There have been some nasty rumors floating around for the past decade or so: That the more you knew about nutrition, the less you could eat. That no-fat really meant no-taste. That a low-cholesterol diet was a life sentence to gastronomic hell. That any kind of healthy diet meant hours of extra work in the kitchen.
But if the Natural Foods Expo East held last weekend at the Convention Center is any indication, we no longer have to suffer. We can have the taste of sausage for breakfast with no cholesterol. We can eat ice cream with no dairy. We can drink too much champagne and still drive home. We can have pilafs and curries and pizzas in only a few minutes. And we can even have our cake -- a cholesterol-free cheesecake, no less -- and eat it, too.
More than 600 manufacturers and distributors set up booths for three days at this annual trade show of the natural foods industry, held for the second time in Baltimore.
Using samples and show specials, they courted the owners of the East Coast's natural food stores with pate, tortelloni, heat-and-serve curries, broccoli tofu egg rolls, pesto sauce, fat-free caramel corn puffs, Thai peanut sauce, and frozen non-dairy desserts that tasted just like ice cream.
An increasing number of manufacturers seemed to be upgrading quality in an industry that already promotes itself on the basis of quality.More have reformulated recipes to reduce fat and calories and more were using organic ingredients in their products.
"The natural foods industry seems to be moving in an overwhelming fashion toward organic," said Moses Brown, owner of the Village Market Natural Grocer in Pikesville. "The trend has been there all along but I have never seen so many new products that were all organic or predominantly organic."
The increased use of organic ingredients can be seen in a large number of ready-to-eat cereals that have come into natural foods markets in the past couple of years. There are now organic, whole-grain, fat-free, juice-sweetened and even wheat-free versions of just about every mainstream cereal.
Like many food trade shows there was a sizable contingent of small-scale entrepreneurs who did their original recipe development at the kitchen stove. Dave Lyon, a former international president for Grolier and also owner of the license for Pac Man, was there with his family's brand new line of Uncle Dave's sauces and condiments.
"I retired and then my son and wife came up with this ketchup," he said. "They named it Uncle Dave's after me because I'm an only child. Now everybody's my niece and nephew."
His ketchup -- showing the crossover between natural foods and gourmet foods -- won an award at the 1990 summer International Fancy Food Show and has been featured in the New York Times and Food & Wine magazine.
Ann Christopher, written up in the July/August issue of Harrowsmith as a Madison Avenue dropout who found a new career as a food entrepreneur in rural Vermont, brought her line of Annie's dressings and sauces including the new shiitake and sesame vinaigrette.
Eric Chittenden of Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury Center, Vermont, has been to Baltimore several times, he said, because of his other job -- navigating ocean liners. This time he brought his line of preserves and jellies including a delicious pure cider jelly, a hot spiced cider concentrate, zesty maple mustard, pickled fiddleheads, apple wood smoked almonds, flavored applesauces and pancake mixes.
Other companies, more firmly established, are going after restaurant and hotel food service with prepared natural and organic foods in large-volume containers. "If you eat pesto in a restaurant around Washington, it's probably ours," said Jonathan Altman, owner of Putney Pasta, which makes fresh pastas and sauces.
Many of the foods offered for sampling at the show were convenience foods -- frozen foods and quick-cooking mixes. Daya Singh Kalsa, president of Golden Temple Foods on Charles Street, noted an increased number of individual-serving quick meals. "I've seen a lot more soup cups and that sort of thing, where you just add hot water," he said.
Lundberg Farms of Richvale, Calif., is bringing out quick-cooking brown rice pilafs including chicken, mushroom and Spanish.
Mother Nature's Goodies, which has been making frozen juice-sweetened and whole-wheat crust pies including apple-raisin, pumpkin, cherry and blueberry, came out with a new pecan pie sweetened with brown rice syrup and barley malt.
Some of the tastiest sauces were at the Timber Crest Farms booth: a dried tomato spice medley, a dried tomato chutney and a "Plum (Duck) Sauce".
Baltimorean Victor Bennett and his family, manufacturers of Really Raw Honey, had a booth at the show. Their natural, unprocessed honey was included in a roundup of the best-tasting natural products in the September issue of Food & Wine magazine: "This certified organic, creamy white honey has a mellow sweetness without any harsh bite."