Every May, my photographer-and-husband, John Ivanko, and I trade our Wisconsin homestead for a few days in Chicago to attend the National Restaurant Association Show held in the sprawling McCormick Place Convention Center. It also gives our hands and back a break after getting our crops planted on our farm. As writers covering food and farming trends with a passion for sustainability, we’re inspired to see the continued innovative new products that champion eco-values and healthy eating at this annual event bringing together over 43,000 attendees and covering a wide range of food service products and services.
We’ve seen, tasted and written about and shared with Mother Earth News readers this sustainability and clean eating movement brewing for the last couple of years with everything from plant-based meats to clean drinks to compostable disposables. These trends root in two important factors: Increasingly, people are searching for more healthier products that tread lighter on the earth and creative companies and entrepreneurs are serving up products that reflect these values.
“Change starts with the consumer. When the consumer asks for something that expresses their values, companies will respond,” explains Gilmar Arellano, founder and CEO of HAY! Straws offering natural straws made from wheat shafts. In the case with straws, increasing shifts in policy also help propel sustainability innovation. Recent laws banning plastic straws now reach from the state of California to Washington, DC, spur ingenuity in new approaches.
The following are three new innovations we discovered at the 2019 National Restaurant Association Show.
1. Improvements to Stevia as a Sweetener
Are you someone who tried stevia and just couldn’t warm up to its taste? Did you feel it left a bitter aftertaste? Now is the time to give stevia another try as recent product innovations amazed our taste buds with how stevia has improved in taste and usability.
It’s great to see this perennial plant forty times sweeter than sugar gain such prominence as a sugar alternative. It’s more natural than the various chemical-based sweeteners on the market, like sucralose and aspartame. With the growing popularity of diets such as keto that eliminate traditional sugar, stevia offers a no-calorie alternative from the garden. Diabetics can also use stevia as a healthy sweetener that doesn’t affect blood sugar levels.
Zevia, the stevia-based soda brand, is a great example of such tasty new developments. We sampled Zevia at the National Restaurant Show and were blown away by their new, improved formula that tastes so naturally sweet you’d believe it to be from sugar that now is used in their expanded product line including energy drinks and tea. Stevia also popped up as an ingredient in everything from cheesecakes to cocktails with again an appealing flavor palette that tasted just like the original sugar-based one we’re used to and expecting.
2. High-Protein Noodles made with Fish
Also driven by keto and paleo diets that emphasize high protein and low carb options, a new product we tasted was 10g Protein Noodles coming from Trident Seafoods. Actually, we tasted these multiple times because they were so tasty with a texture and flavor akin to calamari. Interestingly, these noodles were made from Wild Alaska Pollock, certified as a more sustainable fish option by both the Marine Stewardship Council and Alaska Responsible Fisheries Management.
It’s the protein content that drives the appeal of these noodles (see image above) as a single serving contains 200 percent more protein than a single serving of regular spaghetti pasta, plus they are gluten free, low in carbs and high in the healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Although the noodles are made from fish, they are neutral in flavor with no “fishy” taste and can easily be featured in different cuisines or seasoned in various ways.
3. Alternatives to Plastic Straws
Straw alternatives could be seen all over the show floor. The straws options came in colorful paper varieties or made from various forms of compostable materials. This is a boon for conservationists like us who still like to eat out on occasion, yet cringe every time we’ve been automatically served drinks with plastic straws.
Straws pose a serious environmental threat, especially to sea life. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Americans, on average, use 1.6 straws a day, too often ending up in the ocean. Marine life and birds mistake these and other plastic items for food. This results in plastic now found in an estimated 90% of all seabirds. Within the next decade, it’s estimated that there will be a pound of plastic for every three pounds of fish in the ocean.
While the best option is still no straws, for those still seeking straws, HAY! Straws struck us as an environmentally friendly option that uses a by-product that otherwise would go to waste. HAY! Straws use the stem of the wheat plant after the primary shaft has been used for the grain. The wheat plant stem has a natural hole for the straw shape and doesn’t get soggy, even after sitting in hot liquids.
“We’re here at the National Restaurant Show because we want to demonstrate there are cost-effective options for straws that also tread lighter on the earth,” explains co-founder Alexey Savin, who describes HAY! Straws as a “happy accident” while working on a completely different project where he came across the wheat stems and the idea popped to use them as straws. “With the European Union completely banning single-use plastics by 2021, it’s a great motivator to seek out creative alternatives that are good for the planet.”
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chefcookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son, Liam, and millions of ladybugs. Read all of Lisa’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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