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Steve Ettlinger

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Functional Foods in Vegas

Posted: 11/27/07 05:13 PM ET

I was hoping that by the end of my day at the recent Supply Side West ingredient trade show, I'd be perfect.

Not that I didn't already have a goodly amount of self-esteem, but within minutes of my arrival on the convention center floor in Las Vegas, I had been offered food to improve my cognition, blood pressure, circulation, macular health, joint condition, gut health, immune system, skin condition, heart health, energy, weight, strength, and for all I know, returns on my stock investments.

I ate açai, goji, mangosteen, noni, pomegranate, cha de bugre, sea buckthorn, bilberry, and camu camu, which is the fruit with the highest vitamin C content of any fruit in the world. Some of these were in the form of enriched water, some were in chocolate chip cookies, some in chocolate candy, and some were in gummy candy (honest!).

All were being offered as concentrates, extracts, or just plain powders so that visitors might get an idea for the Next Big Thing and make a nutrition bar that Saves The World and helps us lose weight.

Probiotics were practically leaping out at me as I passed, which is pretty good for microorganisms. I absorbed more anti-oxidants than a bear running amuck in a blueberry patch. I tasted omega-3 fatty acids in the guise of orange juice, not fish oil. I had tea loaded with soluble fiber and soy isoflavones. I had chai loaded with plant sterols, soy protein isolate, and potassium citrate -- plus sufficient minerals and vitamins to run three marathons. I had a berry-flavored smoothie "with enhanced levels of protein and omega-3 (ALA) and omega-6 fatty acids" from guarana seed extract and ginseng, among other sources (oh yes, and some berry flavor and soymilk).

This all made me feel particularly efficient at eating, which is not my usual take on that activity. I'm more of a traditional taste-and-appearance guy. I eat for pleasure -- six years in Paris and 30 in New York City, along with constant reading on the subject, have shaped my taste from that perspective -- but it is pleasure guided by the knowledge that eating right keeps me healthy. That means, for example, that I choose really gorgeous and tasty cashews for my snacks as opposed to, say, a handful of Ritz Crackers.

The exhibitors were well-meaning, but because they were representatives of the 1,000 or so corporate entities seeking to supply the functional food and beverage industry, I had to acknowledge their spirit would last only as long as the market for these things is strong. And it appears to be so, but wait 'til next year. Who knows?

The thing now is that the traditional food companies are offering products that are an awful lot like supplements, and they see the food as merely a carrier for the supplement. How degrading! Food products are "alternative delivery vehicles" a tech guy for Danisco, a major supplier of probiotics, said, meaning they are improvements upon capsules and tablets. Say what? That would mean that when you eat your spinach because you want iron, you're confirming that Popeye found it was a great delivery vehicle.

Anyway, after my ninth açai berry elixir, tired of consuming mere delivery vehicles, I had to go eat a major, potent, Italian meal at Mario Batali's new place, B&B, with lots of Italian wine, cheese (parmigiano Reggiano Sformato with Matsutake Mushrooms), pasta (homemade orecchiette with sweet sausage and rapini), followed by chocolate cake with espresso zabaglione and Guiness-stout flavored chocolate sorbetto. Some wild vehicles! Now THAT made me feel better.