Finding Produce Trends at the PMA Fresh Summit Expo 2014

With more than 20,000 attendees, 900 exhibitors, and 60 countries represented, the Produce Marketing Association (PMA)'s Fresh Summit 2014 was a significant event which brought together key decision-makers in the produce industry. This convention is the industry's biggest on this coast of the world and demonstrates the power of produce on household habits as well as restaurant and retail businesses. Hosted at the Anaheim Convention Center from October 17-19th this year, Fresh Summit consumed the entire venue with creative displays and booths, bright product arrangements, and overloads of information about their areas of expertise. We were able to attend with passes from Melissa's Produce (thank you!) and were in for quite the treat as we explored more about the trends that have been cropping up in the produce scene.

The energy at the Fresh Summit was nearly palpable considering the sheer amount of people present and the excitement at new products and initiatives. Since we had arrived on Saturday, the attendees present had already gone through their full day (Friday) of educational, motivational workshops that focused on key details in their areas of interest. These were geared towards lending best tips for those involved in marketing their products and also demonstrated the ways to enhance their strategies, be flexible to change, and expect what was new. We saw in the outdoor expo area the various products and companies that had been awarded with an Impact Award for their innovation and impact on the industry; what creativity! There were also demonstrations by businesses who manufacture the machinery for produce companies so we got a good glance at how processes start and finish.

Plant-Based and Living
The attractive component of the Fresh Summit was in its name: fresh. Beautifully arranged bright produce shone from nearly every booth in any shape and form but in addition to the raw stuff was the freshness captured in the products that highlighted the ingredients. We saw the tofu and shirataki noodle powerhouse, House Foods, giving out samples of their products which are primarily made in Orange County's own Garden Grove. Their commitment is to the fresh healthiness of their ingredients to churn out the products. The more widespread use of shirataki noodles now show that consumers are more willing to branch out in their healthy food decisions. Though kale has been trending for a while now, it did not have as large of a presence this year as it has shown in the past few years (though there was still a kale chip vendor there).

The plant-based products in general that we spotted from booth to booth not only emphasized freshness in processed products but especially in the purchase period - more and more places were offering "living herbs" and lettuces. Walls of herbs lined some interiors, and racks of potted plants were shown frequently. This looks like a smart step to meet the slow-growing overall trend of people wanting to make their own food at home. Having this intermediary product of living lettuces and herbs allows the curious green thumb prospects to still get their urges to grow things in while also giving them an easier project that is purchasable.

Health Food Convenience
Our own Saturday morning began with learning about Melissa's Produce's own produce trends and new products. Convenience is quite easily one of the top priorities for the produce industry as they look for ways to transport their goods to their retailers as well as get consumers to be more willing to tackle previously-difficult-to-consume foods. Melissa's continues to add to their Steamed Line of products with options such as organic baby beets, peeled white potatoes, and artichoke hearts and presents different packaging for previous favorites. We were pretty stoked to see the new products that were made of dishes that while we might make it from scratch ourselves, would be great convenient ways to embellish a meal. Think of getting Hatch Chile salsa readily and yuzu ponzu sauce, both following the trends these days of pepper love and exotic citrus exposure. I particularly found much convenience in their Clean Snax line because not only are they in small, easy-to-eat pieces but they contained ingredients that are great for you!

Other transformations of produce into more convenient packaging and serving sizes that we spotted were items such as finger limes in snack bags, pomegranate arils in cups, grapes touted as candy-like sweets, snacking size packs of cherry tomatoes, and innovative slightly dried chopped/minced herbs to be reconstituted during cooking. There were pastes and sauces in addition to these snack-centric pieces so the idea of pushing convenience onto consumers was strong. I quite liked the idea though because these are healthful foods that were given the fast junk food makeover. What a welcome change.

New Perspective
With the plethora of fruits, vegetables, and whatever else nature has to offer out there, there are typically bizarre ones that people don't like to approach. I noticed that a lot of the businesses represented at Fresh Summit this year were keen on changing those perspectives by giving their own products a new light. For example, edamame has been perceived over the years as a steamed item you start Japanese restaurant meals with or pieces that get tossed into a salad as if peas but we spotted them dried in a salty, snack form akin to nuts. One entire booth was dedicated to #FearNoFruit, exposing interesting and unique fruits to passersby. One business had a variety of ways for people to eat beets such as pickled, in energy bars, or even as salsa. We also saw pink lemons (striped outside, pink inside) and re-envisioning attempts by businesses to create this new perspective; why shouldn't one think of avocados as "gator eggs" when they surely look like them? On the side of growing food, the Back to the Roots company had their own demonstrations of how mushrooms can grow in conditions not fecal (that's what kids might think!) and how owning a little fish could actually help one grow herbs for cooking. Changing the way people perceive the fruits and vegetables around them was a big deal, especially considering what differences there are in those foods based on what's around the world.

Kid-Focused (and Friendly)
It is no surprise that companies are turning their efforts more and more toward children when the topic of childhood obesity is on everyone's minds. The inexpensive fatty and salty processed snacks in every store have been winning out over the years but health is top of mind of parents these days. The transition is not a full cold turkey shift over though as familiar flavors of food are still promoted but we also saw the inclusion of more nutrient-robust items into typical children-preferred flavors. Partnerships with appealing shows and characters such as Marvel and Sesame Street create a great springboard for ways to promote good eating. BuddyFruits' applesauce-like snack packs included ingredients such as sweet potato alongside apples in the mix or spinach in with blueberries. Endearing mushroom cookies in cookie crumble "dirt" made the fungi more approachable to get the conversation going. There were also a slew of characters for some of the businesses who either made human-size representatives of their mascots (llama and dragon, anyone?) or anthropomorphized their products such as the dancing squeezable Mama Chia character. I especially liked how the same company that brought children "Cuties" gave a new face to kiwis by calling these "Mighties" and creating a little character to attract kids to eat the fruit.

Your friend may be on the newest juicing craze or has hopped onto a cleanse of some sort. Juices were in abnormal abundance this Fresh Summit show as exhibitors upon exhibitors tried to showcase how their juices were the next big thing. A jumble of jargon about cold pressing or HPP sealed or smoothie versus pure juice could be heard at every booth because there are so many ways to produce this product. Some companies were producing ingredient-centric juices which focused on just one or two fruits/vegetables while others touted blends meant to accentuate an active lifestyle. Others honed in on the exotic aspect of some fruits or juicing sources such as the innovative Suavva company who uses cacao bean pulp to make their refreshing libation. If you visited Fresh Summit, you would have been well-hydrated.

Vegan and Alternative Protein
The culture of vegetarian and vegan lifetsyles is still going strong, and as it seems that more and more consumers are leaning that way with their food choices, the businesses have to follow. We saw plenty of creative products that were made to mimic as close as possible the foods they were disguising themselves as...and we were impressed with the results! Vegan sausage surprisingly tasted very similar to pork sausage due to the careful way they used spices and created texture. There were also informational areas that explained how there are alternative protein sources so that the myth of a plant-based diet being protein-less could be busted. Think about the different beans, legumes, and soy foods that can give those nutrients. What about the power of mushrooms? There was no shortage of booths ready for mycophiles with the large varieties of fungi; I kept eyeing the bluefoots sitting in their baskets at the Ponderosa booth!

In addition to all of the display items were companies who decided to hire on cooks/chefs to make their booths interactive and showcase how their products could be used. This added to the atmosphere of the Fresh Summit which was such a strong gathering of like-minded people and the movers and shakers of the food world. These are the people who decide what products get out there for the world to purchase, and these are the people who put such items together. Once you have everything in one place, it is apparent what some of the trends seem to be. We are happy to report that the produce world is becoming more and more keen on getting the healthful food out there in ways for consumers to easily eat, distribute, and talk about. How amazing to see the world buzzing about this - there were so many languages heard and countries present! Our thanks to Melissa's for allowing us to visit the Fresh Summit, and we hope to see these creative successes hit the shelves so more of us can take advantage of the beauties that nature (with a little human help) has to offer.

Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.