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Originally published Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Food fads, fine print in '06

If you eat, you'll want to read about what's in store; 2006 is bringing big changes for consumers. Understandable labels This month, newly...

If you eat, you'll want to read about what's in store; 2006 is bringing big changes for consumers.

Understandable labels

This month, newly printed labels have to say in clear, understandable language whether a product contains one of eight food-allergen groups.

So if "casein" is included, "milk" would be listed after it. That should take some of the guesswork out of avoiding dangerous reactions by the 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of children in the United States who suffer from food allergies.

The new Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act allows grocery stores to sell off products that were labeled before Jan. 1, but early in the new year some changes will be noticeable on the grocery shelves:

Common allergens labeled. If there is any egg, peanut, nut, fish, shellfish, wheat or soy in a product, the label will have to say so.

Ingredients specified. The type of tree nut (such as almonds, pecans, walnuts), fish (bass, flounder, cod) or shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp) will have to be listed.

No more catchall phrases. Goodbye to nondescriptive words such as "artificial" or "natural" flavors, colors or additives. Labels with those ingredients also will have to specify which allergens they contain.

The exceptions. The law applies only to food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Meat and poultry are the domain of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it plans to issue similar rules sometime this year. In the meantime, the USDA is encouraging meat and poultry companies to comply voluntarily, and some are doing so.

As for food sold in restaurants, don't expect to see allergen labeling. The same goes for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Gluten rules coming. The estimated 3 million people who can't tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, will have their turn soon. The FDA is working on a regulation that would allow the voluntary use of the term "gluten-free" by 2008 if a product met certain standards. In the meantime, companies, using their own definition of gluten-free, are coming out with more such products.

Menu trends

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The percentage of Americans who dine out frequently is expected to grow in 2006, according to the National Restaurant Association. Some of the trends they'll be seeing on menus this year:

Little is big. Baby burgers, teeny panini, little lobster rolls — one-bite food is a trend, says Robin Uler, senior vice president for food and beverage for the 2,700 Marriott International properties. Expect to see the smaller bites on lounge menus, at catered affairs, as appetizers. The "small plates" craze will also continue. "We've finally learned how to share," Uler says.

Butterscotch is back. Pastry chefs are rediscovering this old-time fave and turning it into pot de creme, bourbon-spiked sauce and the ultimate American classic: butterscotch chiffon pie.

Eastern European comfort food. Sauerkraut, Hungarian goulash, stuffed cabbage — those long-ago dishes are making a trendy comeback, especially after a study touted sauerkraut's health properties in fighting off avian flu.

Free samples. Just like the food samples at Costco and Whole Foods, chefs will be sending out bite-size tastes of items on their menus to help you decide what to order.

Fancier food in casual places. Bolder flavors such as lemon grass and coconut, artisanal goat cheese and blue cheese, different kinds of pestos — in other words, ingredients that were upscale a few years ago — are trickling down to the quick-serve and casual menus, says Maria Caranfa, an analyst with Mintel Menu Insights, which surveyed 550 restaurants including 350 chains and 50 of the country's top chefs for upcoming trends.

Nutrition information on all wrappers of McDonald's food.

On the grocery shelf

Here's what folks shopping for a family can expect to see at the supermarket in the coming year:

More organics. Ragu, Orville Redenbacher and Ocean Spray added organic items in 2005; expect to see more mainstream brands follow their lead in 2006. Supermarkets are developing their own organic house brands, such as Safeway's "O" (introduced in California, soon to expand).

Organic-sales growth is huge, says Perry Abbenante, the national grocery buyer for the Whole Foods chain. Expect to see more organic chocolate (important because the cocoa plant is one of the most heavily sprayed with pesticides, he says), organic cotton in paper products (such as swabs, cotton balls and tampons) — there's even been talk of organic water.

Acai is the new pomegranate. First it was blueberries that were full of anti-aging antioxidants, then pomegranate juice became the health-drink sensation of 2005 (introduced in 2003, sales hit $50 million last year). It appears the next super-good-for-you fruit will be the Brazilian acai (ah-SIGH-ee).

Dinner already prepared. The Grocery Manufacturing Association says more than 50 percent of all Americans consider a "homemade" dinner one that combines fresh and convenience foods, so expect to see more dinner-ready items at your supermarket (add a salad, and you've "made" dinner).

Three out of four Americans eat Chinese, Italian and Mexican food at restaurants and at home, according to a 2005 survey by Parade magazine.

Chocolate is hot. Dark chocolate, boutique-brand chocolate, gourmet chocolate — it's going to be a sweet year for chocoholics. Why else would behemoth Hershey buy the tiny Berkeley, Calif., chocolatier Scharffen Berger?

Expect to see even more traditional milk-chocolate products going "dark," with labels that list the percentage of cocoa (semisweet is about 40 percent, bittersweet is 60 percent or above). Also, more "drinking-chocolate" products are made with gourmet chocolate.

Building on the boomers. Americans ages 41 to 59 represent more than $2 trillion in spending power. In the supermarket, that will translate to bigger print on labels, more sit-down areas, smaller packages for empty nesters, more nutritional information and lower shelves, says David Orgel, editor in chief of Supermarket News.

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