It was the French artist Claude Monet who spoke most eloquently about the importance of light. ?For me, a landscape does not exist in its own right, since its appearance changes at every moment,? he said. ?But the surrounding atmosphere brings it to life—the light and the air which vary continually.?
Monet?s words will come as no surprise to anyone responsible for the presentation and lighting of natural food products. Good lighting can make the difference between food that flies off the shelves because it looks fresh and vibrant, and identical food that lingers and spoils because poor lighting makes it looks lifeless.
Lighting designer Sam Berman of Lind Design in College Point, N.Y., says food lighting can help create an emotional reaction between customer and product. ?It?s about romancing the food,? Berman says. ?It?s about putting it on stage.?
First, Berman says, consider the contrast that should exist between highlighted merchandise and the ambient light of the store. He recommends an ideal ratio of 3-to-1. So if the store has a comfortable ambient light of 40 foot-candles, featured products should receive 120 foot-candles of illumination to really pop off the shelves. A foot-candle measures the intensity of light on a particular spot; it?s what photographers are measuring when they hold a light meter in front of something.
In addition to appearance, the lights you choose for food displays can affect the food itself.
Bulbs that let through ultraviolet rays can raise the heat in refrigerated cases to dangerous levels, says Jamie Orr, regional sales manager for MGV Inc., the company that makes Promolux fluorescent bulbs. He cites one study done by the manufacturer that found seafood in a conventionally lit cold case could have temperatures 25 degrees higher on the lit side than the side facing away from the light.
By eliminating certain portions of the spectrum, Orr says, Promolux lights reduce product damage and prevent inventory shrinkage to such an extent that retailers can typically make up the extra cost of their 24,000-hour Promolux bulbs within 90 days of their purchase.
?Our bulbs eliminate a variety of spectra in the 500- to 600-nanometer range that cause most photochemical reactions,? says Orr. ?By ensuring those UV rays do not escape the tube, we provide a lamp that virtually eliminates all portions of the spectrum that damage the product. The product looks better and has a longer shelf life.?
Of course, in addition to protecting food longevity and drawing customer attention to a display, lighting should also make food look good. Lind Design?s Berman says some customers want their food lit with the warm and cozy glow of incandescent lighting. Berman estimates that when it comes to bringing out warm reds and greens in food color, fluorescent lighting is only 70 percent to 75 percent as good as incandescent.
High-intensity discharge lamps can provide energy savings and accurate color?but at a cost. Berman estimates that a 20-watt HID color-corrected bulb gives 91 percent color rendition (how accurate an artificial light source displays color) with the same output as a 100-watt incandescent lamp. ?With HID, you get 10 times the life of an incandescent bulb at one-fifth the energy usage, but you pay for the technology up front,? explains Berman. ?The HID fixture itself is more expensive because you need an electronic ballast [the part of the fixture that converts electricity into appropriate voltage], so instead of buying a $50 incandescent fixture, you have to suddenly spend $180 on an HID one.?
Even with expensive fixtures, you can still reduce your costs if you reduce the number of fixtures. Alan Patak of Patak Meat Products outside Atlanta says his shop was able to reduce the number of overhead lighting fixtures from 40 to just nine when the store upgraded to new high-pressure sodium vapor Food-Light Mini fixtures from Bäro Lights USA of San Jose, Calif. Not only do the new lights make the meat look better and thus sell faster, according to Patak, they also have helped the shop reduce its energy costs by about 9 percent.
For a glimpse into the future of food lighting, take a trip to two just-opened experimental Wal-Mart Supercenters in McKinney, Texas and Aurora, Colo.
Wal-Mart?s manager of experimental projects, Don Mosely, says that one of Wal-Mart?s goals is to reduce the resources required to operate a store. Since the three main uses of energy in a grocery store are refrigeration, HVAC and lighting, the experimental supercenters have implemented LED lighting in their food displays.
Though LED technology is still relatively expensive compared with fluorescent bulbs, Mosely says that rapidly developing LED systems have some advantages that make them attractive contenders. ?Many white LEDs are rated at 100,000 hours, much longer than fluorescents,? he says. ?Longer-lasting lighting reduces the amount of raw materials needed to operate and maintain a store and also reduces the bulb materials, mercury and other byproducts going into reclamation projects or landfills.?
One advantage of using LEDs in refrigerated cases is that the technology seems to work best in a cold environment. In fact, Wal-Mart has even put refrigerator doors on some medium-temperature displays, such as deli cases, that would normally be open to the air. The doors should save energy and reduce demand on the refrigeration system, and they also give Wal-Mart another place to install the energy-saving LEDs. Mosely suggests that LED lights would also bring improvements over fluorescent bulbs in colors and presentation of product.
The LED technology is not necessarily ready for prime time. Wal-Mart has made no commitment to a large rollout, but the company is testing two different systems (one LED system with a reflective strip, one without). As more retailers adopt LEDs, the theory is that suppliers will jump on the bandwagon, ultimately bringing down the unit price of LED bulbs and fixtures.
Aaron Dalton is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 9/p. 54, 57