'Fancy' Foods Are Sugar and Spice ... and Mostly Everything Nice

The proverbial "little girls" from the children's rhyme might find both sides of themselves — sugar and spice — in a variety of upscale new foods, from snacks like peanuts and chips to salsas, sauces and desserts.

Judging from the barrage of offerings at this year's Fancy Food Show, an annual specialty food convention in New York City, Americans are craving more and more eats that are part sweet and part sassy.

"It's a hot trend in both cooking and in food products," said Ron Tanner, communications vice president for the show's non-profit organizer, the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT). "It's a taste Americans have gotten used to and they're now enjoying that combination."

Among the many renditions of the fad: Earth & Vine Provisions' $7 papaya orange habanero preserves; fruity salsas like D.L. Jardine's peach-, pineapple-, raspberry- and mango-flavored varieties for $6 a pop; Dufour Pastry Kitchens' crispy pomegranate pastry with roasted red peppers; and savory peanut snacks with a sweet touch, like Buffalo Bill's sweet Cajun peanut mix and The Peanut Roaster's lemon lime almonds (a 22-ounce can, however, goes for a pretty penny, $16.95).

The gourmet chocolate industry began tapping into the very same idea with fervor at least two years ago and continues to do so, infusing chocolates dark and light with fiery spices like chili, pepper, wasabi, cardamom and cumin.

Tanner attributes Americans' growing hankering for sugar and spice together to their increased exposure to and interest in Asian cooking, like Thai, Japanese, South Asian and Latin cuisines.

"It probably satisfies people a little bit more," he said. "Sometimes when you want something to snack on, you don't know if you're [craving] sweet or spicy." This way, he said, both urges are fulfilled in one shot.

Along similar lines are products like jams, dressings, cookies and sorbets incorporating exotic citrus fruits that are sugary and sour at the same time. Among the favorite flavors: blood orange, key lime and clementine.

This year's NASFT winner for outstanding dessert was a blood-orange sorbet by Ciao Bella Gelato Co. Key lime has popped up not only in cookies, cakes and chocolates but in dessert sauces (King's Cupboard has a chocolate one), honey (by Tropical Blossom Honey Co., for example) and even salad dressing.

Another sexy taste that has proven its staying power, in part because of all the buzz about its high-antioxidant content and heart-health benefits: pomegranate — in everything from juices and flavored waters to dressings and grilling sauces.

Also big: sparkling juices made from the fruit, like a new one from Kristian Regale, as well as other drinks and eats.

Nabisco may have introduced Fig Newton cookies decades ago and gourmet restaurants have been experimenting with the fruit for years, but now interest in other "fig"-ments of the imagination is spiking. Bonne Maman's latest offering to the jam-and-jelly world is fig preserves, and the company says people are using it enthusiastically, in more than just Christmas pudding.

"It's exploding in major grocery stores and specialty shops," said Bonne Maman brand manager Irene Suhaka. The company says fig jams are the fastest-growing segment of the preserves market, and attributes the upswing to exposure in restaurants and on cooking shows like those on the Food Network.

Still ballooning is the organic and all-natural market. Supermarket chains like Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's and Wild Oats are booming, as are smaller, regional gourmet groceries — driving more mainstream chains like Safeway to launch a set of organic "Lifestyle" stores to compete.

Other businesses — including Wal-Mart, Costco, drugstores, card shops and even gas-station convenience stores — are investing more in organic and other specialty food product lines too, according to Tanner.

"Production hasn't always met the demand" in the organic sector, he said, but now "it's just expanding. More products are going to have [organic ingredients]."

Along those lines, a new grain that's been isolated and trademarked as Salba to make Salba Smart chips that taste a lot like the regular tortilla sort but are touted as having healthier elements like Omega-3 and flax.

Cheeses continue to be a burgeoning area, with market growth at 27 percent between 2003 and 2005, according to Tanner. Sheep's milk and blue are in the cheesy popular crowd at the moment. Others imported from Egypt and across the Middle East are edging their way into dairy aisles and onto restaurant menus, too, particularly the creamy or mild types.

To go with your cheese, you might want to brew a cuppa instead of pouring a glass-a, because there are almost as many exotic teas out there as there are cheeses.

"A lot of people are learning about the health benefits of tea and will try to spice it up with flavored teas," said Hartley Johnson, an importer for Grace Rare Tea. Ready-to-drink, bottled iced teas are continuing to go high-end — some without sugar. Adagio Teas has a sugar-free iced tea line in the mix.

If that sounds too hot (or cold) to handle, designer waters and juices are still flowing freely in the fancy non-alcoholic-beverage arena.

Indian food also keeps gaining ground year after year, again because of the E word ... exposure. The fascination with Indian culture and Bollywood doesn't hurt either. And Middle Eastern eats are becoming a bit more mainstream, beyond hummus and falafel.

"Indian is a very big, growing category," Tanner said. "It's a healthy cuisine, particularly for people who are vegetarian, that still gives you a lot of flavor and taste."

All this fancy schmancy stuff is fine, but does the average American really buy into it or care? There is some research suggesting that in fact "Joe" does, at least moderately: Specialty food — defined by the industry as that of high quality and limited quantity — comprises 8.2 percent of all food sold in the U.S. and is currently a $34.77 billion industry, according to NASFT.

Large urban markets aren't the only regions to snap up sophisticated treats, according to Tanner — smaller affluent cities like Austin, Texas, and Des Moines, Iowa, as well as plenty of suburban neighborhoods, have jumped aboard too.

"Specialty foods sell everywhere except very rural areas," he said.

FOX News' Daniella Gallego contributed to this report.