As organic food continues to move into the mainstream, a wealth of companies, from the family-run to the multinational, are taking advantage of this popularity, with new products and line extensions. Many were exhibiting at this year's All Things Organic trade show in the US. Bruce Hoggard went to investigate.

Once considered the realm of only a fringe group of people through the 1960s and 1970s, organic food has gained popularity and continues to move into the mainstream of the food industry and consumers' purchases. Although Europe, particularly Germany and the United Kingdom, led the way through the 1980s and 1990s, other countries are joining this popular trend as health concerns and food ingredients become more important issues.

During the past six years these countries have grown to include Japan, Singapore and the United States where "organic" has become the buzzword in homes, schools, restaurants, and hospitals. Concerns with transfats and obesity in children continue to fuel this interest in organic foods resulting in it becoming the fastest growing segment of the food industry.

Following the double-digit growth experienced in Europe, organic food sales in the United States have averaged a 20% annual growth since 1997. Meanwhile, total conventional food sales have only increased by approximately 3%. In 2003 sales of organic foods and textiles in the United States reached approximately US$10.38bn. In terms of consumers, the organic market is comprised of more than 90 million people. This will continue to grow with the increase in organic choices, and ready-to-eat organic meals make it easier for people to purchase organic alternatives. It is expected the United States organic market will reach a value of $30.7bn by 2007 as more people embrace organics' healthier alternatives.

To capitalise on this trend the "All Things Organic Trade Show" was held in Chicago at McCormick Place from May 1 to May 3. There were more than 400 booths displaying numerous organic products; however, there were less than 45 new products on display at the show. This was disappointing because there are thousands of new organic products introduced each year.

On a more positive note, the conference sessions are always a valuable addition to any trade show and this year's edition of OTA was no different. There were more than 30 informative sessions over the three days as well as two very entertaining and thought provoking presentations by Morgan Spurlock and Nina Rothschild Utne.

Spurlock, best known for his feature film Super Size Me, targeted the general trend of over consumption and unhealthy eating patterns in the United States, something not exclusive to the North American country. He also challenged the food industry to responsibly market its products, particularly to children, and as Oreo has done, reformulate recipes to make them healthier.

Seminars and films

There was also a screening of Utne's film "The Future of Food", an in-depth investigation into the truth behind unlabelled, patented, and genetically engineered foods. The film explored the alternatives to large-scale industrial agriculture, and defied the audience on-hand to consider the consequences certain food choices have on society and land.

The seminars covered the areas of organic meat, an important issue given the recent cases of BSE, to the numerous international marketing opportunities for organic products. As an indication of the impact technology is having, even in the organic industry, one seminar looked at the less conventional and traditional channels of distribution. There is a move away from channels, such as retail stores, to direct delivery to the consumer and the use of Internet sites such as E-bay.

Another disappointment at the show was the poor attendance of international companies. Only 16 foreign countries were represented at the show with the largest contingent being the 28 companies from Canada. The second largest foreign group was from the UK, although these were not all companies offering food. In total, less than 30 international companies were exhibiting, a very poor reflection on the show and the perceived importance of it to foreign companies seeking to enter the United States market.

In conjunction with All Things Organic there were four other shows occurring simultaneously. These were The FMI Show, The Fancy Food Show, The United Produce Expo & Conference, and The US Food Export Showcase. By being held concurrently and in the same location, the All Things Organic exhibitors gained access to more than 30,000 buyers, although not all were interested in organic products.

Company provides energy solution

When walking or working a trade show, whether it is over three days or in some cases five days as with ANUGA, energy levels become an issue during the long and rigorous 16-hour days. One of the companies at the show claiming to have the answer to this dilemma was the California-based company Clif Bar Inc.

Clif Bar offers several product lines addressing energy issues. The first was a rather interesting but unconventional "food" product called "Clif Shot". It is an energy gel, packaged in a pouch, and contains 25 grams of carbohydrates. The gel is available in several flavours while several of these choices have the additional punch from added caffeine.

The newest flavour Go Mango joins seven other flavours including Cola Buzzzz, Sonic Strawberry, and Mocha Mocha. These three flavours contain caffeine while Mmm Chocolate, one of three other flavours, is caffeine free and sure to satisfy any chocolate lover's craving. Squeezed directly into the mouth, which can be a messy act depending on how cleanly the top tears off, the gel is "washed down" with a few mouthfuls of water or other beverage. Then, according to the product's promotional material, within five to ten minutes a single package has supposedly renewed the consumer's energy level, invigorating them to carry on. Although the overall taste of the various flavours was acceptable, with the strawberry being the best, the resulting energy "punch" seemed to come-up-short, although the craving for a cup of coffee was gone.

Along more conventional food lines were three other products from Clif Bar. These were Clif Builder's Bar, Clif Bar, and Clif Zbar. Containing various levels of organic material, ranging from 33% to 95%, these products are all forms of energy bars, with the Clif Zbar specifically formulated for active and growing children. Although there are multitudes of snacks aimed at children, the Zbar energy bar is unique because it is the first children's snack complying with SB-19, California's Senate legislation limiting fat and sugar in foods offered within the state's elementary schools. With three flavours, Chocolate Brownie, Peanut Butter (a concern for allergic children), and Caramel Apple with its organic diced apples and chunks of toffee, it was a runaway winner when it came to taste and enjoyment - as well as "sticking to your ribs" and being filling.

With 14 flavours available in the Clif Bar range, the more exotic and tastier choices were the Black Cherry Almond and the Cookies' N Cream editions. The Builder's version, with the lowest organic content of the three bars, has additional protein, 23 vitamins and minerals, no trans fat or hydrogenated oils, but is limited to only three flavours.

Companies show off organic goods

As with many of the companies at the show, French Meadow Bakery started in the kitchen of its founder looking to fulfil the need for healthier foods; the company produces a yeast free bread and wheat alternative. This Minneapolis-based company was promoting its new Spelt Garlic Texas Toast at this year's All Things Organic show. Made with organic stone-ground unbleached white spelt flour, the real appeal of this product was in its topping recipe. The use of real butter and a blending of garlic, basil, and herbs & spices, all organic, provided what would have been a normal piece of toasted bread with a lively and mouth watering taste. Although the garlic was not over-powering it would still be recommended.

Rapunzel, with its organic roots originally in Germany where it still operates, was again represented at this year's show by its North American subsidiary, Rapunzel Pure Organics. The Company was introducing, among other products, its organic Raspberry Yogurt Chocolate Stick to the North American market. Since its makeover to a finished product provider Rapunzel has introduced several new and exciting products under its brand name. The Raspberry Yogurt Chocolate Stick is one such product and the combination of the raspberry yogurt and chocolate provides both a great taste and is also a healthy snack alternative.

One of many family-owned and operated companies at the show, Futters Nut Butter from Illinois, has elevated the "nut" to a new level of indulgence and taste sensation. The company's varied organic and natural product choices are sure to gratify the desire of every type of nut lover.

Leading the way in taste and texture were Almond Butter, Hazelnut Butter and the new Walnut Butter spreads. Although it may seem difficult to become excited about "nut spreads" these particular spreads captured the distinct taste of each nut and were wonderful. They would be excellent directly from the jar, for those moments of craving, or spread on bread or crackers for a snack or as party favours. The spreads would also compliment fruits, jams, and chocolate and, for the more creative individuals, could also be used in baking or meal recipes.

The newer flavours being offered by Futters have taken the idea of "blending" and created several interesting and appealing, as well as tasty, combinations. The initial flavours being offered are; orange and almond, cherry and almond, chocolate cherry and hazelnut, and chocolate cherry almond and hazelnut butter combinations. These combinations serve to accent the individual flavours while not overpowering each other.

The other nut flavours include: Macadamia Nut Butter, Brazil Nut Butter, Pistachio Nut Butter, Cashew Butter, Pumpkin Seed Butter, Sunflower Seed Butter and the new Almond Hazelnut Butter.

Barbecue season arrives

With the arrival of warmer weather associated with spring and summer, a regular ritual returns to the backyards and garden terraces of many homes in Canada and the United States - the barbecue season. This method of preparing food is also popular and catching on throughout the rest of the world, where all types of meat, from fish to sheep and beef to pork, are cooked on open flames in the great outdoors. In fact, where ever the cold temperatures of winter have lasted for more than 5 months, the arrival of the barbecue season is met with great expectations and salivating anticipation.

One of the companies at the show, Organic Prairie Family of Farms, was promoting its range of organic meat products and launching a new line of fresh organic ground beef and ground pork.

Organic Prairie Family of Farms offers a full range of refrigerated and frozen organic meats. These include beef, pork, chicken and turkey products, grown to serve the diverse and increasing needs and demands of organic consumers, as not all organic consumers are vegetarians. For the barbecue season the company has several beef choices, including New York Strip Steak, Ribeye, Sirloin and a pork selection including Pork Chops, Pork Tenderloin, and Baby Back Ribs.

The company's new, very lean organic ground beef is good for making hamburger patties for the barbecue as there is less shrinkage when cooking and less grease "fires" in the bottom of the barbecue. The ground beef has no pesticides, antibiotics or hormones; nitrates, nitrites or preservatives, making them healthier as well. Other popular meats from this company also included seasoned pork sausage and pork bratwurst.

For people who do not like eating meat, they too can participate in the outdoor barbecue season thanks to non-meat products being produced by companies such as SOL Cuisine. This Canadian company, located in Ontario, offers vegetarian burgers made from wheat and gluten free products.

The company's original burger is made from soy protein while the newer vegetable burger is a blend of 6 organic vegetables. The veggie burger has just enough of a touch of curry to provide it with an appealing flavour without being overwhelming. The company's third offering for the barbecue is the Spicy Bean Burger. Again, the product is wheat and gluten free, but has a Tex-Mex flavouring created from the combination of soy, black beans, sweet corn and spices. This style of burger will definitely require getting used to, as its unique taste may not be for everyone.

As far as non-meat burgers go, the SOL Cuisine product is tasty but it does fall short of the full flavoured real meat hamburger. However, this is only an issue if the consumer is a regular meat eater.

Sweet tooth

Along with the All Things Organic Show the Fancy Food Show also contained several interesting booths and non-organic products, especially for people with a "sweet tooth" and those who enjoy desserts.

With the warmer weather greeting people in the Northern hemisphere, people begin to consume more ice cream and frozen treats. However, in some markets, such as Singapore and Hawaii, summer temperatures remain year-round, as do ice cream sales and consumption. This is one of the reasons Bubbies Homemade Ice Cream & Desserts, located in Hawaii, makes some of the best ice cream and has begun to export it to the mainland.

Although the company's name is unique it is surpassed by the very creative and imaginary names given to the products it produces. The company's ten featured ice cream cakes illustrate this rather creative and imaginary approach to naming desserts.

The most amusing name is the "Eat Here-Get Gas". This dessert is a Tiramisu ice cream cake covered lightly with Cocoa and placed on an Oreo cookie crust.

A more decadent and smooth ice-cream cakes is the "Lost in the Light", a chocolate ice cream and Bailey's Irish Cream ice-cream cake. It is separated by a thin layer of raspberry puree, topped with fudge and sits on an Oreo-raspberry crust.  Although this dessert was excellent, especially if Bailey's is a favourite drink, my favourite was the "Paint by Numbered Dreams Swirled Blueberry Cheesecake Ice Cream".  Placed on a Graham Cracker base crust it was extremely smooth, unlike some cheesecakes that are dry and heavy. When served with a Blueberry topping this dessert would definitely provide the finishing touch to any meal and impress the evening's guests.

Bubbies also offers a number of ice cream choices in take-home pint containers. These include regular favourites such as: Ultimate Vanilla and Chocolate. However, the company also has numerous more adventurous flavours including Espresso, Oreo, Mocha Chip, Mint Chip, Green Tea, Macadamia Nut, Dark Dark Chocolate, Chocolate Chip, Strawberry Cheesecake, Coconut Delight, and Peanut Butter Chip.

Another new product at this year's show was the "Foodoodler" from Private Label Products, Inc. Targeted at children of all ages this product is a special food colouring marker capable of adding colour to any food item and it remains edible. For consumers with limited imaginations or wanting to start off slowly, the company also provides cookies that can be coloured. The cookies, with areas ready to be coloured, are bundled with several markers of different flavours. However, the markers can also be purchased separately adding new choices or replacing the emptied ones. In addition to colouring cookies the markers can also be used to decorate cakes and other edible snacks, such as buns or ice cream.

There are nine base colours. However, the company's representative indicated it could formulate colours to customer's specifications. This means children can produce a masterpiece in the kitchen or art room which in turn can be eaten as a snack during the day. No longer does a bun or piece of bread need to go undecorated as children expanded their pent-up Rembrandt personalities.

Finally, another dessert product catching attention was Dean Jacob's dessert mixes. The company, an Xcell International Corp brand, has taken its expertise in developing quick mixes and developed several new desserts. The first is a Molten Chocolate Lava Cake while the other is a Vanilla and Chocolate Supreme Ice Cream dessert.

One advantage of these desserts in today's busy and active world is that it only takes minutes to prepare and the outcome is as good if not better than similar desserts found in restaurants and stores. This makes them viable alternatives for busy people who enjoy entertaining yet never seem to have enough time to get completely prepared.

With many great food items and interesting products at this year's combined shows there was not enough space or time to cover them all. And, after sampling the rich dessert products at the shows it was probably also a good thing there was as much walking as there was.