With all sorts of health messages coming at consumers from many different sources, shoppers have become savvier than ever about reading labels and searching for the ingredients they've been told to steer clear of. And for a naturals retailer, knowing what shoppers want to avoid can tell as much or more about their customer base than knowing what they buy.
Surprisingly, the research commissioned by The Natural Foods Merchandiser finds that a relatively small number of naturals shoppers still try to avoid the old taboos of the health-food movement—sugar, caffeine and meat—and instead, new concerns have come up. Some are linked to new terminology: Consumers now worry about saturated fats and trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated oils) instead of just plain fat. In other cases, customer concern is focused on substances that simply weren't in the food supply a generation ago, such as bovine growth hormone and genetically modified organisms.
Knowing what consumers want to avoid, being careful about what ingredients you stock and really keeping your customers informed can set your store far apart from conventional competition and help you become the go-to place for pure products. Hormones, for example, have the highest negative rating among all these ingredients or additives, with only 2 percent of naturals shoppers saying they are always or usually willing to consume products containing hormones.
However, they're also one of the easiest problems to avoid. "Often, these tend to be knee-jerk reactions," says Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Maine. "For example, federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in chicken and pork. They're used only in cattle."
The easiest answer is to steer shoppers toward organic beef and dairy products, because hormones are not allowed in organic production. (Many nonorganic dairy products are labeled "No rGBH" for no growth hormone, but this claim is self-regulated.)
In fact, going organic is the easiest and most reliable way to address several customer concerns, including antibiotics (often found in conventional meat and dairy products) and genetically modified ingredients (found in many conventional foods, especially processed foods that include corn or soy, the two largest GMO crops).
Consumers can sometimes find nonorganic products labeled "non-GMO" or "no GM ingredients," particularly with items such as corn chips. However, such designations, as with dairy products, rely on the promises of suppliers and manufacturers. In spite of their best intentions, contamination can occur. "The best way to avoid GMOs is to buy organic," says Andy Huth, regional grocery buyer for Jimbo's Naturally, a four-store chain in the San Diego area. "My understanding is that corn and soy are often contaminated beyond our ability to keep them separate. Because products aren't tested for GMOs, organic is the closest we have to a GMO-free designation."
"Organic farmers can't use genetically engineered seeds or hormones, and aren't allowed to give their livestock antibiotics," says Holly Givens, communications director for the Greenfield, Mass.-based Organic Trade Association. "Retailers can remind their customers that organic products provide a simple choice for avoiding these materials."
"Organics can simplify decisions," Huth says. "In theory, the certifiers do all the legwork so the consumer doesn't have to."
Trans fats also top customers' steer-clear-of-it lists requiring more dedication and education on the part of retailers. Though most natural products will be free of these ingredients, as well as other problematic additives such as artificial flavors and colors, there is no single solution to these concerns.
"There are basically no partially hydrogenated oils in our store," Huth says. "We make two or three exceptions, such as for a local pie in high demand." Camire believes the backlash against trans fats is not entirely driven by scientific evidence. "It's partly consumer misperception," she says. "We go through fads of what's bad, and trans fat is the latest bad boy. First it was cholesterol, then saturated fat, and now trans fat, in part because the [Food and Drug Administration] started putting trans fat information on packaging two years ago." To avoid the trans-fat stigma, she says, many manufacturers are replacing them with saturated fats such as palm and coconut oil, which also carry a cardiovascular risk factor.
When it comes to refined sugar, more naturals shoppers than ever are ambivalent. NFM's research found that 62 percent of naturals shoppers said they sometimes or always allow products containing sugar. But refined sugar remains anathema to many naturals merchants.
"Most products in our stores will not contain refined sugar," Huth says. "We'll carry alternates, the most common being evaporated cane juice, as well as products with organic sugar."
But Camire says that sugars are basically created equal. "Some companies use molasses or agave instead of refined sugar, but the biggest difference is that it's a little less purified," she says. For people concerned about sugars, refined or not, she suggests that retailers provide a list of the ingredients that can be used as sweeteners.
Although 27 percent of naturals shoppers say they rarely or never purchase products with high-carb ingredients, the low-carb trend was a difficult one for naturals retailers, Huth says. "In most cases, [manufacturers] reduced carbs by replacing sugars with artificial chemical sweeteners, which we don't carry," he says.
Recently, shoppers big concern has been finding gluten-free products, Huth says. Jimbo's Naturally took a proactive approach, compiling a list of every product that was gluten-free, providing it to customers, and breaking the gluten-free items into subsets within each section. "We have 12 feet of pasta, and four feet of it is gluten-free," Huth says. "Now we're working on better signage for these products."
Ultimately, decisions about what to eat are personal, and the answers won't be the same for all shoppers. "I think our bodies can deal with the occasional indulgence; it's the chronic consumption you have to be concerned about," Camire says. "And, depending on lifestyle and genes, what's unhealthy for one person may be perfectly fine for another."
Mitchell Clute is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 8/p. 30, 34