5 Food Trends to Watch

While many companies are taking positive steps, consumers still need to read product labels carefully.

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I just got back from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo, the world's largest annual meeting of food and nutrition professionals. Registered dietitians (RDs), like myself, from all over the country (and even overseas) attend for up to four days of cutting-edge nutrition science research, educational presentations, lectures, debates, panel discussions, and culinary demonstrations.

My original plan was to write about my Expo discoveries, figuring I would find lots of new and exciting products to write about among the more than 350 food- and nutrition-related exhibitors. For many hours, I scoured the Expo floors looking for something new to jump out, until it hit me. I wasn't really going to find anything new, at least not new to me. As an RD who works with the media, I am always getting new research and information on products—long before those products hit supermarket shelves.

So, I decided instead to write about the food trends I observed. Here are four that I would like to see stick around, and a fifth that I'd like to see clarified:

1. Individual Serving Sizes

As the waistlines of Americans continue to expand, companies are manufacturing products that can be sold in individual serving sizes. Personally, I love this. My patients are taught to read nutrition facts labels, paying special attention to serving sizes. But the majority still have difficulty portioning out something that they are enjoying. However, a "100 calorie pack" of cookies with no nutritional benefit will never be as exciting to me as a "single serving" package of cheese, chocolate milk, or nuts.

2. Low Sodium

Ever since the government's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended 1,500 milligrams of sodium as the daily cap for African-Americans, adults older than 51, and for individuals with high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes, companies have been trying to lower the sodium in their products. I don't really see a downside to this effort, since most companies were probably using more than they needed to begin with.

3. Less Added Sugar

I'm happy to report that this trend is still going strong. However, as I always point out to my patients, there's a difference between added sugar and naturally occurring sugar, such as sugar from fruit or dairy products. That's why it's important to read the ingredients listed on the label to see where the sugar is coming from. I was pleasantly surprised to see that a new dried cranberry product is being introduced, with 50 percent less added sugar than its original variety. I am typically a much bigger fan of fresh versus dried fruits, because of the high sugar content, but now I may be able to go both ways.

4. Whole Grains

I will never get tired of new products, especially breads that are made from 100 percent whole grains, and I did see some companies making a strong effort here. There's so much research to support the benefits of eating whole grains, from lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease to decreasing diabetes. Whole grains that are high in fiber have been shown to help promote fullness and weight loss.

5. Natural Foods

"Natural" is probably one of the biggest buzzwords in the food arena today, yet the Food and Drug Administration has not officially defined it. At this time, the agency has not objected to any product using the term, as long as it doesn't include added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. Here again, I tell my patients to read ingredient labels carefully, looking especially for words that they don't recognize or can't pronounce. In this scenario, I don't care if the label says "natural": Skip it.

Walking the Expo floor can be a lot of fun. Many RDs come home with bagfuls of products to try. I usually don't take anything home with me, probably because there's little room in my suitcase for anything but clothes and shoes.

I will continue watching for trends, without assuming that the consumer knows as much as I do.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Keri Gans, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, media personality, spokesperson, and author of The Small Change Diet. Gans's expert nutrition advice has been featured in Glamour, Fitness, Health, Self and Shape, and on national television and radio, including The Dr. Oz Show, Good Morning America, ABC News, Primetime, and Sirius/XM Dr. Radio.