NEW YORK — Specialty food sales continue to climb as more shoppers seek elevated experiences in everyday occasions. Nearly three in four consumers purchase specialty food products, which may be defined as premium, produced in small batches or featuring authentic recipes and high-quality ingredients.
Hundreds of thousands of specialty food and beverage products were on display from more than 2,400 exhibiting companies at the Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 23-25 in New York.
The specialty food market grew 9.8% between 2016 and 2018 to $148.7 billion, according to a new report from the Specialty Food Association and Mintel International. At retail, specialty food sales outpaced the growth of all food, up 10.3% compared with 3.1% during the two-year period.
Product innovation and broader availability of specialty foods are propelling the industry, said Phil Kafarakis, president of the Specialty Food Association.
“Diverse consumer lifestyles are taking specialty foods mainstream,” Mr. Kafarakis said. “To reach these consumers and increase their own sales, food merchants have embraced the vast assortment of specialty products.”
Categories with the highest dollar growth include refrigerated and frozen plant-based meat alternatives, rice cakes, ready-to-drink coffee and tea and water. Frozen desserts also show strong momentum, fueled by reduced-sugar, premium and plant-based options.
“Plant-based certainly is not slowing down,” said Denise Purcell, head of content for the Specialty Food Association. “There is a lot happening in alternatives to meat and dairy.”
An example comes from Whipped Urban Dessert Lab, Boston. Oate is a new brand of oat-based frozen desserts in flavors including vanilla sweet cream, cookies and cream, mint chocolate and coffee.
Vegetables are cropping up in new gluten-free formulations, including a pizza crust featuring broccoli and crackers made with cauliflower. A grain-free granola combines sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots toasted in maple syrup and olive oil with chia and flax seeds.
“We’re expecting to see more vegetables being substituted for traditional carbs,” Ms. Purcell said.
Broccoli leaves and bell peppers are used as toppings on frozen pizzas produced by Scraps Frozen Foods, L.L.C. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based start-up sources imperfect or underused produce that would traditionally be discarded.
The namesake tomato sauce from Otamot Foods, Brooklyn, is packed with vegetables, including carrot, red bell pepper, sweet potato, butternut squash, red beet, spinach, onion and portobello mushroom. The product was developed to deliver "maximum nutrition from whole, plant-based foods," according to the company.
Much ado about mushrooms
Mushrooms star in a growing number of snack offerings. Portabellas and shiitakes masquerade as plant-based jerky. South Mill Champs, Kennett Square, Pa., offers Shrooms Splits Jerky, combining mushroom jerky with beef or turkey jerky as a nod to the “blended burger” trend in restaurants, mixing meat and mushrooms to create a healthier, more sustainable option.
From MudLrk, La Porte, Ind., Shiitake Mushroom Chips are fried in palm oil and seasoned with spices, herbs and dried vegetables. Flavors include ranch, Kansas City barbecue and sriracha. The Mushroom Benefit Ltd., Netanya, Israel, is launching Umamis Crunchy Snacks, an extruded, puffed snack made from king oyster mushrooms and corn in salt and pepper, salt and vinegar and barbecue flavors.
“The mushroom base enabled us to design a snack that is all-natural and tasty, as well as delivering mycotherapeutic functionality,” said Mira Weigensberg, chief executive officer and co-founder of The Mushroom Benefit, Ltd.
Brands are harnessing the functionality of fungus in new beverages, too, including a shiitake oolong tea and a slow-brewed chaga drink that debuted at the show.
Baby food, grown up
A far cry from bland and boring, new food products developed for babies and toddlers tout elevated flavor profiles, Ms. Purcell said.
“We link it to the fact that the whole millennial generation is getting older and starting families, and this seems to be the next category they’re reinventing with new and interesting flavors,” she said.
Little Pickins, Boston, offers finger foods made with vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and proteins. Varieties include chicken with goat cheese, turkey with Thai vegetables, and maple tofu, kale and edamame.
The product assortment from Lil’Gourmets, Chicago, includes refrigerated organic blends of vegetables, beans, herbs and spices. Flavors include ginger beet, sweet potato curry and Moroccan squash.
Garlic, tarragon and fennel are among the ingredients found in the organic baby food pouches offered by Kekoa Foods, West Orange, N.J. Varieties include apple and ginger, vegetable curry, carrots and burdock root, and vegetable stew.
Lavender, rosemary, bourbon and rye, and pink peppercorns were among trending ingredients and flavors seen in award-winning innovations at the show, Ms. Purcell said.
Floral flavors are flourishing in new specialty food and beverage launches, including honey lavender sea salt butter and wild rose and strawberry jam.
A range of carbonated soft drinks includes such flavor profiles as juniper lime with chamomile and elderflower, turmeric honeybush with orange peel and black pepper, and pink peppercorn with lemon.
Savory herbs and spices may be seen in sweet products. Rosemary, for example, appears in cookies, caramels and candied nuts.
Bourbon and whiskey flavors add a splash of sophistication to snacks, sauces and spreads. Products include a bourbon ponzu sauce, rye whiskey chocolate bar and cheese washed in ale and bourbon. A new pickle product contains a brine of gin, rosemary and jalapeño.
Beer and wine flavors spill into snack categories, seen in a new milk stout cookie and a dark ale beef jerky. Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, Columbus, Ohio, recently added a frosé sorbet, inspired by sangria-style frozen rosé wine with pear, strawberry and watermelon.
Wine Water, Ltd., Rosh Pina, Israel, has introduced O.Vine, a line of spring water beverages infused with leftover grape skins and seeds from winemaking. Available in chardonnay and cabernet varietals, the non-alcoholic drinks feature the flavors, aroma and health benefits of wine, according to the company.
“O.Vine inspires consumers who are seeking new and innovative beverages to complement their way of life, and in line with the latest trends for alcohol-free and all-natural beverages,” said Anat Levi, c.e.o. of Wine Water. “This was the driving force behind O.Vine’s creation of the new niche of wine water in the marketplace.”
The recent popularity of chai, turmeric and ghee in the United States has paved the way for a deeper exploration of Indian foods and flavors. Sauces and seasonings on display at the Summer Fancy Food Show highlight regional tastes around the country.
From Spicemode L.L.C., Chicago, a vindaloo cooking sauce inspired by West Indian cuisine is flavored with paprika, peppercorn and red chile. A Goan curry simmer sauce from Meal Mantra, Newton, Mass., is described as tangy with flavors of lemongrass, kaffir lime, tomatoes and aromatic spices.
“Regional Indian flavors have been growing,” Ms. Purcell said. “People really want to dig deeper into the different regions and understand the flavor differences and the nuances. That continues to be a cuisine we see growing.”
The Chaat Co., L.L.C., New York, offers snack packs pairing popped chickpea chips with chutney in flavors including mango, tomato and tamarind. Dash of Masala, Austin, Texas, makes Sassy Lassi, an Indian-style drinkable yogurt, in such flavors as mango, strawberry, celery and rose.
A popular Indian snack is emerging as an alternative to popcorn. Popped lotus seeds, also known as foxnuts or water lily seeds, contain less fat, fewer calories and more protein than traditional popcorn, according to WaterFox Foods Inc., Springfield, Mo., which offers Hopapops popped lotus seeds in white cheddar, sweet heat, mango habanero, Himalayan sea salt and pepper and coconut flavors.
Making its U.S. debut at the show, Roast Health Foods, based in India, offers a range of foxnuts in flavors such as peri peri and tomato. Bohana, Boston, sells popped water lily seeds in spicy, Himalayan pink salt and white cheddar varieties and describes the snack as an “Ayurvedic superfood.”