Predicting trends is more art than science. Like meditation, it mostly comes down to noticing what's happening right now—even if that movement is just a slight shift. With keen attention to the natural food space, we've noticed some ideas just beginning to emerge—ideas taken from all over the globe and all over the retail spectrum. Here are the trends we see taking shape in 2007.
TCM in snacks and drinks
Few would deny the medicinal power of Chinese food, paired with a movie, for curing the blues. And a cup of hot-and-sour soup can be just the thing for clearing out winter congestion. But some naturals companies are taking the concept a step further and incorporating traditional Chinese medicine into their nutritional products.
"I think there's a huge market for that," says Terri Jinks, spokesman for Woodbine, Iowa-based EarthPower, which manufactures PhytoChi Herbal Tonic, an energy drink with 16 botanicals, according to the company's Web site. "There's a groundswell of interest in traditional Chinese medicine in general," Jinks says.
With ingredients such as reishi, eleuthero, astragalus, schizandra, licorice, cassia, aloe vera, lyceum, passion flower, American ginseng, Job's Tears, teinchi ginseng and turmeric, PhytoChi claims to aid in everything from immune health and energy to skin and joint health. The herbs are synergistically balanced, Jinks says. "Not to make it sound like a snake oil, but it depends on what you're using it for—it'll adapt to your needs." The drink is flavored with peach extract to deliver a slightly sweet flavor.
Jinks says it's just a matter of time before TCM in food really catches on. "Someone who might be reluctant to get acupuncture might feel more comfortable picking up a can of juice or soda." Heck, even Budweiser has a beer with caffeine, guarana and ginseng.
Chinese company Yuen Foong Tang recognizes that many consumers "see preparation of Chinese herbs as something troublesome and the taste of them dreadful." That's why the company has formulated snacks using traditional Chinese fruits and herbs, using organic farming techniques. Its line of snacks includes yuzhu and red dates to support skin health, medlar for healthy eyesight, and longan (a fruit from an evergreen tree) to "help you relax and soothe your mind," according to the company's promotional literature.
The hard part is going to be sourcing "legitimately clean" herbs for such products, says Paul Lisseck, general manager and partner at Dr. Chang Naturals, which manufactures Zana, a ready-to-drink organic functional juice made from the schizandra berry. His company grows its own berries in Whately, Mass., in what Lisseck describes as the largest schizandra vineyard in the United States, and possibly in the Western hemisphere. Schizandra has traditionally been used to combat stress, promote mental function and to support kidney, liver and sexual health. "It's the only balancing herb, prescribed for both yin and yang," he says.
Lisseck points out that schizandra is extremely astringent, so his company sweetens Zana with organic agave nectar.
"We're obliged to label it as a dietary supplement," Lisseck says, even though schizandra has been eaten as a fruit for thousands of years in China. EarthPower is also labeled as a supplement.
OK, this one's not yet a trend in the natural and organic channel—but it should be. One hundred-calorie snack packs are huge in the mainstream grocery channel, selling nearly $200 million in the 52 weeks ending Oct. 7, 2006, according to ACNielsen. While the cookies/crackers/salty snacks category did poorly as a whole, with unit sales down 1.4 percent over the previous year, 100-calorie snack packs sold 91.5 percent more units.
Their popularity is in their simplicity, says consumer trends analyst Phil Lempert. So much information is available about obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses that consumers are overwhelmed. The 100-calorie pack "empowers people to make a change," he says. But when manufacturers offer 90-calorie or 110-calorie packs, it forces them to do a little math and the concept loses its effortlessness.
So why did O'Coco's, which makes chocolate, mocha and cinnamon-flavored crisps, go with 90 calories? "Well, part of it was to differentiate ourselves," explains spokeswoman Amy Rosen. That may not be necessary in the natural and organics space, however. The division of San Leandro, Calif.-based nSpired Natural Foods is one of few—if not the only—organic manufacturers offering controlled-calorie packages.
Not that other products don't come in single-serving packs. Late July offers its cracker sandwiches in small lunchbox-size pouches—but the nutrition facts label shows the serving has 130 calories. Similarly, Snackimals from Barbara's Bakery have anywhere from 220 to 240 calories per bag, depending on the flavor.
Lempert thinks the reason most organics manufacturers haven't rushed to reformulate their single-serving bags into marketing-friendly 100-calorie packs is because they just don't have the time. "[With] the success that they have finally, it's easier to be on an increase of sales and just be there smiling and happy than to think about what's the next step." But, he cautions, organics manufacturers should be thinking about just that—"especially now that you've got Wal-Mart, Target and other retailers getting involved in this space," who are undoubtedly already working with manufacturers to develop 100-calorie packs of organic products.
This one is hot. A walk through this aisle of any major natural foods store reveals a dizzying array of baking products for virtually every type of consumer. Veteran manufacturers such as Hodgson Mill offer all-natural bread and muffin mixes. Bob's Red Mill and Arrowhead Mills have organic and gluten-free baking mixes, as do Pamela's and Gluten-Free Pantry.
Then there are the newer kids on the block: Cherrybrook Kitchen makes a line of kid-friendly, all-natural cookie, cake and frosting mixes that are free of peanuts, dairy, eggs and tree nuts, as well as some that are wheat- and gluten-free; and No Pudge! offers all-natural, fat-free brownie mix. Looking for guilt-free baking? Cookie and bread mixes from Women's Bean Project help support women breaking free from poverty and unemployment. There's even a line of mixes that lets shoppers match their baking projects to the calendar. Sweet Seasons offers Caramel-Apple Bread Mix for the fall, Chocolate Peppermint Bread Mix for the winter holidays and Lemon Bread Mix for spring.
Cash register rings are justifying this kind of shelf space. Sales of natural baking mixes, supplies and flours rose 19.6 percent in the 52 weeks ending Oct. 7, 2006, making it a $61.8 million category, according to SPINS, a San Francisco-based natural products market research firm.
"A lot of times [baked goods from mixes] are more wholesome than just buying a ready-made bread or cake," says Beth Hillson, founder of Glastonbury, Conn.-based Gluten-Free Pantry. Hillson surmises that all-natural mixes are especially appealing to those following a gluten-free or otherwise restrictive diet. "To have a freshly baked product out of your own oven is such an amazing treat." Hillson also thinks that mixes allow cookies to be, well, not so cookie-cutter. "You can take a mix for a muffin or a cookie and personalize it—add nuts or chips. Maybe that is one of the reasons the category is growing."
Mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise—what more do you need to dress a veggie burger? Plenty, if sales of condiments are a guide. According to SPINS, condiments purchases in the natural/organic channel grew 12.4 percent in the last year, to $133.4 million. As Americans' tastes become more sophisticated, the market is responding with more choices.
Perhaps best known for its salad dressings and marinades, Napa, Calif.-based Annie's Naturals also makes four varieties of organic mustard (including a horseradish mustard), organic ketchup and three types of organic barbecue sauce. "It's been received so well from the consumer side and we've received a lot of great feedback from our trade partners," says Aimee Sands, spokeswoman for Annie's. "In the natural channel, sales of our organic ketchup are up 47 percent over a year ago." Mustard sales are up 50 percent, she adds.
But it doesn't stop there. A handful of companies, including Drew's, Green Mountain Gringo, Seeds of Change, Frontera and 505, offer natural or organic salsas in an array of flavors and heat levels. Consorzio makes a range of marinades, with exotic flavors like Baja Lime and Mango Cilantro and standard-issue fare like Roasted Garlic. Annie Chun's and San-J make sauces for Chinese stir-fry, pad Thai, teriyaki, Korean barbecue and other Asian dishes. And of course there are mayonnaise and egg-free mayo alternatives from Spectrum and Nasoya.
Broadly defined, the condiments category also includes olive oils, vinegars, jams and jellies, chutneys, relishes and pasta sauces. NFM has devoted entire articles to some of these subcategories, because each one is awash in offerings.
The reasons for condiments' popularity in natural foods stores are not new: "Our consumers … are very concerned with what ingredients are being used. They want organic options that are free of preservatives, additives and artificial flavorings," Sands says.
Tea as an ingredient
The health benefits of tea—especially green tea—have been hyped in the last year or so, and with good reason. Research has shown the catechins in tea support cardiovascular and immune health and may guard against some types of cancer. The active ingredients in green tea have also been shown to help suppress appetite. Now, food and confection manufacturers are finding the stuff brews up sales when they include it as an ingredient in their products. You'll find tea in Sencha and Tea Escape mints, in Tearrow gum and in Chuao chocolate. Recently, Luna began adding it to tea cakes, which will make their way to retail shelves this month.
Targeted to women on the go, the tea cakes offer the health benefits of tea (sourced from the Republic of Tea) in the convenience of a nutrition bar. According to the Berkeley, Calif.-based division of Clif Bar & Co., the snacks "deliver functional nutritional benefits to promote healthy skin, mood balance and longevity." But are there enough catechins in tea cakes to support these kind of claims? "Absolutely," says Kristel Cerna, Luna brand director. "We estimate that eating a Luna Tea Cake is like drinking one cup of tea, but we don't correlate actual consumption of the tea cake to a specific benefit."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 1/p. 40, 42