Can sweet potatoes be sexy? Quinoa chic? Tofu to die for? Five years ago, culinary critics might have sneered at the thought. But thanks to Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow and a host of celebrity chefs touting healthy, plant-based diets, such seemingly bland natural food staples are enjoying an image makeover and a surge in sales among foodies.
“For a long time, the stereotype has been: ‘If it’s healthy, it must not taste good,’” says chef Scott Samuel, an instructor at The Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena, Calif. “Not anymore.”
According to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS, the line between good-for-you and gourmet is indeed blurring, with sales of “natural products” (like vegan grab-and-go meals and healthy snack foods) up 6.7 percent in 2010 in specialty gourmet stores, and the number of “clean gourmet” items on the rise at natural foods stores.
“Natural consumers are getting more adventurous with their cooking, and adventurous cooks are discovering the wonderful taste profiles in natural products,” says Kathryn Peters, executive vice president of business development for SPINS. “Both natural and specialty gourmet markets are poised to benefit if they manage their assortment well.”
Here’s a look at what you should be stocking in your store.
Quinoa. This grain-like cousin of spinach has been a staple for the Incas for centuries and, because it is a complete protein (containing all nine amino acids), it has long been popular among vegans. Quinoa contains twice the protein of rice, less sodium than wheat or corn, and healthy doses of calcium and magnesium. But its taste, earthy texture and ease of use is what has caught chefs’ attentions, says Jenny Matthau, president of the Natural Gourmet Institute, a New York City-based cooking school. “It’s light and fluffy and nutty, and it cooks in 15 minutes.”
Gourmet magazine dubbed quinoa “the better couscous” and, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel, 63 new quinoa-containing products were introduced in 2009 and 2010. Among them: San Francisco-based Urbane Grain’s side dishes and Bolivia-based Andean Naturals’ Organic Tricolor Quinoa (great for making pretty salads). Also on shelves: quinoa breakfast flakes and pasta.
Sweet potatoes. Long heralded for their low glycemic index score (meaning they tend not to spike your blood sugar), sweet potatoes are loaded with fiber, beta-carotene and vitamin A. They’re also naturally flavorful and super versatile, Samuel says. “With a russet potato, you have to add something to it—like salt or butter—to add flavor. With sweet potatoes, you just dice them and toss them in some olive oil.” Fifty-seven new sweet potato products have hit retail shelves since 2009, according to Mintel, including Needham Heights, Mass.-based Food Should Taste Good’s Sweet Potato Chips, Seabrook S.C.-based Lowcountry Produce’s Sweet Potato Butter and Eagle, Idaho-based Alexia Foods’ All-Natural Sweet Potato Fries. Up next: a host of new gourmet confectionaries containing these savory tubers.
Microgreens. Responding to an increased demand for local produce and a heightened attention to the appearance of gourmet natural food dishes, Matthau says more chefs are turning to microgreens like amaranth, arugula, dandelion, fiddlehead fern, pea shoots, broccoli rabe and mustard greens to not only add unique flavor to meats and side dishes but also to dress up their plates. Some research suggests these tender, baby versions of adult vegetables are more nutrient dense than their mature counterparts, but it is their wide variety of pungent flavors, vivid colors and whimsical shapes that has home chefs clamoring for them. According to SPINS, packaged fresh produce was the number one–selling natural food category in the specialty gourmet channel from February 2010 to February 2011.
Tofu. Just mention tofu and you risk conjuring up images of bland bean curd drowning in sauce. But thanks to a few determined artisans around the country, those images are changing. “We are proving that if tofu is done well, it has a right to stand alone,” says Minh Tsai, who started Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, Calif., in 2004 to try to elevate tofu from its lowly image as bland “hippie food.”
Packing up to 17 grams of easily digestible, cholesterol-free protein, tofu is a no-brainer alternative to meat. But Tsai says that has been part of its problem: In order to provide a dense, meat-like substance that can be grilled or baked, some manufacturers have squeezed the moisture out of tofu—and with it, its distinct, nutty flavor. Hodo uses more traditional means to handcraft its fresh, silken tofu and its sexier cousin yuba (thin sheets of noodle-like skin that form on the top of heated soymilk). Hodo tofu and yuba now grace the menus of such coveted restaurants as Coi and The Slanted Door in San Francisco. Its gourmet grab-and-go meals (Spicy Yuba Strips, Hijiki Tofu Salad) are flying off the shelves at Bay Area gourmet stores, and Tsai was recently named one of Food and Wine magazine’s “40 big thinkers.”
“People who have never eaten tofu before are trying it now,” he says. “You can’t win the battle on health alone if you don’t have the taste.”