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By the end of the year, food manufacturers are expected to dish out nearly 17,000 new edible items, battling simultaneously for space on supermarket shelves and your pantry shelves.

Lynn Dornblaser, publisher of Chicago-based New Product News, a publication that tracks new food introductions, said it's a real food fight out there.

"When the dust settles, only about 5 percent of what's introduced will make the cut," she said. "The majority of the new stuff will be here today and gone by this time next year."

In 1996, for the first time in five years, food debuts took a dip, from 16,863 in 1995 to 13,266. That fall-off came on the heels of a steady climb up from just over 12,000 in 1992.

"In 1996, things paused for a bit," she said. "A lot of that resulted from downsizing, acquisitions and mergers in the food manufacturing sector, as well as similar changes in the supermarket industry."

Now that food makers have had a chance to reassess the wholesale and retail climate, they are coming back with great gusto. Through the end of June, 6,837 new items have landed at retail food outlets, a full 5 percent ahead of last year's half-year tally. And manufacturers are promising to more than double that count in the next six months.

While in theory that flood of new foods could lead to an overhaul of the family shopping list, at least one long-time industry observer isn't expecting much innovation from the crop of newcomers.

Robert McMath, director of the New Products Showcase and Learning Center in Ithaca, said he's seen a lot of copycat products.

"The numbers don't mean a whole lot when what you're seeing is more of the same thing. Can you really use another 20 fruit salsas? How many choices of bagged salads are realistic?" McMath questioned.

The veteran tracker of consumer product introductions said redundancy hurts both brand new and existing versions of similar items.

"Too many 'me too' products can
ruin an entire category," he said. "Everybody jumps on the trend wagon and kill the trend."

McMath points to the tidal wave of winecoolers in the late 1980s, hundreds of winecooler varieties from big and small companies. For a brief period the easy-drinking alcoholic beverages were the hottest thing in the business, only to be drowned by the flood of choices.

The new-product expert said a similar thing occurred more recently in the soft cookie category.

While there are very few breakthrough products hitting the market this year, there are some key eating trends that are driving a lot of what's new. One of the areas of greatest activity is the home meal replacement category, or HMR. This relatively new category spawns a mind-boggling universe of food designed to make it faster and easier to get dinner on the table. The category runs the gamut from ready-to-eat products, to make-at-home dinner kits, to easy-to-use ingredients that will add spark to the simplest meal.

A few examples are: Sara Lee Bragels (bagels that come preloaded with cream cheese); Progresso Pasta & Sauce; Oscar Mayer Hotwiches (meat components for hot sandwiches); SHK Foods Ready Crisp Bacon (precooked bacon that only needs five seconds in the microwave); Cascadian Farm Organic Veggie Bowls (vegetarian entrees such as teriyaki rice and pasta primavera -- ready for microwaving.) And, as McMath noted, there are more than a few new salad-in-a-bag offerings, ranging from the old family favorite iceberg lettuce to organic California-style mesculum greens mixes to combos that include greens, dressing, croutons and even meat toppings.

The quest for ways to satisfy our snack cravings without busting the fat/calorie budget continues to spawn new offerings from food manufacturers. While there are no big breakthroughs, such as last year's introduction of the fake fat Olestra, food companies are finding new ways to use that new technology.

Frito-Lay is testing its new Olestra snack, the Wow! chip, which previously had been tested under the Max Chip name. There are new Olestra-made snacks in the Pringles potato chips, Ritz cracker and Wheat Thins lines, too.

Lots of existing snack lines are getting minor tweaking via the addition of "baked, not fried," low-salt, no-salt and low-fat versions.

Another continuing trend is the introduction of new ethnic foods, particularly Mexican and Mediterranean items. In many cases, the foreign cuisines are being Americanized to make them more acceptable to the masses. For example: Old El Paso is out with a line of one-skillet meals that are little more than jazzed-up Hamburger Helper kits with a Mexican flair.

Foreign versions of grains and pastas, especially polentas and risottos, are bucking for shelf space in big numbers.

Another hot trend is the fortification frenzy, where simple products like fruit juice, tea, orange juice and rice are given a shot of antioxidants, calcium and even caffeine.

Ms. Dornblaser said this trend creates a gray area where food and drugs collide.

"Not that long ago we wanted pure food, now we want foods with lots of additives," she said. "Some of this stuff would be equally at home on the drug store shelf and the grocery shelf."

Uncle Ben's Rice now comes in a calcium-fortified variety, while the folks at Golden Pacific Brewing Co. have checked in with the very unique Sophie McCall's calcium-enriched ale.

A walk through the tea section of your favorite supermarket is also likely to leave you slack-jawed in disbelief at the universe of additive options, including antioxidants, laxatives, decongestants and immune system boosters.

Another popular fortifier is caffeine, which is being loaded into a number of spring waters and orange juices.

Supermarket shoppers also are seeing an influx of products that are migrating into the mass market from niche retailers, like natural food stores and gourmet shops. In some cases, small food companies are launching their specialty products on a larger scale, while in many others, mainstream manufacturers are borrowing ideas to jazz up their traditional food lines.

Rising crust pizzas are everywhere this year. Several soup makers, including Campbell's, have introduced gourmet or so-called "restaurant" versions of their products.

And just when you thought there couldn't be more ways to bottle tomato sauce, along comes a new batch with stuff like portobello mushrooms and fennel.

And, of course, there are a few new introductions that defy classification and stand on their own as, at least, unusual. This year's standouts include: Sparkling White Grape Jell-O, a shimmering version designed to celebrate the wiggly dessert's 100th birthday. (The secret is the use of champagne, club soda or ginger ale, instead of water, to add the glimmer.)

Another attention-grabber is Testamints, little mints stamped with tiny crosses that are packed in boxes imprinted with bible verses. These can be found in Christian-themed stores.

Going another direction altogether is Ass in Space hot sauce, whose label features an orbiting donkey with a flaming backside. (It's unlikely this sauce will share shelf space with Testamints).

Other edible oddities include garlic juice spray, hemp beer and vodka cheese.

Here are the current eating trends behind the 1997 supermarket product introductions:

Ticking mealtime clock -- eating fast, but eating well

Guilt-free snacking -- low-calorie, low-fat and new categories

Beyond American cuisine -- more foods with a foreign flavor

Fortification -- traditional foods are being fortified with everything from vitamins to caffeine

Upscaling -- everyday foods get chic new twists

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