Banana wine anyone? Food biz flashes new ideas in Paris

From health-boosting "superfruits" to a croque monsieur that stays crunchy in the microwave or a snails-and-dips dinner party kit, the food business had its brightest new ideas on show in Paris this week.

Some 5,600 exhibitors from 105 countries lined the aisles of the SIAL trade show running until Thursday outside the French capital, many pushing bold new taste mixes, from banana wine to truffle mustard or savoury macaroons.

For Xavier Terley, food trend expert and consultant at the fair, consumer appetite for strong and surprising flavours is driving a burst of innovation in the global industry, after a severe slump brought on by the economic crisis.

"Food for the 21st century is globalised," Terley said. "It mixes up genres, tastes, textures."

"Smoothies are out - people now want explosions of taste, like ginger or wasabi, truffle or speculoos," said the expert, who recorded a "flood of new products" in the past year after a "catastrophic" 2008-2009.

Food firms submitted 985 products to the SIAL's annual trend and innovation competition, up 25 percent compared to the last edition.

What makes a successful innovation? "It doesn't have to mark a clean break. But it does have to offer new benefits," says Terley. "If I invent a blue pizza, it will be new - that doesn't mean it will work."

Middle-of-the-road products are on the way out, he said, in favour of ones with high added value - be it a powerful taste, a nifty format for snacking on the go, or a perceived benefit for health or well-being.

- 'Little bombs of antioxidants' -

------------------

While "naturalness" is key, Terley believes successful products no longer have to be linked to the past, breaking free from the home-made, traditional references that dominated much of recent food design.

Truffle juice pearls burst on the palate like caviar, while condiment sprays can add a hint of mandarin or tarragon to a simmering sauce, and pouches of candied orange or crunchy chocolate can be ripped open and added to a yoghurt.

Playing chef at home is another strong trend - fuelled both by the boom in television cooking programmes and belt-tightening during the economic crisis.

"People may not be eating out so much, but they're buying foie gras to entertain at home," said innovation expert Sophie de Reynal.

Be it in Europe, Asia, North or South America, pleasure - fun, exoticism, and variety of flavours - is the key driver of innovation, followed to a lesser degree by health, according to SIAL figures.

Trends like molecular cuisine - pioneered by the Spanish chef Ferran Adria - have filtered down into the home, suggests Terley, making consumers more aware of the basic chemistry of food.

And agri-business firms are responding to the ever-rising demands for transparency, as consumers wise up to the maxim that you are what you eat.

"Today's consumers realise that if their kids are getting fat munching chocolate and crisps in front of the TV, maybe they can do something about it," Terley said.

But the health message has to be kept simple. Foods can be labelled allergen-free, gluten-free, palm oil-free or low-sodium, but steer clear of making complicated "medicine counter" claims.

"Either you remove something harmful - the 'free-from' trend - or you add something simple, be it superfruits, raw ingredients," said Reynal.

So-called superfruits like Guarana from the Amazon or China's Goji berry are one of this year's big hits - Terley called them "little bombs of antioxidants that take you on a journey around the world in the bargain."

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