There may be no better place than the annual Food Marketing Institute's huge exhibition at Chicago's McCormick Place to ferret out food trends in supermarkets.
But 1996 doesn't seem to be the year of bold new directions for supermarket fare.
Still in evidence from last year's show were plenty of salsas and flavored coffees (though these trends seem to be fading), nonfat and reduced-fat products (in a holding pattern), bagged fresh salad greens (expanding to single-serve portions with dressing and everything you need to eat them at your desk), soda-replacing fruit drinks (still growing) plus all manner of ethnic foods (particularly from Mexico and South America).
Nevertheless, the show sent one reporter traipsing through four levels of about 1,000 exhibits, jawboning with marketers and shoppers from all over the United States and several other countries, and looking for the big news in groceries. And some products stood out.
Here are some highlights that may or may not end up on the shelves of the local supermarket sometime this year, depending on whether they meet the tastes of any buyers for the 21,000 retail food stores covered by FMI.
The buzz on beer: Shoppers can look for a host of clever brand names for beers from established producers catering to the trend toward local or exotic brews. Lynn Dornblaser, publisher of New Product News magazine, calls them "ersatz microbrews."
This product really cooks: One of the most interesting new products is a series of shelf-stable packaged dinners that cook in their own box without an outside heat source.
Distributed by HeaterMeals Inc. of Cincinnati, they are ready in 14 minutes at your desk, in the car, on a boat, at the ballpark or anywhere a stove isn't available, says Drew McLandrich, the company's director of marketing.
Originally made for the military, they use heat generated by a chemical reaction when plain water is added to a pouch containing magnesium, iron and salt. You activate the pouch, close the box and dinner steams away at 140 degrees.
HeaterMeals will be available in six varieties of chicken, beef, chili and ravioli in 3/4 -pound servings for $4 or $5 each.
Everyone's a chef: If you have a stove and can boil water, you can cook dinner for two in 14 minutes using one of four kinds of refrigerated meals from Mallard's Food Products of Modesto, Calif.
"People want to cook at home but don't always have the time or talent," says Steve Lay, vice president of sales, "but they still want to feel they are preparing something.
These will compete with Boston Market-style foods." You can play chef with pork Dijonnaise, beef pepper steak, roast garlic and mushroom chicken, or lemon garlic chicken for about $6 apiece.
Pizzas with pizazz: Also convenient for home preparation is Kraft Foods' self-rising frozen pizza for its DiGiorno line. Put it into a cold oven, turn on the heat and its thick, bready crust cooks up in about a half hour. The 12-inch pizza will sell for about $5.50.
Also new in pizza is a good-tasting, fat-free refrigerated pie that uses Wonderslim, a fat replacement developed by Natural Food Technologies Inc. of La Mirada, Calif. "Forget about olestra" says company president Charles Stad. His fat substitute is made from plums and unbleached soy lecithin and stands up to cooking.
Only one of several types of products that use Wonderslim, the 15-ounce all-vegetable pizzas come in Mexican or Canadian "bacon" flavors with a suggested price of $5.
International accents: While Pam and other cooking oil sprays have been around for years, World Cuisine Oils go a step further: They use seasoned oils in spray pumps, not aerosol cans. The oils -- in Southwestern, Italian, Oriental or Cajun flavors -- can be sprayed on foods before, during or after cooking to enhance the taste while adding only minute amounts of fat. A 4-ounce bottle with 920 sprays retails for about $5.
Hot snack: If fat is no object, you might look for stuffed Jalapeno Poppers from Anchor Food Products of Appleton, Wis. Once available only in food service, Poppers are jalapeno peppers filled with Cheddar or cream cheese and coated with crispy breading. To serve, heat them in the oven. An 8-ounce package is about $2.50.
Spinach savvy: Popeye is still an effective spokesman for spinach: His likeness on the label has doubled the sales of bags of spinach and spinach salad from River Ranch Fresh Foods Inc. of Dallas. Market tests show Popeye appealed especially to children, says Mike Domingos, director of marketing for Fresh Western Marketing of Salinas, Calif., a subsidiary. Prices for 10-ounce Popeye bags are only about 5 cents more than plain bags, Domingos says.
Drink your vinegar: While flavored vinegars aren't new, America Roland Food Corp. of New York is selling balsamic vinegars infused with natural fruits.