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NRA-Show-23-Fernando-Hernandez-III-corn-straws-sustainability.jpg Ron Ruggless
Fernando Hernandez III, a sales representative with Corn Next, displays the biogradable corn-starch-based drinking straws.

A major restaurant show trend comes down to earth

Sustainability, from packaging and equipment to straws and cutlery, plays a big role among 2,100-plus vendors

Sustainability in everything from equipment efficiency to packaging played a big role at the National Restaurant Association Show May 20-23 in Chicago.

A growing percentage of the more than 2,100 vendors, with over 800 of them new to the show, at the annual exhibition offered some alternative to enhance sustainability.

“It’s a trend that’s here to stay,” said Alex Nicolaou, the Coca-Cola Co.’s senior manager for sustainability customer strategy, on Saturday at an educational session entitled “Driving Growth with Sustainability.”

NRA Show Packaging Sustainability.jpegRestaurant operator commitment has grown as well, he said. In 2019, for example, 58% of operators said sustainability activities were necessary to remain competitive in foodservice. In 2022, that number had grown to 65%, Nicolaou said.

Plant-based products, aimed at enhancing sustainability, remained a big part of the annual restaurant show.

And vendors of packaging and other goods expanded their sustainable products.

One such sustainable exhibitor was Corn Next of Chino, Calif., which offered fully biodegradable corn-starch-based drinking straws.

“Corn Next has patented a process that makes our straws 100% biodegradable,” the company said in promotional material. “Our straw is a simple combination of corn starch, water, and nature enzymes, making our product 100% free of any plastic.”

Fernando Hernandez III, a sales representative at the show booth, said, the Corn Next straws hold their shape for up to two hours, have no aftertaste and last longer than paper pasta straws, which can lose their shape in liquid.

“They also decompose in as little as three months,” Hernandez said.

The allergy concerns remain, however.

Betsy Craig, founder and CEO of Fort Collins, Colo.-based MenuTrinfo, which offers food allergy consultations and training and other nutrition services, said that while gluten allergies are a growing concern, those over corn also populate the list.

“Corn is a common allergy, although not one of the Top Nine,” Craig said in an email. “Corn is so common [that] places like Disney call it out.”

“We do allergen charts for dozens of brands and a number of them also ask for us to call out corn.  It’s that common," she said. “Corn in straws, I expect, can most certainly cause reaction in those who have corn allergies.”

But those are the many challenges that manufacturers and restaurant operators face on their paths to safe, sustainable alternatives to plastic products.

Vendors will be bringing more innovations to the next National Restaurant Show, which is scheduled for Chicago’s McCormick Place May 18-21, 2024.

Contact Ron Ruggless at [email protected]

Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless

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