TODAY'S American supermarkets are loaded with new products for the self-indulgent customer who wants real food, real fast - and at home. ``Indulgence and convenience are the buzzwords today, with microwavable products and precooked foods predominant,'' says Martin Friedman, editor of New Product News. ``Someday soon, food writers may be reviewing supermarket takeout food the way they critique restaurants today.''
This year's trendy products are dominated by chocolate for flavor and microwave for convenience, while last year's new food products were either smothered in hot Cajun spices or touted as nutritionally oriented specialties.
``There are many new `lite' products, but no new trendy health products that were so popular last year,'' Mr. Friedman continues, speaking about new food products at the supermarket industry's convention in Chicago last month. ``People who are interested in what's new in `nutritionally oriented' products will have to settle for whatever's already on the market.''
Here new products were displayed in more than eight miles of aisles, and 30,000 conventioneers turned McCormick Place into a huge vending and information center while they sampled thousands of products.
Called the convention of the Supermarket Institute, it's the time when the nation's food companies compete in luring grazers and munchers to their booths, turning the enormous exhibition area into one great big eating fest.
BUSINESS goes on, however.
While the health-oriented category is slowing down, foods for gourmets, gourmands, epicures, gluttons, and especially chocolate fanciers are booming:
Sales of precooked poultry are off to such a strong start that the meat could occupy as much as 50 percent of the meat case within five years, industry spokesmen predict.
Finger foods - such as packaged vegetables with dip, single servings of cookies, and pudding or yogurt frozen on a stick - are flourishing.
Singles as well as busy families will enjoy Mrs. Richardson's new Single Sundae-Size Variety Pack, containing six individual servings of the three most popular ice cream toppings - hot fudge, butterscotch caramel fudge, and strawberry. Packets need no refrigeration, are microwavable and disposable.
Microwavable foods are coming in a tidal wave. You've heard all the predictions: By the year 2000 (only 12 years away) not only will microwave ovens be in virtually every kitchen, but many homes will have two or three!
Microwavable French toast, pancakes, and waffles can take credit for firing up the breakfast category. Breakfast favorites, like Aunt Jemima Microwave Pancakes, are showing up in new packages emphasizing microwavability.
Researchers at Campbell Soup predict that mini-microwaves will be in 25 percent of all cars. They will be available in most offices and schools.
Obviously the reason the microwave oven is so successful is that it cooks food more quickly than most other appliances. Today's consumers are on the fastest time track in history.
Even restaurants are fighting for a larger share of the American consum er's food dollar - with products for home use such as Wendy's Hamburgers, Hormel's Chi Chi Salsa, and White Castle Hamburgers.
``Fiber is still high on the list of desirables, especially in bran and oatmeal cereals and bakery products,'' says Friedman. ``Salt is up and down as a promotional advantage.''
Ethnic categories are similar to the health-oriented ones in that the retailers must decide which new products to stock on their crowded shelves.
``Ethnics'' have been relatively quiet lately, according to Friedman's surveys, but he lists new ones such as Cajun Creole, Kraft's Delicioso Pizza Kit, and Lipton's Oriental Teas.
The ethnic food that seems to be most talked about - if you can call it ethnic - is old-fashioned American cuisine - especially those foods popular in the 1950s, which some remember as ``the good old days.''
New products include Rich's Southern Barbecue, Dial's Prospector Chili, Del Monte Fruit Cobblers, Seneca Baked Apples, and General Mills Hamburger Helper Meat Loaf.
WHILE good old-fashioned potato and rice dishes have been gussied up for the consumers, there's no question that pasta is still the winning starch for side dish, salad, or main course.
Pasta is truly a food for all people. They like it because it's easy and ethnic - modern, yet old-fashioned. It's economical, too, and can be plain or gourmet.
Therefore, it's no mystery why manufacturers are pushing products like Stouffer's Tortellini, Ronzoni Fresh Pasta, Green Giant Pasta Accents, Hanover Pasta Salads, and Chef Francisco Quick Cuisine Salads.
Smaller is better, reflected in the many individual serving foods items coming to the market. They come in the ``single-serve'' package, the description given to the final category of trends reported by Friedman.
Even pet food is coming in smaller cans. Premium pet food, which is perceived to be more nutritious than other pet food, seems to delight consumers who like a high-quality dog food their pets will eat. They show an interest in nutritional information and a growing preference for smaller cans.
For people, as the American family gets smaller and smaller, there's a greater need for individual portions to minimize the boredom of leftovers.
Also, with fractioned meals, even in bigger families, individual members cook separately as if they were singles.
Single-serve products permit self-indulgences and self-control at the same time. By restricting the portions, consumers can treat themselves, but not overeat.
This trend has brought forth such products as Keebler's Elfin Loaves, Minute Maid's Squeezable Orange Juice, Pepperidge Farm's Hot Fudge Brownies, and Plymouth Rock Ham for Two.
Sweet products are the ones that seem to be holding sway, Friedman comments. He lists some under the slogan ``Life is Short - Start With the Dessert.''
The ultra-sweet trends include an aerosol chocolate mousse (see illustration at upper left), several chocolate puddings sold in the dairy case, and chocolate tofu. It's predicted that cocoa will soon increase in popularity as a beverage.
These new products have brand names like: Jell-O Deluxe Chocolate Collection, Jell-O Mousse Classique, Hershey Bar None Candy, Kraft Marquessa Chocolate, Henry Nestl'e Premium Chocolates, Nestl'e Toll House Treasure, Swiss Miss Cocoa, Betty Crocker Brownie Sundae, Chocoholics Truffles in a Jar, Mousse Eclat, and Fancy Apple on a Stick.
ALL of these products indicate how some of the smart food manufacturers of today are responding to the most important influences on what consumers will eat in the future.
Other new ones include Tetley Chef-wich, New Tradition Cooked Meats, Lunch Buckets, Pillsbury's Frost It, Hot Frostings, Stokeley's Singles, Growing Gourmet Casseroles.
The trend indicates that people are buying even more ``convenient'' foods than ever - one dish prepared for one person.
Friedman predicts that in two or three years the dairy case will be the most important supermarket stop. It will be the provider of ready-to-heat and ready-to-eat foods in the various lines of dinners and entrees.
Kraft's Chillery line of entrees, salads, and desserts is currently in test in Kansas City, Mo. Nestl'e is testing refrigerated Lean Cuisine entrees in Europe, and the General Foods Culinova line of dinners and entrees is already under way.