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Odd Ingredients Stand Out at 2008 Thaifex World of Food

July 3, 2008
Aside from a few oddities, Thai foods — and consumers’ tastes — mirror our interests in organics, healthful food and the sanctity of processing.

Seaweed chips, anyone? You might want to wash those down with some chunky water.

A visit to a processed food show in Thailand turned up some products that, even though popular over there, would die a quick death over here. But also some that would appear to hit a healthy/wholesome sweet spot in the U.S. And many that might succeed here if accompanied by some education of American consumers.

Thaifex World of Food was held in May in Bangkok’s Impact Exhibition Center. It was a huge show, comprising some 1,011 exhibitors from 33 countries, 210,000 sq. ft. and 70,000 attendees (22,000 during the trade-only days, 48,000 when open to the public) in its five-day run. It was organized by the Thai Chamber of Commerce and Dept. of Export Promotion.

One of our first observations was the number of booths carrying quality certification marks. ISO 9001:2000, GMP and HACCP shouted from many of the displays (as did Halal certification), as if to allay any Westerner’s doubts that modern, sanitary techniques are used in that country.

In addition, several certifying organizations were exhibitors, including Bureau Veritas, IQA Laboratory and Central Laboratory (Thailand) Co. Weeks after the show, NSF Intl. announced it was opening a regional headquarters in Bangkok to oversee certifications throughout the Asia Pacific region.

Avian flu was “very bad here three yeas ago,” one of our escorts told us, “but it has been eradicated.” Chicken products are strongly rebounding as a key animal protein for Thais. Both in discussions at the show and in visits to processing plants, one of them very remote, sanitation and food safety clearly are paramount with Thai food companies. A traceability system exists for vital export commodities and is growing for domestic products.

Another big label was organic. Organic farming is strongly suggested by Thai agricultural officials, and genetically modified organisms appear to be unwelcome, if not outlawed. Many of the products at the show proudly wore organic declarations.

Some of Thailand’s biggest export hopes are pinned on its fruits and other forms of produce. Durian, while virtually unheard of here, is called the “king of fruits” in Thailand. It may be the country’s most plentiful fruit. It’s packed with protein, carbohydrates, fiber and minerals … but is definitely an acquired taste. Neither sweet nor juicy and with a pungent smell, its outside looks like a pineapple, only with more painful spikes, and the fruit has the texture of avocado or banana. The westerners sampling it for the first time seemed to reach consensus that it had a strange, garlic initial taste, followed by that of an apricot (maybe). Don’t look for that one making a mark here.

More familiar, and with good reason, are dragonfruit, lychee, starfruit and mangosteen. Two that seemed unfamiliar, yet impressed most in the group, were rambutan, a scary-looking fruit covered in red tentacles, and longan, resembling large green olives. Both have sweet, succulent fruit resembling grapes.

While fresh fruits were everywhere at the show, dried and otherwise processed ones weren’t far behind. Sunshine Intl. Co. operates a freeze-drying plant in Chanthaburi, exporting fruits as dried snacks and ingredients. Most of its success is in other Asian markets.

A quick walkabout of the Thaifex show floor turned up these interesting products:

  • Take the same recipe as potato chips but form them into thin crackers and you have Boogie snacks from Nelie. The true potato flavor seems to benefit from the added thickness.
  • The chunky water alluded to earlier was a drink with chunks of aloe suspended in beverages of various flavors. Several companies had similar products on display, including Sapanan General Food Co.
  • Keko Marketing had two remarkably beautiful containers for its Glinter beverages. A traditional-looking soft drink “can” was made of clear PET, but still had the standard aluminum top and pull-ring. And Glinter mineral water comes in an attractively sculpted PET bottle with a full-width cap.
  • Gingen offered tastes of a drink made with chrysanthemum and honey. Floral extracts and tastes were widespread at show.
There also were numerous food products, most of them beverages, promising women youthful-looking skin. In addition to aloe, they contained collagen, coenzyme-Q10, grape seed extract and lycopene.

And there was a handful of American brands. Florida’s Natural, imported by Food Gallery Co., caters mostly to Western visitors and expatriates, although wealthier Thais are appreciating the difference over Asian orange juices. Bud’s Ice Cream from San Francisco has a similar experience, although the American-style products are made in Thailand by a licensee. Dole has a Thailand joint venture. The Washington Apple Commission was there.

Several Thai companies made very good copies of gelato, complete with Italian names.

Dave Rockwood, president of Rockwood Trading, with offices in both Bangkok and Park City, Utah, shared some insights as an importer and exporter: “Our most successful product exporting to the USA is mangosteen, both whole fruit puree and juice concentrates. Thailand has the highest quality of food safety and best supply chain and post-harvest management,” he said.

As for American products he thinks would do well, “American companies should export to Thailand more healthy foods and nutraceutical supplements, high-quality organics and low-sugar/low carb diet foods.”

His most successful product of all imports right now, however, comes from Brazil. Apparently Thailand is just as nuts for acai and its extracts as is the U.S. “Often it is a sub component for super fruit antioxidant juices, then exported throughout Asia in finished goods.”

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