Natural Foods Merchandiser

Smart Cookies

He still talks with his mouth full.

He still flies into a furry fit of bliss when presented with a plate of chocolate chips. And he still tends to eat what some consider inedible objects, such as hubcaps, salt and pepper shakers and The Letter of the Day.

But Cookie Monster is a different muppet at age 41.

To the chagrin of some fans, Cookie caved to the concerns of children's health advocates in 2006 when he went public with his new philosophy: "Cookies are a sometimes food." He also admitted he liked fruit and eggplant.

Perhaps if the cookie police were aware of all the healthful cookies available to children of all ages, they might have left Cookie Monster alone.

Today, customers can find a natural cookie to please every palate.

We want cookies!

Cookies are a huge category on the conventional side, one of the top-10 categories in grocery, with more than $3 billion a year in sales, according to John DePaulis, chief cookie officer at Country Choice Organic. In natural channels, cookies also rake in a lot of dough. Sales topped $101 million in the 52 weeks ending Sept. 6, an increase of nearly 5 percent, according to SPINS, a market research firm specializing in naturals and organics.

Why this eternal love for cookies? Two reasons, suggest makers of two top-selling brands. "Cookies are comfort food," DePaulis says. They remind people of being kids. "People talk to us about how our cookies remind them of something they made with their mothers or grandmothers. They tell us they still eat the sandwich cookies the same way they ate Oreos when they were little, ripping them open and licking out the filling, or dunking them in milk."

Nostalgia was a driving force for the cookie creators at Newman's Own Organics. "We chose many of our products based on our personal preferences from when we were young and have updated them through the use of organic and healthier ingredients," says Nell Newman, co-founder and president of the Aptos, Calif.-based company that recently added peanut butter to its popular Newman-O's line.

The other factor fueling cookie sales? "Let's face it," DePaulis says. "We are a country of snackers. We eat a lot between meals. It might not always be a good thing, but it's driving the category."

Kid stuff

Cookies may have always been a favorite with kids, but now manufacturers are producing varieties that are even more kid-friendly than traditional treats. Ian's line of Cookie Buttons "are smaller cookies for kids' smaller mouths," says Clair Sidman, assistant director of marketing at Ian's. This fall, the company, based in Lawrence, Mass., added vanilla wafer to the line that includes organic chocolate chip, wheat- and gluten-free chocolate chip and wheat- and gluten-free crunchy cinnamon. The buttons are available in 100-calorie pouches, convenient for kids' lunches—or for parents who might have a hard time resisting eating a whole box themselves. Portion-control packs are a trend that's crossed over from conventional for kids' and adults' products, says Country Choice's DePaulis. "Though I'm not convinced people are eating just one pouch."

Wholly Wholesome also offers mini cookies. The little snickerdoodles, chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin cookies are organic, and "made with 100 percent whole wheat milled extra fine, so that they'll appeal to kids who might be suspicious of ‘healthy' cookies," says Kyra Greweling, vice president of sales and marketing for the Chester, N.J.-based company. Immaculate Baking Co. centered its Immaculate Kids line of cookies around the requirements of California's Senate Bill 19, which requires healthier ingredients for kids' snacks. Their Hunka Chunka Chocolate (double chocolate chip), Doohickeys (oatmeal raisin) and Choca Doodle Doos (chocolate chip oatmeal) are available in lunchbox bags and larger bags.

Animal cookies are alive and well in lunchboxes across America, though these might be free-range critters. Envirokidz by Nature's Path donates 1 percent of sales from its Animal Cookies to help make sure wildlife habitat still exists when today's kids grow up. Barbara's Bakery, based in Petaluma, Calif., makes Snackanimals while Newman's Own Organics offers a brainier version: Alphabet Cookies.

Grown-up cookies

Customers can pack their cookie jar with gourmet flavors. The old favorites are still popular, but new varieties, including some aimed at adults, are expanding America's cookie palate.

Crummy Brothers organic cookies are "a decidedly grown-up delicacy, with depth, character and the highest quality organic ingredients," write the Chicago-based brothers on their Web site. They come in chocolate chip, orange blossom chocolate chip, lemon ginger and chocolate.

Creativity is integral to the Immaculate Baking Co. brand, says the company's CEO Paul Nardone. And he's not just talking about the bakery's scrumptious Chocobillys, Sweet Georgia Brownies, Leapin' Lemon, Key Largo Lime and Pumpkin Gingerlies flavors. "Baking is inherently a creative, artistic process," Nardone says, explaining the company's close ties with the American Folk Artist Foundation, created by Immaculate's founder, Scott Blackwell. Fun folk art dances across the packaging, and a portion of the profits supports folk artists and young folk-artist wanna-bes. This year, all the company's snack cookies were reformulated to be lighter and crispier.

Some grownups may be looking for lighter and crispier, but all grownups are looking for one thing, says Brian Hubbard of Cookiehead, a new line of cookies from Over the Top Foods in East Walpole, Mass.: taste. "With a cookie, you want indulgence; you want great taste. And so many products in the category don't have that. Cookiehead cookies are actually nutritious cookies that taste good," he says. All-natural, whole-grain flavors include: Belgian chocolate chunk, cranberry orange walnut, honey maple walnut, espresso chocolate almond and peanut-butter chocolate. They're available in family-style grocery packs as well as in single-serving packs that Hubbard suggests merchandising at your coffee station.

Cookie bakers have gotten serious about ingredients. "That's where the taste comes from," says Beth Setrakian, president and founder of Beth's Fine Desserts in San Rafael, Calif. For example, she adds chunks of high-quality crystallized ginger to her ginger snaps.

Conscious cookies

Some kids were limited to a cookie-free life, forced by food allergies to eating cookie-shaped safe items or no cookies at all. Fortunately, two mothers of such children took matters into their own kitchens. Lucy Gibney, an emergency room physician, founded Lucy's in Norfolk, Va., after a quest to create a safe treat for her son, who has severe food allergies. The light, crispy Dr. Lucy's cookies come in four gluten- and allergen-free varieties: chocolate chip, oatmeal, cinnamon thin and sugar. In addition, they're low in fat.

Jill Robbins, of HomeFree (formerly Gak's Snacks) in Windham, N.H., left her psychotherapy practice to perfect cookie recipes for her son and others like him living with severe food allergies. "These are treats you can trust," says Phil Robbins, Jill's husband. "Kids with allergies can finally have something delicious to take to school and share. And not only are they allergen-free, they're organic."

Mary's Gone Crackers, a favorite with the gluten-free crowd, launches Mary's Gone Kookies in January, offering a line of vegan, gluten-free treats. The Gridley, Calif., company's founder, Mary Waldner, has been working on the recipes for three years. "I gained a lot of weight!" she says. The Kookies come in N'Oatmeal Raisin, Ginger Snap, Chocolate Chip and Double Chocolate. Uncle Eddie's Vegan Cookies out of Glendale, Calif., has developed a cult-following with vegans and non-vegans alike since debuting in 1997. The company recently added Cocoa Spice and Everything Nice to its line. "Believe me, they don't taste like ‘vegan' cookies," says Jeffrey Jacobs, production supervisor at International Desserts, manufacturer of Uncle Eddie's.

There's enough variety of natural cookies on the shelves to satisfy even the most ferociously picky cookie monster, which is good, because "The thing we know about cookies is that buyers are variety seekers," says DePaulis of Country Choice. Diversity in the category fits nicely with Cookie Monster's new ‘sometimes' philosophy (which he recently defended on "The Colbert Report," before consuming Stephen Colbert's Peabody Award): Sometimes you feel like an organic espresso chocolate almond cookie, and sometimes you're more in the mood for a triple gingersnap. Because, as Cookie Monster loves to say (in addition to "Me want cookies!"): It's always sometimes somewhere.

Dough-licious and easy

The aroma of fresh-from-the-oven cookies is enough to melt the edges off the most dreadful day. Thankfully a handful of bakeries has made achieving that aroma possible for those who view the Kitchen Aid mixer as a scary power tool and for those cookie masters who are crunched for time. "There's nothing like the smell of baking cookies," says Paul Nardone, CEO of Immaculate Baking in Flat Rock, N.C. Three brands to bake:

  • Ice Box Bakery. Find tubes of cherry pie, ginger spice, peanut butter, chocolate chip and sugar in the refrigerated section. Slice off one, or a dozen, and if there's any left, freeze this all-natural dough created by pastry-chef moms in Boulder, Colo.
  • Wholly Wholesome. Chocolate chip, oatmeal cranberry orange, double chocolate chunk and oatmeal raisin "pucks" of dough are packed into boxes found in the frozen section. No need to even slice these heavenly pucks–just turn on the oven and you score.
  • Immaculate Baking Co.'s Better Bakes. These pouches of refrigerated dough are giving the conventional brands a run for their money. The Pillsbury doughboy stops that annoying giggling when he calculates how many customers have switched to the first take-n-bakes made with organic ingredients. They're available in chocolate chunk, vanilla sugar, triple chocolate chunk, peanut butter and oatmeal raisin.

    "Nothing compares to making a fresh cookie at home," says Kyra Greweling, vice president of sales at Wholly Wholesome in Chester, N.J. "They're perfect for moms. They can feel like they've made something for their kids."

    No guilt. And no dirty dishes.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 12/p. 18,19

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