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Top 10 Food Trends: Hip May Not Mean Healthy

Home Cooking and 'Natural' Foods Are Among the Top 10, but Experts Warn of Some Unhealthy Habits

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 26, 2011 -- If you're a self-described "foodie" who increasingly cooks at home, gravitates to ''real" food, sneaks a chocolate treat, tries to eat three squares a day, and often stays at home with popcorn and a movie instead of heading to the theatre, congrats.

You're hip, following many of today's top 10 food trends.

However, that is not say you're healthy. Some of the food trends are frowned upon by representatives of the industry group that collected the information.

The trends, released by the Institute of Food Technologists, were compiled by using a variety of information sources, including surveys by Gallup and other organizations.

While a few of the trends are admirable, the unhealthy quality of many trends is of concern to Roger Clemens, DrPH, president-elect of the Institute of Food Technologists. Clemens is an adjunct professor of pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Most of the trends, he tells WebMD, ''are not consistent with U.S. dietary guidelines." Overall, he gives consumers who follow the food trends a D-minus.

Kantha Shelke, PhD, a spokeswoman for the Institute of Food Technologists and a food scientist at Corvus Blue, a food science and nutrition research company, is more charitable. ''Americans get a few points for trying," she says. However, she says the report shows one thing about Americans and their eating habits: "They are far from an A."

The report is published in Food Technology.

Top 10 Food Trends

Here are the top 10 food trends in the new report:

Eating by Demographics. While generation Y-ers pick salty snacks, easy meals, and heat-and-eat breakfasts, the 50-plus eaters choose meals made from scratch, served three times a day.

Home Cooking. Americans are cooking at home more, with more than half of shoppers surveyed saying they prepared more meals at home in 2010 than the year before. That's a 20-year high.

Nutrient Search. Shoppers want products naturally high in vitamins and minerals and look for whole grains.

Special Treats. On the flip side, consumers want their chocolate candy, creamers, and cookies.

Americana Wins. Shoppers are drawn to farm-raised foods as well as regional cuisines such as Southern cooking and barbecue.

Getting Real. Shoppers say they avoid foods with preservatives, artificial colors, and flavors.

Three a Day. The number of adults who say they eat three meals a day rose 6% during the past two years. Breakfast was most likely to be added.

Foods with Function. Consumers want more than good taste in foods. They want foods that are kind to cholesterol and blood pressure.

Home Sweet Home. Bringing snacks from home to movies is popular, perhaps driven by the weak economy. More snacking is done at home now. Home entertaining is up, too.

Foodies Are Us. Two-thirds of consumers say they are knowledgeable and interested in food. Young adults, ages 25 to 34, are most likely to call themselves ''foodies."

Grading the Food Trends

Clemens sees good news and bad news in the report. While he appreciates the lure of "'Americana" foods, he says "none of those comfort foods -- fried chicken, mac and cheese -- are consistent with dietary guidelines unless significant changes are made to the recipes."

The attraction of people to ''natural" foods may be well-meaning, he says, but is misguided. The term natural, he says, has no legal definition when on a food label, so anything goes. "Organic," on the other hand, is clearly defined, says Clemens, who is also chief scientific officer for E.T. Horn Company, a distributor of food ingredients.

The FDA states that it has not developed a definition for use of the term "natural" on food labels. The agency says that is has not objected to the use of the term if the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances.

The most potentially healthy trends, Clemens says, are the home cooking, three squares, and home rituals.

While cooking at home could be a good, healthy trend, "we need to educate people how to cook more healthfully," he says. About two-thirds of Americans still do not understand proper portion size, he says.

Shelke agrees most Americans need a crash course in cooking. "Although enrollment in cooking classes has gone up, cookbook sales have skyrocketed, and the food shows have increased in interest, actual knowledge of cooking has not gone up," she tells WebMD.

As evidence she points to statistics showing prepared foods are selling well. "People might make a barbecue but still go out and buy basics like mashed potatoes and baked potatoes [already prepared]," she says.

Americans could benefit from learning how to cook simple, healthy meals, she says.

If she could ditch any of the trends, one would be ''eating by demographics," she says. "You don't need baby food or senior citizen food."

She'd also forget the trend of ''specialty treats" and make it a habit -- in moderation. In her native India, she says, dessert is an expected part of the meal, eaten in moderation.

SOURCES: Roger Clemens, DrPH, president-elect, Institute of Food Technologists; adjunct professor, pharmacology and pharmaceutical sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; chief scientific officer, E.T. Horn Company, La Mirada, Calif.Sloan, A. E. Food Technology, April 2011.Kantha Shelke, PhD, spokeswoman, Institute of Food Technologists; food scientist, Corvus Blue, Chicago.FDA web site: "What is the meaning of 'natural' on the label of food?"

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