The latest trend among natural foods stores isn't so much about what they're carrying as it is about what they're turning away. Last week, Earth Fare, a chain of nine "healthy" supermarkets based in Asheville, N.C., announced it would ban all products made with high fructose corn syrup.
"Over a third of our sodas and energy bars will have to be removed, some of them best sellers," said Earth Fare Director of Purchasing David Bowles.
"We were the first chain to ban hydrogenated oils from our shelves, and now we set the standard again, putting customer health before profit," added Earth Fare CEO and President Michael Cianciarulo.
High fructose corn syrup has been implicated in an array of health woes, from childhood obesity to diabetes and heart disease. Use of HFCS in soft drinks increased 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990, according to a study published in the May issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which also reported a link between refined carbohydrates, such as HFCS, and type 2 diabetes.
"When you turn on the TV and repeatedly hear about the increase in diabetes, how can you responsibly offer products containing something that looks like it might be one of the main causes?" said Cianciarulo.
It's statements like Cianciarulo's that get under the skin of food processors. "There is simply no credible scientific evidence that HFCS is the [unique] cause of rising overweight/obesity rates," said Center for Food and Nutrition Policy Director Maureen Storey, speaking at the Institute of Food Technologists' meeting last week in Las Vegas.
"It's sort of a battle of the scientists," said Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards at Wild Oats, based in Boulder, Colo.
Wild Oats, the 105-store supernatural chain known for its strict ingredients policy, has not yet implemented an all-out ban on HFCS but is not accepting any new products with the controversial ingredient. "It's becoming an issue for us as well," said Mulry. "We look at it as the next hydrogenated oil."
The sweetener, which is added to everything from snack bars to sodas, is popular among manufacturers, at a cost of 11 cents per pound. "Companies are using it because it's inexpensive, more than any other reason," Mulry said.
Mulry said all of the chain's private-label products are HFCS-free. "We're working on getting manufacturers to switch" to a different sweetener, she said, notably Blue Sky and Hansen's sodas. The chain is likely to remove Newman's Own pasta sauce and lemonade in the near future, she said. "It is really a conventional brand," she said. "They're not interested in changing."
Earth Fare plans to have all products containing HFCS removed from store shelves by year's end.