NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
What's the source of the most dazzling new inventions? Silicon Valley? The military?
Actually, America's most innovative industry may be the one addressing the oldest of questions: What is there to eat?
Back in the 1960s, the average U.S. supermarket stocked about 7,000 items. Modern supermarket shelves are packed with more than 40,000 different kinds of food, the Chicago-based Institute of Food Technologists estimates.
Every year, as many as 20,000 food items are introduced, according to researchers at the University of Georgia.
It's impossible to generalize about anything so vast. But in the never-ending search for the next great food formula, a few trends have emerged.
Many companies are looking for "ethnic" foods that may appeal to wider audiences. Products relatively less-bad for you are in demand. And in on-the-go America, food makers are increasingly obsessed with making eating easier.
Kraft -- owner of world-famous brands that include Oscar-Mayer, Kool-Aid and Nabisco -- spends more than $350 million a year on research and development.
Last year, new products accounted for more than $1.1 billion in revenues.
Smaller firms are out there studying, inventing and tweaking, too. They don't boast Kraft's distributional muscle, but upstarts can stumble upon the Next Big Thing long before the big boys recognize it.
Tortillas are now the second-best selling bread product in America, according to the Tortilla Industry Association's self-interested research. File that tidbit alongside earlier reports that salsa now outsells ketchup in the United States, and that Hispanics have become the nation's largest minority group.
The result? Products like Imperios and Morelianas, each a sort of Latinized Oreo cookie that Kraft describes as "an authentic Mexican treat without going to Mexico."
The Imperio has chocolate cream on the inside, surrounded by a chocolate wafer and a golden one. Morelianas have orange-cream filling between two golden biscuits. The company's Lynne Galia notes that the cookies are actually produced in Mexico by Nabisco, then shipped north.
SoBe, Pepsico's high-end drinks maker, is rolling out Fuerte. The mango-passionfruit drink contains such exotic flavors as yerba mate and guarana. And just in case you missed the crossover power inherent in the name (it means "strength"), the bilingual label commands "SoBe Tu Mismo," which is marketing Spanglish for "SoBe Yourself."
Haagen-Dazs is looking south of the border, too. Its new Tres Leches ("three milks") is an ice cream version of a popular Latin sponge cake. The product has chunks of rum-flavored sponge cake in it, along with caramel, coconut, and the three kinds of milk.
Latin America isn't the only source of inspiration, either. In the world of fast food, fancy sandwiches are all the rage. Arby's, for example, is rolling out a line of "Euro" sandwiches made with herbed focaccia and portobello mushrooms.
Meanwhile in Nebraska, McDonald's has been testing oven-baked Reubens at a new "3-n-1" outlet in Lincoln. If Huskers warm to corned-beef and sauerkraut, can the McKnish be far behind?
With tobacco almost vanquished, health scolds are on the lookout for Public Enemy No. 2. Will it be food? Not if the munchie marketers can stop them.
One new beverage expected soon: Swerve, a milk-based drink that Coca-Cola may try peddling to kids in schools (where soda pop has come under fire).
"Health" and "candy" are two words you don't ordinarily associate with each other. That hasn't stopped Hershey from developing a sugar-free line. Fatphobes can nibble on sugar-free Hershey bars, as well as sugar-free Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. (Never mind the fat content of peanut butter.)
Not to be outdone, rival Nestle is teaming with Colgate to develop a "dental gum," which cleans teeth as it is chewed. Talk about vertical integration: Swiss chocolate to rot your pearly whites, gum to scrub them back to health.
Finally, perhaps the boldest health claim is being made by LifeMax, of Twinsburg, Ohio. The company claims its new Slim Mints freshen your breath and suppress your appetite, thanks to some nifty amino acids that LifeMax says will speed up your metabolism.
The definition of an American is someone who can steer a car, talk on the phone and fiddle with the radio, while eating a Big Mac.
We already have milk-flavored cereal bars, which take away the mess of a bowl and spoon. Now, a line of snacks called Moto Bars will eliminate many more such "hassle factors."
Like peanut butter and jelly, but hate getting your mouth stuck? Try the Jazzy PBJ Moto bar. Craving coffee but missing a mug? There's a Kooky Cappucino variety.
Kraft's Jell-o unit has high hopes for its new Smoothie Snacks, launching nationwide this summer. They're not quite pudding, but definitely not gelatin. Spokesperson Abbe Serphos describes them as "sweeter than yogurt and lighter than pudding."
A Smoothie contains real fruit, notes Serphos, "so it has a wellness component, too."
A little throwaway plastic container filled with stuff that's not-so-bad for you? Jell-o hits two out of three trends.
Now, how do you say "Smoothie" in Spanish?