Trend tracking is not only a key PF editors' responsibility, but also an enjoyable task.

March ushered in two sentinel events that provided guidance as to what will be hot in the mainstream food processing industry. Due to conflicts, I attended Natural Products Expo West (NPEW), while my partner in crime, Marcia Wade, trekked north to the Research Chefs Association's (RCA) annual event.

Marcia reports that roughly “90%” of the exhibitors sold ingredients related to Hispanic and Southwest cuisine or used them in Hispanic applications. Del Real Foods won the Culinology Tradeshow Award with its pork carnitas, beef barbacoa, Mexican rice and refried beans.

Chef Dean Fearing said fruity and savory notes such as cilantro, mango, lime and passion fruit are popular attributes of Southwestern cuisine. He advised making authentic items more exciting and flavorful but warned that tastes should fit. Thus, a Southwest dish, Japanese tempura element and Mediterranean food should not all be on one plate.

Marcia said health was a frequent topic, with one panel member commenting that it “might be time to change the name from Culinology to Nutriculinology.”

Health is the NPEW's “reason to be.” As I listened to numerous trend presentations and spent time on the show floor, themes appeared as well. Low-glycemic, inflammation reduction, diabetes, dietary fiber, sodium reduction, omega-3 fatty acids, gluten-free, sugar alternatives (from xylitol to lo han fruit), weight control, vegetarian and organic showed up in products, presentations and predictions.

Just as chefs demonstrate a growing interest in nutritional issues, the health foods community shows growing awareness of the importance of taste. Years ago at NPEW, I tasted “spit-it-out-quick” chunks of algae. This year, one vendor's algae was offered in a sweetened matrix enrobed in chocolate. Many products (a few not so healthy) were worthy of the Fancy Foods Show.

As for culinary trends…think East Indian. It sits at the nexus of several trends: vegetarian, ethnic and the nation's increasing prominence on the world stage.

Just a reminder, Prepared Foods' own New Products Conference (October 16-19, Naples, Fla.) will serve up its own slate of speakers offering insights on health and taste trends. For example, Barry Sears, father of the low-glycemic, high-omega-3 Zone diet, is Monday's keynote speaker, while chef John Li, corporate executive chef with Kraft Foodservice, will open Tuesday's session. For more information, see page 100 or go to www.Prepared