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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Clean keto: This low-carb, high-fat trend powers product innovation

'Clean keto' diet followers abhor saturated fats and highly processed snacks—a perfect market for natural retailers who offer the newest choices.

The ketogenic diet—or simply “keto”—is the latest low-carbohydrate, high-fat meal plan to gain serious momentum. First used to treat pediatric epilepsy in the 1920s and ’30s, the diet quietly faded away after being replaced by pharmaceuticals. But today, following its long hiatus, keto has re-emerged, first finding favor among athletes and now appealing to a broader set of consumers, including those aiming to lose weight.

Although the exact tenets of the ketogenic diet vary slightly, it typically consists of about 70 percent fat, 20 percent protein and 10 percent carbohydrate. The goal of consuming high amounts of fat and very few carbs is to achieve ketosis, the metabolic state in which the body burns fat for energy. To nail this breakdown, keto devotees must tabulate macronutrients, a greater effort than is required by other, somewhat similar diets such as paleo.  

But given its growing following, keto appears poised to become the more successful, breakout cousin of the paleo diet. “You take paleo, which is just [choosing] the right foods, and then add in a level of complexity that is counting your macros and avoiding excess carbohydrates,” explains Rob Benson, who co-launched the lifestyle website Our Paleo Life with his wife, Kendra, in 2013.

Building off the success of their site, the Bensons opened Explorado Market, a 1,000-square-foot grocery store and bakery in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2018. The store is 100% gluten and grain free, with no soy or refined sugars; 85-90% of products are keto, while the rest is paleo-friendly dried fruit. The market is attached to a commercial kitchen, where Kendra oversees preparation of the couple’s line of Fat Fit Go nut butters, as well as a wide selection of keto-friendly baked goods.

Yet, despite his love of keto bagels fresh from the oven, Rob firmly believes that keto is about optimizing all aspects of health, which means the baked treats his company offers won’t cover all the nutritional bases.

“The biggest thing I tell people starting keto is that we make treats,” he says. “That doesn’t mean your diet should consist of treats … but they still fill a void.”

This sentiment hits on a fiery debate among keto followers. Proponents of “clean keto” argue that the diet should focus on whole, unprocessed foods; meats such as grass-fed beef; and healthy, nutrient-dense fats like avocado, coconut and olive oils. “Dirty keto,” on the other hand, suggests that anything goes, including saturated fats and highly processed snacks.

But no matter which keto camp consumers follow, anyone can be lured by the convenience factor of many keto-friendly foods. This makes natural products retailers’ role even more important in terms of stocking less-processed grab-and-go keto options made with clean ingredients.

Keto drivers

Although most people talk about keto in terms of weight loss, Robin Switzer, chief operating officer of Ketovangelist, attributes its popularity to the fact that more consumers are recognizing their poor health and striving to improve it. Many health care professionals are even on board with the diet. In fact, Sitzer says a large number of attendees of her company’s annual KetoCon conference are doctors, who are increasingly “recommending low-carb diets so that people can improve their wellness.”

First held in 2017, this three-day event in Austin, Texas, is open to anyone interested in learning about the keto lifestyle. In 2019, attendance rose to 3,500 people from around 850 in 2018, including many from Ketovangelist’s 1 million–plus social media followers. KetoCon 2019 featured 132 exhibitors and 50 speakers, while attendees included buyers from GNC, Vitamin Shoppe and H-E-B.

Indeed, the keto diet’s key nutritional values resonate with a wide range of consumers seeking better overall health. Fats, and particularly good fats, are no longer the enemy, while added sugar is seen as an ingredient to avoid.

“Consumers are more mindful and active about reducing sugar intake, and keto-friendly positioning certainly throws its weight behind those goals, whether or not keto is the consumer’s exact motivation,” says Jessica Hochman, senior manager of natural insights at SPINS.

Keto’s emphasis on fat also drives interest. “Consumers are increasingly sugar-wary, and with the healthy fats trend overpowering low-fat diets, keto continues to have a foothold among consumers,” says Amanda Hartt, market research manager for New Hope Network’s NEXT Data and Insights.

Going forward, Hochman says the diet’s focus on fiber will become even more important. Fiber is “used in keto-specific products for its value in net-carbs calculation, but also in supporting consumer awareness around fiber’s other roles, including as a prebiotic and in connection with gut health,” she says.

Despite its traction among consumers, not everyone is convinced the keto craze will last.

Suzy Badaracco, president of trend-watching consultancy Culinary Tides, asserts that enthusiasm will wane, and retailers should be aware of its lifecycle. “Keto will have its day in the sun in 2020, no doubt, but then it will be replaced,” she says.

Conversely, Presence Marketing founder and CEO Bill Weiland insists that “keto is here to stay for the long haul, with carb compression selling at high velocity” at retail.

Keto product proliferation

For now, one thing is clear: The keto category is blowing up, with new products popping up every day. “Overall, the Natural Products Expo West marketplace for products with keto-like attributes almost doubled between 2017 and 2019,” Hartt says.

NEXT Data and Insights reports that “categories actively reformulating or growing to ride the momentum of keto-minded consumers include snacks, energy and granola bars, salad dressings, cheese, and nut and seed butters.”

Jake Knepper, manager of product intelligence at SPINS, adds ice cream, pasta and rice alternatives, baked goods and functional beverages to the list.

But convenient packaged foods especially carry appeal because they are accessible and easy for consumers to work into their daily routines. “Packaged keto products are a good way for beginners to transition to the diet, as long as the ingredients are really low in carbs,” Switzer says.

Regardless of whether this trend loses steam or persists long-term, many of the innovative, delicious new keto-friendly products have staying power. Look through our slideshow to find a broad range of options for your shelves.

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