Natural products retailers and experts are applauding news from a Datamonitor report showing the number of new foods and beverages that claim to contain no high-fructose corn syrup has tripled so far in 2007 compared with all of 2006. But they say the shelves of natural grocery stores aren't the ones that are changing.
London-based Datamonitor's Productscan Online shows that 146 new food and beverage products that claim to be free of high-fructose corn syrup have been launched worldwide this year, compared with 54 in 2006 and 53 in 2005.
Most of those products come from mainstream U.S. packaged-food companies such as Kraft, Kellogg, Del Monte and Dannon—products that conventional grocers are more likely to stock. Jennifer Lovejoy, a senior research scientist at Seattle-based Bastyr University Research Center, sees conventional food manufacturers and grocers "leading the charge on this one." She points to increasing demand from health-conscious consumers concerned about the "growing body of literature"—most recently, an editorial and article in the October issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—that connects high-fructose corn syrup with increased risk for obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Many naturals retailers, on the other hand, have been ahead of the curve on banning products containing high-fructose corn syrup. Fletcher, N.C.-based Earth Fare, which operates 13 grocery stores in the Southeast, became the first market in the United States to ban the sweetener outright in 2004.
"We had 116 items on the shelves [that we had to remove]—things like Ben & Jerry's, Blue Sky Soda," said Troy DeGroff, Earth Fare's director of sales and marketing. "A lot of the products were sodas and nutrition bars, a few freezer items.
"We had two empty shelves of sodas in an 8-foot set. There was a huge hole. But now, we have a full variety."
The market's main concern was that by banning products with HFCS, it was eliminating lower-priced items. "But long term, it built trust with our customers," DeGroff said.
In Seattle, PCC Natural Markets has eliminated high-fructose corn syrup products from its eight stores. And Jones Soda also eliminated high-fructose corn syrup from its beverages within the last year.
Earth Fare's DeGroff doesn't see the influx of new products on the shelves of conventional grocers as competition. "We don't carry those products anyway."
Jay Jacobowitz, president of Retail Insights, a Brattleboro, Vt.-based consulting firm for natural products retailers, also dismisses the idea of increased competition from conventional markets. "Natural retailers have already conceded conventional packaged foods. Conventional grocers are playing catch-up."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 11/p.11 Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.