Natural Foods Merchandiser
Consumer concerns shape future food aisles

Consumer concerns shape future food aisles

Despite uncertainty due to a still-recovering economy, industry analysts suggest 3 emerging consumer questions that could lead to future changes for manufacturers, suppliers and retailers

In lieu of a crystal ball, the next best thing to help retailers zero in on food trends at Natural Products Expo West is advice from industry analysts. This year, however, insiders say that due to a still-recovering economy, pinpointing future standouts is tough. “This is the first time in a while that we’re not sure what the next big thing will be,” says Rodney Clark, managing director for consumer food and retail at Presidio Financial Partners, an investment firm based in San Francisco. “Consumers are a little more discerning with their money; they’re going back to what they know and spending less.”

Expect many 2010 trends (private label, coconut, gluten-free, non–genetically modified foods) to continue picking up steam at the show, he says. Beyond those, Clark and two other experts suggest three emerging consumer questions that may lead to future changes for manufacturers, suppliers and retailers. 

“Water is our most precious resource.  What’s being done to conserve it?”
Thirty-five liters of fresh water are needed to produce just half a liter of Coca-Cola, according to a report issued by the company and the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide land and water protection agency based in Arlington, Va. The same report found that 640 liters of fresh water are used to produce one liter of Simply Orange Juice.

Statistics like these, along with consumers’ growing water-scarcity concerns in drier regions, will bring water conservation issues to the forefront in the near future, says Jason Morrison, program director at the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, Calif.-based research company that focuses on sustainability issues. “All it takes is one prolonged dry period to get people talking about water pretty quickly,” he says. “Our research shows that most consumers believe businesses should not only engage in water conservation practices, but also be part of the overall solution concerning water quality and water access issues in every community.”

Water footprinting—think of it like carbon footprinting—is an attempt to quantify the water use of an organization, product or locality. Increasingly, Morrison says, investors are including high water dependence as a potential risk when evaluating prospective ventures. Expect more food manufacturers to invest in cutting water use, but don’t necessarily look for a water footprint label, which in some cases would actually require water to create. Morrison is working with the United Nations Global Compact to determine how companies can best communicate water-related information with various audiences. The initiatives are scheduled to be unveiled near the end of 2011.

Cutting sodium, but not taste

“I support manufacturers cutting the sodium in packaged foods, but how will these products taste?”
, Butterball and Snyder’s of Hanover are just a few of the major food companies to sign the National Salt Reduction Initiative, a New York City-led partnership of cities, states and national health organizations that aims to cut the amount of salt in packaged foods and restaurant meals by 25 percent over five years. The move could potentially reduce Americans’ overall salt intake by 20 percent, according to information supplied by the businesses involved.

While conventional companies can turn to synthetic ingredients to account for the loss in flavor after cutting salt, that’s not an option for natural manufacturers, says Kantha Shelke, principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food-science and research firm. “It’s my hope that natural manufacturers will see this as an opportunity to reposition themselves in the category,” she says. “Natural should mean minimally processed.”

Shelke suspects spices will play an increasingly prominent role in natural product formulations. Options such as cinnamon and clove not only enhance flavor, but also prevent spoilage. The idea is supported by the latest flavor predictions released by Comax, a Melville, N.Y.-based research laboratory that specializes in natural flavor technology. The organization’s 2011 “Tastes of Things to Come” report includes a “Homespun” category that predicts flavors such as pumpkin pie, gingerbread, French toast and toasted peanut will increasingly pop up in the marketplace.

Expect manufacturers to also include ingredients with natural umami flavor, Shelke says. Umami is the “savoriness” of foods and occurs in things like cheese, maple syrup, tomatoes and balsamic vinegar. “I think of it as the ‘roundedness’ of a food,” she says. “Humans rely on the umami flavor profile for filling out taste and delivering a sense of satisfaction.”

Heritage meats the next big thing

“What’s going on at the meat counter?  What labels can I actually trust?”

High unemployment and low discretionary income mean consumers are embracing practices like gardening, canning and pickling—all of which are bringing people closer to their food.

Customers want to know that the meat they’re purchasing is humanely raised and not pumped with hormones, says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. But looking for labels that ensure quality is no guarantee. “Free range” and “cruelty free” markers are not held to specific standards, making them meaningless at the meat counter. The confusion has created a place for heritage breeds to step in, which Carter predicts to be the next big thing.

Heritage meats come from traditional and historic species that haven’t been bred for the conventional market. They’re generally better adapted to living outdoors and are humanely raised and handled. They also tend to taste a lot better than conventional options, Carter says.

“The modern conventional hog was bred to be a lot leaner than traditional breeds,” he says. “The pork today has lost a lot of the flavor that many of us remember with traditional hams and pork chops. The heritage breeds have more fat but, dang, they sure are tasty.”

The heritage trend may have started as a grassroots movement, but now chefs are jumping on board and are experimenting with the cuts on menus. Slowly, producers are raising animals to reach the retail sector, Carter says. Expect to see some of these meats in stores near the end of 2011.

2010 trends still impacting retailers

Consumers can’t get enough of a good thing when it comes to these two trends from last year, which experts predict will remain prominent at Natural Products Expo West.

Consumers slow down in the kitchen.
“In a world where we are bombarded with information and overwhelmed with life’s daily pressures, we long for an escape … for a chance to return briefly to a simpler way of life,” says Cathryn Olchowy, culinary director at Sterling-Rice Group, a Boulder, Colo.-based advertising agency that works with companies such as Rudi’s Organic Bakery, Kashi and Cascadian Farm. Look for products that encourage “how mom or grandma used to do it,” such as slow-cook dinner kits, teas, non-instant breakfast cereals and soup mixes, she says.

Hispanic foods move out of the ethnic section.
Currently comprising about 15 percent of the total U.S. population, the number of Hispanics in America is expected to increase to nearly 30 percent by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center. This growth, coupled with the fact that Hispanic shoppers spend $30 more than other U.S. families on groceries per week, makes this demographic worth catering to, says Flor Lozano, principal at Synergia, an Austin, Texas-based cultural insight and strategy firm. She suggests retailers help Latino customers feel welcome by not pigeonholing ethnic foods in one aisle of the grocery store. “Already in bigger markets, we’re starting to see Hispanic foods spread out across the store,” she says. Lozano also encourages natural retailers to begin increasing the Latin brands in their merchandising mix. International manufacturers Goya, Jumex and El Mexicano offer natural products worth stocking.

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