“Here, try this,” the man said to me, placing a small, Wheat Thin-sized cracker into my hand. I looked down at it, slightly confused. Why did he do that? Wasn’t I at a pet food booth? I looked up to confirm that I wasn’t misplaced. There were so many booths we had already walked by in the past 30 minutes. Sure enough, I was in the booth of the Portland Pet Food Company, makers of dog food that’s human grade. Turns out it was the only booth of its kind at the Winter Fancy Food Show 2018, and I was now holding a human grade dog biscuit in my hand. What was I to do?
Food shows are trying experiences. Both on the feet and the stomach. The number of rows of exhibitor booths seem endless. Each individual row can feel like that bad dream where the hallway keeps stretching further and further away from you. The number of products available to try could easily fill your calorie count for a week. Unlike the natural products shows, Expos East and West, Fancy Food is a blend of indulgent and healthy. In theory that means you can offset a row of charcuterie with a vegetable pickle or plant-based item. Unfortunately for my stomach, it veers wildly from pickles to bonbons, charcuterie to kombucha - none of which are paired in any restaurant I’ve been to.
On entering the show, my willpower to resist the sampling was set firmly at 10, the highest. I was determined to look but not taste. About two rows in, I crumbled like a fine feta cheese.
Upcycling on the Upswing – Turning Manufacturing ‘Scraps’ into ‘Scrumptious’
After sampling a Canadian-crafted chocolate, I tasted a plant-based protein bar made from “upcycled” leftovers from brewing beer. Upcycling is the concept of a “cradle-to-cradle” product design, where a product doesn’t ‘die’ after use but goes on to be re-used as something different – upcycled instead of re-cycled. The design and furniture industry has been upcycling for more than a decade. Food manufacturers are now getting into the game. You see a lot of upcycling going on, from the aforementioned bars to faba-based ‘butter’ and more.
Plant-based is not just about Vegans – it’s gone Flexitarian
It appears plants will soon be ruling the world. Plant-based products were coming into the forefront after years on a slow simmer. However, the marketing wasn’t solely on the “vegan” aspect of these products– often it was just the fact that it was ‘plant based’ so people, from flexitarians to vegans, can figure the benefits out for themselves. One standout was New Wave Foods’s plant-based shrimp. About the size of a regular shrimp, it had the texture and taste of the real thing.
Kick It Up a Notch with the Ghost Pepper
A few years ago, I was convinced Gojuchang was going to become the next Siracha. And while the Korean sauce is still emerging, the Ghost Pepper has appeared as the new favorite for those seeking extreme heat. A little goes a very long way with the Ghost Pepper. It showed up in sauces and spreads at the show, including Pine River’s cheese spread. Creamy and smooth on a cracker, with an intense flame of heat that erupts after you finish eating it. And then that heat lasts and lasts. I used a sample of Pine River’s basic cheddar spread to put out the embers smoldering on my tongue.
Craft Honey, I’m Home!
On the sweeter side, honey is being given an upgrade with upscale packaging and call outs of flavor notes. The romance language hasn’t reached the point of talking about specific hives producing individual pots, like you might get with a craft beer, but can it be that far away?
Mushrooms (and Antigens) on the March
One 2017 trend from Expo West which we saw more of at this Fancy Food is the magic of the mushroom. From teas and coffee substitutes featuring mushroom blends with the power to calm or boost to new snack bars featuring reishi from Purely Elizabeth to a family recipe-based mushroom jerky. Be on the lookout for the ‘shroom and its antigen benefits in the coming years.
Toffee is the New Fudge
If you’re a Starbucks customer, you might be familiar with their toffee latte line-up and so this may be more affirming rather than surprising. As we were walking around the show, processing what we had seen, thinking about the other flavors or products that were showing up, it struck us that there was a healthy amount of toffee and toffee-flavored products sprinkled about. Indeed, toffee sales are up. The folks at Brandini Toffee told us about the recent launch of their toffee coated popcorn which has quickly become a top seller.
Savory Continues to Infiltrate Traditionally Sweet Products
Fancy Food is also filled with amazing charcuterie and fromage from around the world. Pastries too! One French bakery is making surprisingly delicious Savory Macaroons. Tomato Basil and Camembert Apple were among the standouts. I remember finishing one sampling of capicola, rounding a corner and being presented with a Bon Bon ice cream treat. Who can say no to that? Not that it all settles well in your stomach but as you walk the show, cursing your crumbled will power, you make a new resolution to eat nothing but salad for dinner and possibly the next few days.
Pets Have a Seat at the Table
Meanwhile, back at the Portland Pet Food booth, I held that dog biscuit in my hand. ‘Am I really going to try this?’ I thought to myself. “It’s human grade so there should be nothing wrong with trying it,” followed quickly by “Is this going to be gross?” I gathered up a little courage, brought the biscuit to my mouth. And then I bit down into my first taste of a dog biscuit.
Increasingly, we have been treating our beloved pets more and more like people, which has driven an industry. Last year, we saw probiotics and food trucks go to the dogs. Look in the pet food aisle and see all the “real” meat that’s called out - presented on cutting boards and other kitchen props. Talk to a pet owner and you hear stories of custom-making food for their pets out of people-grade food. The insight behind all this pet love? Pets are treated as child surrogates for those without kids. Pet parents go to great lengths to maintain the health and well-being of their pets and are willing to spend for it. This means pets are getting a seat at the table, almost literally.
The biscuit I tried had the crisp crack of a really dry Ryvita or Wafa cracker. The texture was pretty grainy. As I chewed it, I kept waiting for my saliva to soften it up into a moist dough in my mouth, kind of like how a crunchy granola bar gives in and gets wet. Instead the biscuit seemed to stay perfectly dry and crumbly in my mouth. Was this intentional? Would it be rude to spit it out? I can’t do that. Dogs do slobber more than humans, maybe this stay-dry biscuit is by design? Each crumb refused to break down in my mouth. I run my tongue over my teeth to gather all the crumbs into one place so I can swallow them and be done with it. What I really could have used in that moment was a dish of water.
So now I can honestly say I’ve tried a dog biscuit (so you don’t have to). While I won’t make munching on a Milk-Bone a habit, it sure beats snacking on Tide Pods anytime.
Expo West is March 8-11 in Anaheim. We’ll be there with another report on the latest and greatest in the world of natural and organic food and other products!