost half said nutritional value was the most important deciding factor in foods they consumed.

Food companies are jumping on the functional food bandwagon by adding healthy stuff to the food they make. Unilever's "Promise Buttery Spread" now comes omega-3 and vitamins B and E; General Mills' "Yoplait Nouriche Super Smoothie," contains 20 vitamins and minerals. Flower essences and chlorophyll have also been used in beverages in Australia and Brazil, while 'black' foods- such as black vinegar and vegetable drink and a black sesame paste- are emerging from China and Japan.

Closely linked to the nutritional qualities of products is the desire to use food as a path to looking and feeling beautiful. Products in this category include those with anti-aging and antioxidant ingredients, such as coenzyme-Q10.

Convenience foods

Ever wolfed down a burger one-handed while driving home in your pickup? Food companies are picking up on the trend. Soon you'll see convenience foods that include extreme portability and one-handed eating and drinking, based on the growing numbers of consumers who snack while driving. Coming soon: a Japanese single serve yogurt, which is opened and squeezed directly into the mouth, as well as single serve sachets of mayonnaise and ketchup.

You will also see more 'restaurant experience' food bought at the store by consumers who want the convenience and quality of eating out brought into their homes. Products that cater to this niche include Nestlé's microwavable panini sandwiches, as well as Lou's gourmet veal Osso-buco restaurant-style entrées.

Consumers are also increasingly looking for products that cater to specific needs. A company called Mediterranean Trade has a "Duo Dressing" - a salad dressing that can be adjusted to individual tastes.

Organics on the rise

You didn't see this trend in 1942: Organics will exceed $46 billion by 2010, an increase of around 63%, according to food market researcher Packaged Facts.

"Organics have clearly become a way of life for millions of health-conscious Americans, and the success of the big 3 - Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe's - has finally awakened mainstream American retail to the viability of this market," says the group's Don Montuori.

"This research delves into the inner-sanctum of the industry showing why it has become - and will continue to be - the hottest area in food retailing."

According to the report, the natural and organic category- currently valued at $28 billion - will continue to grow partly because of leading retailer Wal-Mart's decision to increase its organic offerings. The rapid growth in all major supermarkets' private label organic offerings, and highly anticipated expansion of the widely successful supermarket •lifestyle' stores, also assure the market's growth.

"In most cases, the growth of leading natural/organic brands continues to greatly outpace that of their respective categories, while organic products themselves are outselling •natural' ones because they are newer to mass channels and carry more clout with consumers because they are government-regulated," says Packaged Facts.

The lack of a formal definition of the term •natural' continues to result in consumer confusion. In February this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was petitioned to establish a clear definition of the term in order to avoid misleading claims.

Still a bargain

Food here was a bargain in 1942, and it still is today. The level of agricultural protectionism in Europe is higher than that in the United States. That is part of the reason why, as researchers at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation found, the prices of bread in France and Germany are 45% higher than in the United States, and the prices of meat in France and Germany are 56% and 87% higher than in the United States.

Picture says a thousand words

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