New food products have natural appeal to many consumers

September 15, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

What's new in natural foods?

you imagine that the people behind the latest trends in organic, all-natural, wheat-, sugar-, fat- and preservative-free, homeopathic, herbal, vegan and vegetarian products wear braids, beards and Birkenstocks, you might be surprised by the answer.

It's Southwestern, Italian and Thai-influenced cuisine, it's "light" corn chips and exotic-vegetable chips, it's extra-virgin olive oil, fat-free salad dressings and gourmet chocolates and Wolfgang Puck pizzas -- in short, it's everything new in the mainstream world of food products.

For some years the line between mainstream and what might be called "natural specialty" has been blurring. If this year's Natural Products Expo East, held last weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, is any indication, that line might actually be vanishing.

Ordinary consumers, driven by food-contamination scares and health scares, have become more concerned about what's in the food they eat, and what impact creating such products has on the environment. And purveyors of natural specialty foods have become quite savvy about taste, convenience and packaging.

"I think the natural food-health food market has changed a lot, especially over the past five years," says Margaret Garcia, president of Santa Cruz Fine Foods of Boulder Creek, Calif. "People are more and more concerned about what they eat." Santa Cruz began marketing its line of organic corn snacks in health and natural food stores in California, Ms. Garcia says. "Now it's starting to cross over into the mass market."

The Natural Products Expo is an important event, she says, "because everybody's always on the cutting edge. There's always something different."

Interest in organic and all-natural products surfaced about 10 years ago, she says, but didn't take off until recently, partly because the products changed. "They're good for you, but they taste good, too," she says.

So while there are some products at the show that may seem strange to regular supermarket shoppers -- ginseng tea and crunchy tofu munchies, for instance -- there are plenty of items to say that "natural" has arrived. Besides the Picante Blues blue-corn chips, multigrain chips and Szechwan chips from Santa Cruz, there are the no-oil white corn tortilla chips and spicy barbecue pinto bean dip from Guiltless Gourmet of Austin, Texas, and the peanut-butter brittle, espresso bean crunch and cookies and cream chocolate bars from Cloud Nine, of Hoboken, N.J., just to name a few.

And just to make sure that all members of the family are in on this lifestyle change, Integrated Pet Foods, Inc. of Exton, Pa., has added turkey and brown rice to its line of Lick Your Chops natural canned pet food. It contains no texturizers, artificial colors, preservatives or other additives.

And from NutriTreat, there are natural-flavor dog and cat snacks. Jackie's Cat Snacks and Max's Dog Snacks are "about as close to all-natural as you can get," says regional manager Mitch Wieczorek.

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