Natural Foods Merchandiser

What to stock in 2006

It?s that time of year when we food editors break out our Magic 8 Balls and foretell the future of food trends. Some are obvious (can you believe we nailed whole grains in 2005?) and some require true talent to divine. Here are our predictions of what will be hot in the food aisles of naturals stores in 2006.

Kefir. All signs point to this fermented dairy product breaking out of its image as a fuddy-duddy drink favored by Russian immigrants. A cousin to yogurt, kefir is chock-full of bacteria beneficial for digestive health. Unlike yogurt, however, it also contains several strains of ?friendly? yeast, which digest unhealthy counterparts such as candida albicans, the type responsible for women?s yeast infections.

Lifeway Foods Inc., which, along with Helios Nutrition, is a leading producer of kefir in the United States, has raised the drink?s profile considerably in recent months. In August, the Morton Grove, Ill.-based company inked a deal with Cosi to promote Lifeway low-fat vanilla kefir with organic blueberries as a breakfast, snack and dessert item in the chain?s fast-casual restaurants in 16 states.

In May, Target stores agreed to carry four flavors of Lifeway low-fat kefir, and Wal-Mart is testing the product in its Chicago-area stores. ?It definitely puts it a little more into the mainstream and maybe gives it accessibility to people who normally don?t shop at … natural foods stores,? says Julie Smolyansky, president and chief executive officer of Lifeway.

?Five years ago we were maybe at 8 or 9 million [dollars in sales]; we?re at 20 million today and on target for 20 to 30 percent growth now,? Smolyansky adds. Third-party endorsements are also helping sales. ?Dr. Perricone [discusses it in] his new book, recommending Lifeway kefir, saying this is something we should all be drinking, that it?ll add years to our life,? she says.

Kombucha. Another fermented product, kombucha is sometimes called mushroom tea, although no mushrooms are involved in its manufacture. Rather, it?s made with lightly carbonated black tea and a culture of yeasts and bacteria, and is high in B vitamins. Its flavor is likely to seem alien to Americans? palates at first. But those who embrace it are passionate about not just its pungency, but its purported detoxifying, energizing and immunity-enhancing effects.

The acetic acid in kombucha has documented ability to raise the body?s pH level, which in turn detoxifies the liver, says Craig Decker, CEO at Kombucha Wonder Drink, based in Portland, Ore. The brew also has probiotic activity, which helps the gut. ?People say it affects them in so many ways?that?s where the mythology comes in.? As far as some of the other claims, Decker is tight-lipped: ?Curing cancer, growing hair—it?s hard to quantify that.? But he does acknowledge that kombucha has developed a cult following, especially on the coasts. ?There?s just a buzz going on,? he says.

Decker says that while people have home-brewed kombucha for centuries, being able to purchase it in bottled form has escalated its popularity. Still, he acknowledges that the flavor ?can catch you off guard.?

That?s one way of putting it. Zoe Elizabeth, a writer for the Santa Cruz, Calif., arts and entertainment paper Metroactive, describes it as ?an elixir that tastes like cider brewed with your roommate?s socks.?

?It depends a lot on what kind of tea is used and what flavors are added,? Decker says. Kombucha Wonder Drink comes in five flavors, which may explain why the company?s sales have tripled over the past year, according to Decker.

?Sales of raw kombucha are phenomenal,? says Stephanie Steiner, grocery buyer and merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. GT?s Organic Raw Kombucha is the stuff of legend, selling out as quickly as it is stocked. ?The manufacturer has been in incredibly short supply. When we can get it, we buy everything we can get our hands on.? In Palo Alto, Calif., GT?s is among the top five sellers in grocery at Country Sun Natural Foods, according to The Natural Foods Merchandiser?s Top 40 list from May.

In Europe, sports drink manufacturer Red Bull has launched Carpe Diem, its version of kombucha. If we?re reading our tea leaves correctly, kombucha may be on the verge of developing mainstream enthusiasm.

Purple passion. Crowding the show floor of Natural Products Expo East this year, as well as the aisles of many natural foods stores, are purple or deep-red juices. From açai?s antioxidants to mangosteen?s xanthones, these jewel-tone drinks are enticing consumers with more than their good looks. Most are made with fruits, but some companies combine fruits with vegetables, like Kagome?s Purple Roots & Fruits, which contains wild blueberries, black grapes, purple carrots and beets.

Açai, a fruit from the Brazilian rain forest, was first popularized in the United States in 2002 by San Clemente, Calif.-based Sambazon in smoothie and puree form. With high protein and antioxidant content, açai was proclaimed a superfood in Nicholas Perricone?s The Perricone Promise (Warner Books, 2004). Sambazon claims the fruit provides ?sustained energy and strength,? as well as a ?heightened sense of awareness and improved mental focus.? Now that açai is as common as coffee for a morning pick-me-up—even being sold by the likes of JambaJuice—other companies, most notably Los Angeles-based Bossa Nova, have climbed on board with açai juices and blends.

Even Coca-Cola?s Odwalla is getting in the game. In October, the juice company introduced Odwalla Superfood Amazing Purple. The drink features açai, along with several other fruits on the red/blue/purple ends of the spectrum. ?Foods such as blueberry, cherry, black currant and Concord grape have a harmony of anthocyanins, which have antioxidant properties,? says Dr. Tieraona Low Dog, director of botanical studies at the University of Arizona School of Medicine.

Pomegranate juice has also become increasingly familiar to health-conscious consumers. Recently, the juice has been hailed for everything from lowering cholesterol to preventing prostate cancer. POM Wonderful, Frutzzo Natural Juice, R.W. Knudsen and Lakewood Organic all make a pomegranate juice, either straight up or blended with other flavors. Naked Juice launched a pure pomegranate and a pomegranate-blueberry juice in October.

Goji berries from the Himalayas are complete proteins, with all eight essential amino acids. They also are a rich source of carotenoids and vitamin C, as well as vitamins B1, B2, B6 and E. Their mythology imparts powers of sexual potency, longevity, immunity and fat decomposition. Many companies are now creating juices and extracts from the berries.

Cherries and currants are familiar to backyard gardeners and bakers, but few Americans have relished their juices—until now. Both have high antioxidant levels, helping to boost their popularity.

Mangosteen juice is often marketed with dietary supplements rather than as a drink. ?The potency alone says, ?This is a supplement,?" says Dave Boyd, director of global operations for Pure Fruit Technologies, which produces MangoXan, the mangosteen juice category leader. In addition, manufacturing costs are high because the mangosteen fruit cannot be imported to the United States. ?We?re at a price point of about a dollar a day for [an ounce of] supplementation. An $8 glass of juice in the morning is probably not going to sit real well,? he says.

Sales in the supplements aisle, however, are another story. ?Our sales have just gone crazy the last several months, ever since April when United Natural Foods took us on. They reported that we?re their No. 1 selling product, out the door, out of 13,000 SKUs that they carry.? Boyd says the deep red-orange juice resonates with consumers because of both potency and taste. ?They want something they?re going to be able to stick with and not just tolerate. [And] it?s so nutritionally beneficial.?

Boyd says those benefits include immune system and gut support, improvement of cartilage and joint function, and increased energy.

Pregnancy foods. Companies like NutraBella and Vincent Foods, which market the Belly Bar and the Oh Mama! bar, respectively, are leading the charge toward foods geared to women?s nutritional needs during pregnancy.

Belly Bar contains folic acid, iron and omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and doesn?t have trans fats or artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. With names like Berry Nutty Cravings and Baby Needs Chocolate, the flavors are designed to appeal to women?s maternal—and baser—instincts. The marketers at Oh Mama! talk up that bar?s DHA content. And for women who just want something sweet, there?s Preggie Pops and Queasy Drops, manufactured by Three Lollies in West Hills, Calif.

?What we heard loud and clear from women—we did market research with over 400 women—is they often have difficulty taking a [vitamin] pill while they?re pregnant. Either they burp it, or they have a hard time swallowing it because [it?s] very large,? says Leslie Sagalowicz, co-founder and ?Belly Boss? at NutraBella. A prenatal bar gives women another option. In addition, Sagalowicz says research shows that vitamins are better absorbed when taken with food. With a product like Belly Bar, the vitamins are the food.

Sagalowicz says Belly Bar has proved popular with retailers, as well. ?It?s been absolutely gangbusters. We?ve had to move our new production run way up and we are actually on backorder on one of our products. [Retailers] just really like the concept of having something specifically for a time period at which it?s really important … to pull those people into the store.?

Gluten-free foods. We identified allergen-free foods as a primary trend for 2005, but within that, the gluten-free subcategory has soared, and will continue to do so, especially once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?s allergen-labeling rule goes into effect next month. Initially created as a solution for the approximately 2.2 million Americans with celiac disease, gluten-free foods have found an audience with those who also avoid lactose, including vegans and consumers of kosher food. (Lactose, a milk protein, is often poorly tolerated by celiacs and is commonly eliminated from GF foods.) Many mothers of autistic children are also eliminating gluten from their kids? diets, as research mounts demonstrating a potential link between the protein and the childhood disorder.

A category that just a few years ago was limited to breads and cookies has expanded to include crunchy salad toppings that replace croutons, frozen desserts, hemp tortillas, pizza crusts, cereals, quiches and more. For natural foods retailers, this category represents an opportunity to attract a whole new customer base.

It?s also attracting a slew of new manufacturers. Pamela?s, Enjoy Life and Gluten-Free Pantry were pioneers; new entrants include Lean On Me, Natural Feast and Foods by George.

Consumers may wonder if gluten-free is the next ?low carb,? with little in the way of definitions or standards. One tool that will help is a new third-party certification program for GF foods. The Orthodox Union, a certifier of kosher foods, will administer the Gluten-Free Certification Organization. ?OU field inspectors are deeply familiar with modern food technology and with the intricacies of industrial food manufacturing equipment,? says Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of the OU. ?We look forward to this opportunity to use our expertise on behalf of the gluten-free consumer.?

Low-glycemic index foods. We predicted the GI diet would take off back in 2004. Like gluten-free foods, low-GI foods were encouraged in response to a medical condition—in this case, diabetes. But the stabilizing effect a low-GI diet has on blood sugar is good for those trying to lose weight as well. The trend has been a little slow to gain steam, but adhering to a low-GI diet is an admittedly complex task. It may get easier, however, now that Washington, D.C.-based Glycemic Research Institute and Toronto-based Glycemic Index Labs are testing an increasing number of products for manufacturers and slapping labels on those that meet strict criteria.

Glycemic Index Labs says business is booming. Foods displayed at Expo East bearing a low-GI seal included Alvarado St. Bakery breads, Nairn?s oatcakes and Steel?s Gourmet Foods? sauces and dressings.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 12/p. 20, 22

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