Don't be surprised to see artichoke and emu meat at your local grocery store. Yes, many of these strange herbs and feathered birds will be taking up shelf space in the coming year, all part of the ever-evolving market that caters to individual tastes and the desire for the next big thing.

Following are a baker's dozen of predictions of where the world of food is headed.

Flavor 1a of the Year: Artichoke
Surprisingly, this prickly little herb (it's really an herb, although it's cooked like a vegetable) is popping up in a variety of uses--dips, spreads, appetizers, sauces and meals. Watch for more in this line. And while we're talking about the traditional globe artichoke, don't be surprised if the more rare Jerusalem artichoke rides its coattails.

Flavor 1b of the Year: Mediterranean
Yes, we've said Mediterranean before, and the food is so good we're going to say it again! This time, though, look particularly for items with eggplant or squash. Think ratatouille and any variety of products made with eggplant. Some ideas: ratatouille-type spreads for crackers or bread, flavored cheeses, or gourmet versions of eggplant parmigiana.

Cuisine of the Year: Spanish
For this cuisine, think three major items: paella, tapas and olives. With paella kits on the market and with the trend toward many small meals instead of three traditional sit-downs, this type of cuisine seems ideally suited to American habits and tastes.

Overt Olives
Green, black, cracked, pitted, stuffed, bottled, canned, and at any price point. They are salty, flavorful and great nibbles with wine, beer or mixed drinks. Look for more varieties, especially upscale. Also look for more olives to show up in food products, including appetizers, cheese, entrees and bakery products.

Formulating with Hemp

Soy was the supreme bean last year, touting all kinds of health benefits, but what will be next? If the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore is any indication, the new son of soy will be hemp. No, not the kind of hemp that gets you in trouble with the cops but the kind that contains high protein, essential fatty acids like omega 3 and 6, and amino acids. The challenge, as it was with soy, is being able to take a terrific ingredient and make a delicious food.

More Joy from Soy
Soy-based drinks are in the dairy case and on the grocery shelves. Down the road, we'll see the testing of carbonated soy-based soft drinks. Also, branded soy ingredients will appear in some well-known foods.

For Women Only
Look for more women's nutritionally designed foods along the lines of Viactiv, General Mills' Harmony cereal, and Quaker's Nutrition for Women oatmeal. Likely candidates include energy bars, soups, and bottled waters with calcium. Right now Heinz USA is in the process of introducing its new Great Awakenings soymilk with a campaign aimed exclusively at women.

Horse of a Different Color

Kids love color. Witness Heinz' Green EZ Squirt Ketchup, Dannon's Sprinklin's Yogurt with rainbow sprinkles and Quaker Sea Adventures Instant Oatmeal, which turns blue. Expect more kid-directed products to burst out in a color explosion, and expect those colors to be unusual--maybe lime green, neon yellow, electric turquoise or bright orange.

Boomer Packaging
This year we believe companies may finally recognize the need for ergonomic packaging--bottles and cans that are easy to hold, open and reseal. The Heinz EZ Squirt ketchup is a good example of this for children, but the aging Baby Boomers will create the real demand for softer plastic to squeeze, larger print to read, contoured shapes for hands, and closures that are easier to open.

Foreign Finger Foods
While Lunchables for grown-ups was not a raging success, it may be because it was not the right product to test the parameters of the play with your food possibilities. We predict that companies will get wise to this and find new ways to tempt the child in all of us. Tyson, for example, is now testing a Chicken To Go product that includes chicken nuggets and a small tub of ketchup. Emerging exotic foods may be a prime place for this concept, as many other countries indulge in foods you can combine creatively and eat in a bite. Indian poori bread with chicken and curry comes deliciously to mind.

Neat Meats
With the trends toward more indulgent foods, more flavorful foods and more specialty foods, look for more unusual meat products. We're not talking upscale cuts of beef, but unusual protein sources such as buffalo and emu (and its cousin ostrich) to make more inroads in the marketplace. The selling point won't be the lower fat or cholesterol, but the unique flavor profiles.

Milk Across America
The past few years have seen many dairy-related mergers, yet the category still consists of regional and local brands. Expect a national milk, butter and cream brand to emerge, either through additional mergers or national company partnerships.

How Sweet it is!
McNeil Specialty Products says its new Splenda No Calorie Sweetener "measures cup for cup like sugar...great for cooking and baking." Can Splenda-sweetened fresh, refrigerated and frozen baked goods be a new bonanza for the calorie-conscious? PF