What’s ahead on your plate?

Americans are getting increasingly intimate with their food, and 2008 likely will see the relationship deepen, reports the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Two forces -- the proliferation of foodie culture and its obsessive desire for provenance, and growing worries over food safety -- combine to create a whirlwind of information about food and drink.All signs indicate the storm is just starting, so here are some trends likely to influence what you eat in '08.

Local foods

"Organic" has jumped the shark. Savvy food marketers today are latching onto the latest child of the natural foods movement -- local -- and are trying to take it mainstream. Meanwhile, as eco-sensitivity has grown, consumers question whether eating organic grapes from Chile is a particularly "green" choice. They want to know how far their food traveled, and the closer the better. Hence the growth in farmers markets, community supported agriculture, restaurant menus bragging about local sourcing, and the naming of "locavore" as word of the year by The New Oxford American Dictionary. Even mainstream grocers are jumping on, offering and advertising a growing number of locally produced goods. But will "local" will lose cachet once big box retailers co-opt it as they did organic.

Varietal

Where once it was enough to say where and how a food was produced, consumers now also want to know the specific varieties of ingredients and breeds of animals they were produced with.

Food safety

Repeated recalls of meat and produce have drawn attention to the sluggish and outdated American food-safety system, and the government faces mounting calls for an overhaul. Expect food companies to be as nimble, touting new and increased safety measures. The issue (including demands for a streamlined and effective government agency to oversee the issue) also will get more headlines.

'Bad' foods fight back

Tired of being the nutritional bad boys, foods of questionable nutritional value are fighting back. The white-bread industry ran an ad saying eating enriched white bread may help improve your memory. An ad from Unilever-owned Hellmann's admonished, "It's time to say no to fake food." New jars of Hellmann's mayonnaise are labeled "Real." And the butter industry took the same tack, with a holiday ad urging consumers to "unwrap the natural flavor of real butter for holiday entertaining."

New 'sugars'

Speaking of nutritional culprits, sugar had better watch its back. A growing variety of alternative natural sweeteners, from honey-like agave syrup to ultrasweet stevia, are crowding grocers' shelves. Many of these products, once limited to the lower shelves of natural foods stores, are showing up in mainstream markets and in a growing variety of products (including soda).

Grocery stores get sexy

Today, the trend is toward glamming up the grocery experience. You'll see lots of attractive displays of prepared foods, as well as a deconstruction of the traditional aisle layout in favor of a more open-market feel. Safeway is overhauling its markets (or opening new ones) as "lifestyle" stores, which sport larger departments, wood-like flooring, specialty food bars and soft lighting.

What's ahead

Food & Wine magazine predicts:  Old-fashioned candy; wild American shrimp; muesli will become more popular than granola; chef-run noodle bars; barrel-aged beers; Chardonnay from Oregon and haute frozen food. Mintel International Group zeros in on functional waters, virtually anything fair trade, ancient grains, such as amaranth, quinoa and teff, and easy-to-understand nutritional labels. According to restaurant consultants Baum & Whiteman Co., more restaurants will accept takeout orders via text messaging, you will see restaurants with ultraspecialized menus (such as breakfast cereal or grilled cheeses), cocktails enhanced with functional foods, offal (entrails and internal organs of butchered animals) and Korean food.

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