Food Trends for 2009

TORONTO (Reuters) - From recalled tomatoes to calorie counts on menus, food and health was a big part of the news in 2008, and it looks to again have a high profile in 2009. Here are five food-related topics and trends to watch for this year.

Custom Foods

Customization has been a strong consumer trend in recent years. Shoppers can now buy made-to-order versions of popular items like chocolate bars, coffee and granola online. You can create your own food and health products based on basic criteria like taste and budget, and many customized products are marketed toward addressing specific health or fitness concerns. With new products continuing to hit the market, like German start-up My Muesli, the trend looks set to continue this year.

Alternative Sweeteners

In December the FDA approved the use of Stevia, a naturally derived, zero-calorie alternative to artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose, providing a new option for people who are concerned about both calories and side effects from the non-sugar sweeteners on the market. Pepsi and Coke already had plans in the works to market drinks made with the sweetener -- Sprite Green and Odwalla juices for Coke, and Sobe LifeWater and orange-flavored Trop50 for Pepsi. But a UCLA study concluded that testing on the sweetener isn’t yet accurate, leading the Center For Science In The Public Interest to voice its disapproval of the FDA’s decision.

Agave nectar is another sweetener expected to show up in an increasing number of products in 2009 -- DataMonitor showed that 176 new products with agave were launched in 2007, compared with 56 in 2003. Agave is getting attention because of its low glycemic index -- that is, it doesn’t cause blood sugar to spike, and therefore crash, as easily as refined sugars can. The vegan sweetener has a more neutral taste than honey and dissolves more easily in cold drinks. But whatever its benefits, it’s important to remember that agave is still sugar -- it still has calories and will be still stored as fat if you don’t burn it.

Food Safety

Food safety issues were at the forefront of the national consciousness last year, thanks to several incidents of food-related illness and death in North America and elsewhere. Tomatoes and peppers were recalled across North America due to a salmonella scare, thousands of infants in China became sick due to melamine in infant formula and 20 Canadians were killed by listeriosis in Maple Leaf Foods processed meats. The scores of illnesses and deaths underscored for consumers that the foods we eat everyday can be risky. This year, the much-beleagured Food and Drug Administration will gain a new chief, who will manage the department’s increased budget and new role in international food regulations; current Commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach announced in December that he will resign when President Bush leaves office this month.

Recession Diets

The grocery bill was one of the first areas of consumer spending to get the squeeze last year. If the recession continues, increasingly frugal trips to the grocery store are expected to as well. A 2007 study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that foods high in calories and low in nutrients were cheaper than fruits and vegetables, throwing health concerns in with financial ones.

The rapidly growing organic food industry could feel the pinch from tighter household budgets, despite years of double-digit sales growth. Organic foods tend to be higher priced than their conventionally produced counterparts, and organic fruits and vegetables can be two to three times as expensive. The Organic Trade Association said in August that sales for 2008 were projected to be $24 billion, and average annual growth of 18 percent should increase through this year and next. But a survey by market researcher The Hartman Group found that the use of organics began leveling off in 2006, a trend it expects to continue this year, and an Information Resources survey of 1,000 consumers in May found that 52 percent were buying less organics because of cost concerns.

Food Nanny State

In May 2008, New York City required chain restaurants to post calorie counts on their menu boards, in an effort to curb obesity and its related diseases by giving people more information about what they’re eating - significant in a country where about a third of meals are eaten outside the home. There is now a similar requirement in Philadelphia. In Los Angeles, the city council banned the construction of new fast food restaurants in certain city neighborhoods for a year. Now the state of New York is proposing a 15-percent sales tax on non-diet soft drinks that could kick in this year. With legal challenges failing to prevent these fat-fighting municipal and state measures from going through, look for them to spread in 2009.

This is the final installment of the Health Matters column on