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Food Trends 2004

Low carb everything, designer chocolates, and other fashions


Even with Krispy Kreme's recent report that their earnings doubled in the fourth quarter, other food outlets and manufacturers are seriously looking at the impact the low carb dieter is having on the food industry. These days, it's low carb anything. This month Heinz rolled out their one-carb-per-serving ketchup while Unilever announced a new line of "carb option" in their Skippy Peanut butter, Ragu spaghetti sauce, and Wishbone salad dressing products. Unilever will add the phrase, "As always, zero grams of carbs per serving" to the Hellmann's Mayonnaise label as well.

Snack-food giant Frito-Lay, a unit of PepsiCo Inc., will launch the lower carb Doritos Edge and Tostitos Edge tortilla chips in May. This summer Pepsi will launch the lower carb Pepsi Edge, which will have half the sugar, carbohydrates, and calories of its regular cola. Pepsi tested a similar product called Jake's Cola in the late 1980s. Pepsi follows on the heels of beer giants Anheuser-Busch and Adolph Coors who are successfully selling their lower carb beers: Michelob Ultra and Aspen Edge.

Similar to the controversy which surrounded the product labeling of fat, the use of the terms "low carb," and "lower carb," and other carbohydrate claims on food packaging has not been standardized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yet.

The number of low carb dieters is not known. However in February 2004, the research firm ACNielsen US reported 17 percent of US households responded that at least one person in the household was currently on a low carbohydrate diet. Other national estimates have been as high as 25 to 50 million people on carbohydrate reduction diets.

Restaurants, in turn, have responded by introducing low carb options on menus. Some restaurants notate the options, other are more subtle by gently restructuring the dishes offered.

A store specializing in lower carb products opened last October in the Arboretum. Partners Janet Rubin and her son-in-law Andrew Goldstein, owner of Good Ol' Days restaurant, opened the 1600 square foot Low Carb Crazy. "If you imagine what we look like, you would be wrong. We have everything you can think of for those on a low carb diet and we have the staff that can help you with the products we sell." You can reach them at 704-543-8119.

Portion Size
A second food trend is also related to America's obesity problem: smaller portion sizes. With McDonald's leading the way to eliminate super-sized fries and drinks by the end of 2004, other fast food franchises will at least consider the option. When diners realize that their dinner entree portion should be the size of a deck of cards, what will happen to all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants? Will they be required to post health risk warning signs?

In upscale restaurants, the trend is towards offering a tapas, or tasting portion, as well as an entree-sized portion. In fact, Spanish tapas have spurred the popularity of Spanish restaurants across the US.

Variety of Sides
Another trend in upscale restaurants is offering a variety of sides, dozens of them. This is, in a way, a new spin on the old "meat and three" restaurants here in the South.

Gourmet Chocolates
John Scharffenberger, formerly a California vintner who owned Scharffenberger Cellars (now Pacific Echo Cellars) changed hats to become a producer of world class chocolates in Berkeley, California in 1997. Today, more people are throwing their own hats into the tempering pot and making gourmet chocolates. Higher quality chocolate is a distinct taste trend of 2004. If the simple taste of a mass-produced kiss doesn't rock your world, reach for a better quality hand-crafted artisanal chocolate, perhaps one made locally by Barking Dog Chocolatiers.

The food industry is going unplugged. Fast casual Schlotzsky's Deli has a "Cool Cloud" wireless network that allows diners to connect to the Internet for free while using their own computer and wireless Internet access card. Many new laptops have this card installed.

Use of wireless technology is also increasing in other food shops. Customers can now get coupons, place orders and make payments via wireless devices like PDAs and Web-enabled cellphones. A group of Domino's franchises recently beta tested a wireless terminal that would accept credit cards for delivery orders. Wireless technology will also allow credit-card transactions at fast-food franchises to move fast, if not faster, than cash. Does this spell the end of dropped coins in the drive-through line?

Organic Foods
Consumers will continue to shift toward grain-fed and organic meats that carry little risk of contamination. This is in direct response to fears related to mad cow disease, the bird flu scare, and mass production quality concerns. The better product taste and security will justify the increased expense. Organic produce is growing by 25 percent a year, according to the Organic Trade Association. The popularity of area farmers markets, which sell much of the locally grown organic foods, is an outgrowth of this trend.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via email: [email protected]