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10 food innovations

Ever wonder what the big brains are working on while you’re busy feeding people?

New products are introduced all the time. Trouble is, they’re often just slickly marketed variations on existing themes rather than anything really new. Same with ideas; a lot more are retreads than the geniuses behind them will let on. Every now and then, though, a new discovery, technological innovation, production breakthrough or just a simple, forehead-slapping good idea manages its way to market. We went foraging for the coolest ones. Here’s what we found.

Gluten-free brews

Some microbrewers are tunneling into a niche that, while in sharp focus on the food side, has been relatively uncharted territory at the bar. The audience they’re after? People with celiac disease, a genetic disorder where symptoms (stomach cramps, diarrhea) are brought on by gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. As nearly all conventional beers are made with malted barley, they’re off limits to people who have the disease.

Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, Kansas City’s Bard’s Tale Beer Co., and New York’s Ramapo Valley Brewery are rewriting those rules with new gluten-free beers. Lakefront’s just-introduced New Grist is brewed from sorghum, hops, water, rice and gluten-free yeast grown on molasses. It’s the microbrewer’s most successful launch ever, according to its president, Russ Klisch. “We worked with the government to change the official policy on what they say you can call beer,” he says.

Halibut from the farm

Sam Hayward, chef-owner of Fore Street Restaurant in Portland, Maine, is always on the lookout for local, sustainably raised products. Last year, he discovered farm-raised baby halibut, made available for the first time through a project at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research.

The halibut are hatched from wild brood stock and raised in land-based tanks that re-circulate ocean water. “It’s unique in that it’s dry-land halibut,” says Hayward. “There’s no possibility of escape or of pollution into the open waters.” The farm-raised halibut weigh in at less than two pounds. “We leave them whole, with the skin on. They’re roasted in heavy cast iron pans in our wood-burning oven. The skin gets crispy and, because we leave the skin on, the interior stays wonderfully moist and succulent.”

Grass-based cheese

Grass-fed meats have been in the news lately, but expect to see more cheeses marketed as grass-based. Seeking to marry farming and cheesemaking as closely as possible, artisan cheesemakers in areas with access to milk from pastured cows—their own or from neighboring farms—are turning out cheeses that promise more distinctive flavors, richer colors and even nutritional benefits thanks to natural compounds in the grasses consumed by the animals.

“When I started making cheese, this is how we made cheese. Everyone was a grass-based farmer. You didn’t see cows locked up in a barn all day,” says Bruce Workman, a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker and a partner in the new Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative in Green County, Wisconsin. “This is a return to those roots.”

The cooperative, which aims to make such cheeses available on a larger scale than most farmstead operations can, is a partnership among three family farms, 300 rotationally grazed cows, Workman and a cheese marketing firm that will get its cheeses into national distribution. For cheesemakers, dealing with grass-based milk is challenging: supplies are seasonal, and its characteristics and flavor complexity can change literally with the weather. For chefs and consumers, embracing pasture-grazed products means learning to appreciate the idea of seasonal variations in the cheese. Real cheeseheads, like Pascal Vittu, long-time cheese steward at chef Daniel Boulud’s namesake restaurant in New York, are known to hand-pick such cheeses in part by the month in which they were made—when the pastures, and the milk produced from them, are just so.

Spray on the flavor

New York chef and restaurateur David Burke last summer introduced a line of super-concentrated water-based flavor sprays that go far beyond the familiar spritz of butter on popcorn. The all-natural sprays, which have no calories, carbs, cholesterol or fats, fall into four flavor groups: Classic (i.e., Parmesan Cheese, Pesto, Ranch, Tomato Basil, Smoked Bacon, Caramelized Onion, Ketchup, Blue Cheese, Maple, Honey); Exotic (Hot and Sour, Ice Blue Salt, Memphis BBQ, Pepper City, Teriyaki); Sweet & Sinful (Banana Split, Birthday Cake, Chocolate Fudge, Cookies and Cream, Bubblegum, Root Beer Float, Strawberry Shortcake, Raspberry Chocolate Truffle, Coconut); and Fruit (Mango, Pineapple, Kiwi and Blueberry).

Menu applications? Think guiltless bacon spray on baked potatoes or burgers, parmesan cheese on pasta, tomato-basil on salads, and so on. Burke keeps bacon spray on the tables of his David Burke at Bloomingdale’s restaurant as a condiment, right alongside the ketchup.

Next gen sushi

Packaging just might be everything. Take sushi. It has clearly achieved “it” status in the U.S., but there are still a lot of folks for whom the Japanese delicacy’s traditional seaweed wraps are unappealing. New colorful sushi wraps could warm them up to the trend. At the very least, the new hues promise to inject some buzz into the category.

Marketed by the specialty produce czars at Frieda’s, Inc., Los Alamitos, California, Colored Sushi Wraps are paper thin and flexible, strong and durable, and can be used for any variety of sushi rolls—traditional or not. The company says they’re also perfect for wrapping chicken, vegetables and ham. Colors include yellow, orange, green and pink, and the flavorless wraps are packed for foodservice and retail.

Non-stick honey

Sure, it’s sweet to eat and lovely to look at, but honey can also be a sticky mess. A new process promises to do away with the muss and fuss. By removing a portion of the water content technologists have solved the stickiness problem and created a new solid honey wafer. Launched with the tentative name “Simply Honey,” the wafer has a single ingredient: pure honey—no additives or stabilizers.

The wafers are about the size and thickness of a quarter, according to Charlotte Jordan of the National Honey Board, which sponsored the research leading to the new product. They have honey’s natural appeal and unique flavor and are easy to handle, store and present to customers in self-service beverage stations along with other single-serve sweeteners. NHB debuted the concept at consumer and restaurant trade shows this year and is working to secure manufacturers.

Probiotics for “regulars”

Talk about regular customers. Foods containing probiotics, present to some degree in all cultured dairy products, are getting interesting. That’s because one particular strain of probiotic, Bifidus Regularis™, is now available for the first time in a food product being marketed both at foodservice and retail.

Probiotics are living, one-celled organisms that when consumed in adequate amounts are said to have health benefits, particularly on the digestive tract. Bifidus Regularis is a strain of bifidobacteria, a naturally occurring bacteria in the intestinal system. Dannon, which introduced Bifidus Regularis-containing Activa™ yogurt this year, included this probiotic because it survives passage through the digestive tract, arriving in the colon as a living culture. Once there, it helps to regulate the digestive system by reducing long intestinal transit times, Dannon says, adding that benefits are apparent after two weeks of daily consumption.

The hybrid burger

Veggie-based burger alternatives are a dime a dozen, but no matter how good-tasting and good-for-you they might be, they can still leave burger lovers feeling a bit cheated. SoleCina, a patent-pending invention that involves both the process and the ingredients to produce a “hybrid” meat could soften the blow. Developed by Solae, Inc., a St. Louis-based research and development company specializing in soy-based product innovations, SoleCina is the process behind the new “Better Burger.” The hybrid burger has two-thirds the calories and half the fat and saturated fat as a 100-percent beef burger of comparable size, according to the company. President and CEO Tony Arnold calls the process, which has been in development for a decade, “a game-changing innovation.”

SoleCina converts a blend of vegetable and meat protein into a meat hybrid with the consistency of cooked, whole-muscle meat. It’s used for completely meat-free versions, as well. The Better Burger and other products using SoleCina are expected to be on the market by the end of the year.

Hot dogs, au naturel

They’re organic, natural, grass-fed and nitrite- and nitrate-free. They’re hot dogs for the haute-and-healthy. While healthier hot dog alternatives have been around for years, authentic flavor and texture have rarely been part of the package. That’s because, in leaving out much of the fat, salt, nitrites and nitrates, manufacturers also had to leave out the zesty flavor, plump texture and rich pink color.

A new day has dawned, however, thanks to the recent cracking of the curing code. Instead of relying on sodium nitrates or the more common sodium nitrites for color, texture and shelf life, hot dog makers have found a natural, vegetable-based solution of celery juice or seed, sometimes beet juice for color, lactic acid and sea salt. “We introduced the process last November. It’s a major change for the organic and natural hot dog industry,” says Tedd Heilman, general manager of Organic Prairie, a division of the La Farge, Wisconsin-based Organic Valley CROPP Cooperative.

Organic Prairie is launching a foodservice program for its hot dogs this year. And New Jersey-based Applegate Farms recently launched what it has branded as “The Great Organic Uncured Hot Dog,” a 100 percent certified organic beef dog made using the new natural curing process.                                                                 

Almost instant ice cream

Fresh ice cream, made to order: It’s coming to a nontraditional location near you in the form of a vending machine. Called MooBella, the machine offers a choice of up to 96 varieties of ice cream, including two mixes, 12 flavors and three mix-ins. An interactive, 14-inch screen guides users through choices to create their own favorite ice cream flavor in 45 seconds or less. The dynamic order screen also allows operators to access all the functions necessary to operate, clean and maintain the unit.

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