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Making fancy food from simple ingredients

Simple ingredients, authentic recipes flavor today's fancy food trends.

5 min read


Jean Marie Brownson co-founded Frontera Foods.

Janet Forgrieve/SmartBrief

Simple ingredients, authentic recipes and transparency were major themes at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City last week. The Specialty Food Association’s annual event featured companies and brands of all sizes, from startups to big names, that stressed the beauty of simple ingredients from nature.

Clean ingredients and information about nutrition and ingredients are key qualities millennials seek out when shopping for specialty food, according to the research from the association and Mintel. Consumers also opt for restaurants that use local and regional ingredients and do well at describing the ingredients they use and where they come from.

Chefs Rick Bayless and Jean Marie Brownson co-founded Frontera Foods in 1996 with a passion for salsa and a commitment to producing sauces without artificial ingredients and additives.  Two decades later, the company which still makes the same five salsas along with a growing list of new products, sold itself to food conglomerate Conagra and Brownson became the giant company’s culinary director.

When thriving independent brands are acquired by large companies, the concern can be that the big company will make changes to the popular brands. In Frontera’s case, Conagra looked to it to take the lead on growing the brand authentically and it also enlisted Brownson’s help in bringing that authentic feel and clean ingredient strategy to products in some of its other lines, Brownson said.

“My boss said ‘I want you to change us, I don’t want us to change you.’”  

The deal allowed the brand to expand into frozen meals. The meals, including four bowls and four skillets, started with Frontera’s sauces. The skillet meals come with the sauce in a pouch that melts in the skillet and flavors the frozen meats and veggies as they heat up.

“It’s important to me to make food families want to eat while sitting together at the table,” she said.

The brand also plans to create a single-serve frozen breakfast offering within the next year or so, said Brownson, a classically trained chef and food journalist. One of the big trends she sees along the lines of clean ingredients is the growing understanding of the diversity of flavor chilis can bring to the food.

“With the different chilis, you realize you can make food with flavor, without all the fat and calories,” she said.

Making a brand from a single ingredient

Lior Lewensztain is a doctor who found he didn’t like the way modern medicine treats disease instead of promoting health, so he decided to do something about it. He created That’s it. to get people to eat more fruit, and his first line of simple bars made of one or two ingredients won the brand a national placement in Whole Foods Market.

Today the brand has expanded to include a line of veggie bars and chocolate-covered fruit truffles.

Another brand, Date Lady, produces syrups and sugars made from only dates, with no additives or other ingredients. Founder Colleen Sundlie discovered the diverse flavors of different varieties of dates while living in the Middle East for three years and she launched her brand in 2012 to introduce them to the US.

There are more than 100 cultivars of dates, each with its own flavors and qualities, she said, and she aims to explore as many as possible.

Trendy flavors

The Ginger People began more than 30 years ago as an ingredient company, and supplying candied ginger and other ingredients to other manufacturers is still the lion’s share of the business. But today the company is also diversifying with new retail products including Rescue Ginger Shots, spicy daily shots in three flavors: Coconut, Lemon & Cayenne and Wild Turmeric.

The company has also launched a turmeric latte mix and Ginger Soother Tonics.

“Our retail side is expanding,” said founder Bruce Leeson. “There’s no real plan, we’re just seeing the opportunities as they come up.”

Some other trendy products at the show

German company Farmers Land Food has also focused on simplifying. The company’s products include frozen smoothie cubes that don’t require a blender. Instead, the cubes are mixed with hot water and shaken or stirred in a jar. The company also makes Iced Coffee Cubes and Frozen Smoothie Bowls made with fruit and cereal.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Organic Gemini is introducing consumers to the Tiger Nut, a small root vegetable the size of a chickpea that has prebiotic properties. The company sells several products made from the root including granola, TigerNut clusters and a cold-pressed beverage called horchata.

Mother-and-daughter team Marilyn and Sara Polon created Soupergirl to sell the kind of scratch-made soups from seasonal ingredients that they craved. The vegan soup company sells two flavors year round and another six or seven that change with the seasons.


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