It only took a little more than three decades, but as a professional in the baking and cereal chemistry industries, I finally attended my first convention at McCormick Place in Chicago. I know it is hard to believe that I avoided conventions in this iconic location for so long. It does remind me of the many times I would play rock, paper, scissors with my R&D directors to determine who had to attend the Institute of Food Technlolgists (IFT) meeting that particular year.

Back in the early 1990s, I did not care to attend the festival of “events.” I remember the days of the mariachi band and Burt Reynolds look-alike; while these things give you something to talk about years later, they did little to enhance the baking business and validate the time and money spent away from the office.

I am happy to say the IFT show has changed and, in my opinion, for the better. Marketing dollars were spent more sensibly and offered more business value than entertainment. There was the occasional cocktail party after the show closed, but for me, that was the perfect way to end a long day — conversation with friends and a glass of wine.

When it comes to trends this year, I feel like I should be in the clothing and textile business rather than the food industry: Fiber and color were two things seen over and over on the show floor. Whether it was corn bran in a smoothie or natural colors extracted from plant material for coloring and flavoring drinks or candy, it was definitely a colorful show. In most cases, I thought the products had better color than flavor, but that is only my personal opinion. In the right ­application the new color/flavors might have excellent application.

As a baker, I found most interesting the number of products geared toward school foodservice and developed to meet US Department of Agriculture’s new National School Lunch Program (NSLP) standards.

What really got my attention were the companies showing products with 51% whole grain. The intent was to prove that you can make great-tasting foods for school foodservice with the company’s product. Meeting the new NSLP guidelines is not easy — not to mention, each product category doesn’t have to play by the same rules, which makes following the rules even more difficult.

Most bakers developing products to meet the “whole grain rich” guidelines know it can be difficult. Given the moisture differences between cereal, crackers, cookies and bread or rolls, reaching the 51% whole grain requirement can be a real challenge. The federal Standard of Identity for white bread is 38% moisture, the same goal for most non-standardized breads. That means of the approximately 62% of ingredients left in the product, 51% needs to be whole grain. That leaves 11% for oil, sugar, gluten and the other ingredients needed for product integrity, shelf life, flavor and quality that will appeal to a school-age child. In lower-moisture products such as cookies, crackers and cereals, it will be easier to achieve the 51% goal while producing a quality product.

Serving school children healthy food is one thing; getting them to eat it is quite another. It has become so difficult that the US House of Representatives has gotten involved. US Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS) and Steve King (R-IA) introduced the No Hungry Kids Act to repeal the new lunch standards. In a statement, Rep. Huelskamp explained, “The goal of the school lunch program is supposed to be feeding children, not filling the trash cans with uneaten food. The USDA’s new school lunch guidelines are a perfect example of what is wrong with government: misguided inputs, tremendous waste and unaccomplished goals.”

Our job as food scientists and bakers is no easy task. But it requires us to take what we learned from IFT and develop products that are healthy, taste good and meet ­consumers’ needs while improving the bottom line of our employers.