More than 15,000 food professionals found themselves in New Orleans for the 2011 IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo, held June 11–14, when 900 exhibitors gathered to show their latest products and innovations. In a city famous for its flavor and foods such as jambalaya, etouffee, gumbo and red beans & rice, it was no surprise to see exhibitors incorporate those influences into their featured products, many of which were only modified to improve healthy traits. Grits made with a functional starch, a whole-grain Cajun pot pie and a reduced-fat Cajun-style vegetable soup were just the start, as some suppliers even experimented with such protein options as turtle and alligator, each of which were presented (along with lamb) in a pulled pork-like sandwich application.

While the flavors may have reflected the city of New Orleans, many of the formulations had health concerns front and center, be it in fat, calorie or salt reduction, or added benefits from whole grains, fiber and functional ingredients.  Kicking off the show was a provocative keynote session which saw New Yorker writer Michael Specter and panelists representing the food industry examine how to change the image of food science in the marketplace.

Specter regards anti-science attitudes as dangerous, noting they have led to a wide-ranging -- although unsubstantiated -- mistrust of genetically modified foods. “Environmental issues exist with genetically modified food,” Specter admitted. “There are political and philosophical issues. Here’s an issue there isn’t: There isn’t a health issue. There’s never been a single issue of a person becoming sick from eating a genetically engineered food.” He opined, the public needs to begin to realize that all scientific progress comes with attendant risks.

 “One of the things we don’t teach about risk is the risk of not doing things,” said Specter. “If we don’t pasteurize milk, there is a risk that 23,000 kids will die. “Go out and educate,” he urged the food science community. “Fight on the internet. People want to believe that things are simple. They’re not. You need to remember that progress is why we are here.”

The USDA’s MyPlate icon, announced just prior to the start of the show, was among the hottest topics of discussion, and during the Beacon Lecture series on Monday, June 13, Dr. Regina Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General, set forth her goal for the health and wellness of U.S. citizens, with food science and the food industry having key roles to play. “As America’s doctor, I really want to provide the best scientific knowledge” to make the lifestyles of Americans healthier, she said. The best time to deliver that knowledge is before illness strikes: preventive approach. Food is an important part of such a strategy, and Benjamin emphasized the role that the food industry can play in the prevention of food-related disease.

Noting the emphasis the USDA’s new MyPlate icon puts on fresh fruits and vegetables, Benjamin commented, “We are working on getting fresh produce into neighborhoods where there are no grocery stores.” She further suggested the food industry can direct its efforts to offering more healthy food products that mirror the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

While the role of the food industry is significant, perhaps that of the medical industry is even more important. “We need to move from a system based on treatment to one of preventing illness,” she said. This may mean changing the curriculum at medical schools so that it includes more courses on food science and nutrition.

Innovative introductions were abundant at this year's IFT Show, with launches running the gamut from a pair of margarines for baked goods promising to cut saturated fat content by 10%, to a new tapioca starch for producing Greek-style yogurt without the need for straining, to what an exhibitor claimed was the first saturated fat-free Omega-9 sunflower oil, which was also free of trans fats and purportedly high in monounsaturated fats.

However, one of the most innovative efforts was not an ingredient at all. Recognizing that each individual perceives tastes differently and therefore often describes tastes differently, a supplier revealed a "texture lexicon," offering a vocabulary for describing the textures of solid, liquid and semi-solid food and beverage products. The goal, as explained, was to help developers determine the desired textural qualities early in the development, and the project included a texture mapping process plus nearly three dozen texture attribute maps. Presently, more than 70 separate terms provide definitions of attributes of product appearance, performance and experience.

More details on the 2011 IFT Food Expo will be available in the August issue of Prepared Foods.