What's New on Your Supermarket Shelf?

Health, convenience prime concerns for consumers

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Last year's hottest supermarket craze -- low-carb products -- can be found in this year's clearance aisle. In a country obsessed with dieting, we've seen low-fat, fat-free, sugar-free, low-carb, and no-carb foods come and go with little impact on our girth. In fact, as a nation, we're heavier than ever.

So what new foods can you expect to see next on your supermarket shelves? WebMD asked the experts for their predictions on the latest trends.

As with most everything else, baby boomers are affecting how the nation eats, according to the NPD Marketing group. Boomers made their mark with fast food in the '60s, fern bars in the '70s, microwaves in the '80s, take-out in the '90s, and a trend toward healthier foods today, according to Harry Balzar, NPD's vice president. As the boomers age, they are coping with health and weight concerns that drive their eating patterns.

But boomers aren't the only ones behind changes in food buying habits.

"Increasing Latin populations have had an enormous impact on our food trends," says supermarket guru Phil Lempert, editor of the Facts, Figures and the Future newsletter. "They don't drink sodas with high-fructose corn syrup, and their diets are more abundant in fruits, vegetables, and fresh foods."

Among the once-exotic fruits and vegetables Hispanic cuisine is bringing to supermarket shelves are mangoes, cherimoyas, and a host of others, says trend tracker Linda Gilbert, president of the HealthFocus market analysis firm.

Another issue that continues to exert a huge influence on food manufacturers: our ever-increasing desire for convenience.

What's In, What's Out

To address the nation's health concerns, manufacturers are scrambling to reformulate foods that taste good but are lower in fat, salt, cholesterol, and sugar. Many are designed to help reduce cholesterol, prevent type 2 diabetes, and protect the heart.

Cholesterol-lowering, plant-derived chemicals called sterols are being added to orange juice, dark chocolate, yogurt, and margarine. The FDA has determined that some products containing sterols may carry a heart-healthy claim.

Another heart-protective ingredient comes from fatty fish and vegetable oils -- omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Higher intakes of food that contain these fats are an option for the heart-healthy conscious. Flaxseeds, walnuts, and their oils are among the richest sources of these fatty acids.

Another trend is foods that are enriched, fortified, or otherwise pumped up nutritionally. Manufacturers are adding nutrients such as calcium and folate to foods to help fill the nutritional gaps in our diets.

"This is great for minerals such as calcium for people who have trouble tolerating dairy," says Linda McDonald, RD, editor of the Supermarket Savvy newsletter. But she notes, "some food manufacturers have taken it too far." Eating some foods or beverages is similar to taking a vitamin pill -- and they don't always taste so great, she says.

At the same time, manufacturers are rushing to remove another ingredient, artery-clogging trans fats, from their products. Trans fats, also known as hydrogenated fats, are found in many processed foods and are made by turning liquid vegetable oils into solid products like margarine and shortening.

On the heels of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines' recommendation to limit trans fats, many manufacturers are reformulating products to reduce or eliminate them. In January 2006, all food labels will be required to list the amount of trans fats the foods contain. (In the meantime, be sure to read labels and compare brands.)

Of course, new food technology is about taste as well as health.

Consider slow-churned ice cream technology, which makes lower-calorie ice cream taste like the real thing without artificial sweeteners or fat substitutes. This means manufacturers can deliver the creamy taste of full-butterfat ice cream at a fraction of the calories -- now that's progress!

The Magic Number: 100

One of the hottest trends in weight control is portion-controlled, 100-calorie packages. Coca-Cola, Cheese Nips, Wheat Thins, Pringles, Oreos, and Ritz crackers have all jumped on the bandwagon with portion-controlled versions of their snacks and drinks.

These 100-calorie packs are ideal for people who crave snacks but can't control their own portions, says Katherine Tallmadge, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

Still, she points out, they're not exactly health foods.

"These are essentially small portions of calorically dense snack foods, and a lot less nutritious than a piece of fruit, handful of nuts, or a low-fat yogurt," she says. "Approach them mindfully, and try to limit these snacks to once a day. It is better to fill up on fruits and vegetables."

Whole Grains on the Rise