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Old School Vies with New School at the Fancy Food Show

07/17/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"We're old school," declared Marble Pop sales rep James Kosuge, a grin spreading across his face. "We use artificial ingredients."

Marble Pop, a popular Japanese soda, was making its U.S. debut at the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York. That's the gathering of specialty food producers which takes place annually at the cavernous Jacob Javits convention center. This year's event wrapped up July 1.

Marble Pop comes in brightly-hued colors (the soda maker's booth sported bottles of phosphorescent strawberry, blueberry and green apple) that were definitely not created by Mother Nature. Stuck in the neck of each bottle is a marble, the better to entice young customers to crave the multihued brew.

At the Fancy Food Show, artificially enhanced products like Marble Pop were a distinct minority. Sustainability was in the air-- and many fancy food producers were breathing in big gulps of the stuff.

But if you were one of the 2,400 specialty food exhibitors who didn't have much to flaunt in the way of PC food cred, you did the best you could.

Take David's Cookies the New Jersey baker of pies, cakes, tarts and the like. A sales rep told me that while an entire pie contains trans fats, a single slice can boast that it contains zero grams of the substance.

What makes for the weird math? To be allowed to say your product has zero trans fats, what's required is for each individual portion to contain less than 0.5 grams of the compound. It doesn't matter if the whole pie is larded with the fats as long as each portion passes the labeling test.

Completely flummoxed, I made a beeline for the chocolate guys. At Dagoba Chocolates, makers of fine organic confections flavored with mint, lavender and the like, there's a heavy dose of eco-consciousness to go along with your chocolate fix.

While I was shoveling fistfuls of luscious chocolate into my mouth, company official Ken Plasse told me the Ashland, Oregon confectioner "honors full circle sustainability."

Huh?

It turns out that the concept, explained further on the Dagoba web site, incorporates "principles that blend quality, ecology, equity and community into each step from the rainforest to you." All that and a chocolate fix to keep the anti-oxidants away.

Speaking of nutrition, I decided it was time to chase down some seafood producers. At the Bar Harbor Foods booth, Cynthia Fisher, the company's marketing head explained that while ingredients used in its chowders and soups are organic, the fish themselves aren't.

"We don't know where the little critters come from," she sighed, explaining why creatures of the sea can't be certified.

A few aisles away, there were the tuna fishermen's wives. Six American fishing families have created American Tuna. The company promises that its Albacore is lower in mercury than the popular brands. Poles, not nets, are used to catch the fish. And you can trace back the tuna residing in your can to the very time and date it was caught. You can even find out the name of the boat that pulled the critter in.

If all that is a bit too much info to remember when munching on your tuna salad sandwich, it's good to know that the group's boats are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. That means you can bet that the fishermen's methods are green.

As for the fishermen, they're facing a host of challenges, said Natalie Webster, one of the wives manning the booth. Skyrocketing fuel costs and depleted fishing grounds are taking their toll.

"If you don't preserve the fishermen, there won't be any fish," she said, heaving a big sigh.