Food swamps could be more harmful than food deserts

Jenna Blumenfeld senior food editor New Hope Network

Have you visited Burger King lately? If not, you’re missing out on a new menu item: Flamin’ Hot Mac N’ Cheetos.

Described by Burger King as a “unique portable snack of creamy mac n’ cheese coated and dusted with the flavor of Cheetos crunchy Flamin’ Hot cheese snacks,” this chimeric monstrosity is a 390-calorie salt bomb that contains 1,170 milligrams of sodium and 22 grams of fat. Think mozzarella sticks, but swap the ‘rella with macaroni and cheese and replace the fried breading with pulverized Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

The surprise here isn’t that this product exists. Food mashups—particularly ones involving beloved junk food—are a money-making tool for fast food chains. (Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Tacos, for example, earned the company $1 billion in a year, making it one of the most successful fast food products in history.) Nor is it particularly shocking that it’s not very healthy for you. What’s notable is that it’s available in Boulder, Colorado, a city with a much-deserved reputation as a hippie haven. A place where the kombucha freely flows and where paleo bone broth is never far from reach.

According to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, nutritionally empty foods such as Burger King’s new Flamin’ Hot offering could contribute to rising obesity rates if Boulder didn’t have so many other better-for-you options available. Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity examined how food swamps—“areas with a high-density of establishments selling high-calorie fast food and junk food, relative to healthier food options”—may be to blame for soaring obesity rates in this country. 

Food swamps differ from food deserts in that they aren’t necessarily void of grocery stores and supermarkets. Getting food isn’t the problem. Getting healthy food is.

After merging socioeconomic, obesity and food outlet data with the USDA’s Food Environmental Atlas and a commercial street reference dataset, the study authors found that “the presence of a food swamp is a stronger predictor of obesity rates than the absence of full-service grocery stores.” Even after controlling for food deserts, food swamps are positively correlated with adult obesity rates.

This isn’t the only available science that examines the role food swamps have on public health. A separate study published last year in Public Health Nutrition found that Baltimore-based 6th grade and 7th grade girls living in food swamps (which the authors described as being within a quarter mile of more than four corner stores) consumed more snacks and desserts than same-age girls living in food deserts alone.

How to drain the food swamp

There are a few important takeaways here.

First, it matters what kind of food is available. While fast food chains have made a half-hearted effort to offer healthier options in their stores over the past decade, the continued existence of items like Flamin’ Hot Mac N’ Cheetos and Bacon McDoubles and Baconators and 1/2-lb. Guacamole Bacon Thickburgers supersedes the under-marketed healthy foods that reside on the outskirts of the menu. Does anyone actually have the frontal cortex willpower to choose stale apple slices over salty, fatty French fries—their primal scent wafting out the drive-thru window to spark the reptilian part of the brain that craves salt, fat and sugar? I certainly don't.

Also important: The concentration of fast food establishments matters. At the conclusion of the UConn study, the authors call for greater zoning regulations that restrict the number of unhealthy food chains in a certain area. Outnumbering fast food chains with better-for-you options works. I don’t have to order from Burger King to eat lunch in Boulder. For just a few more dollars I can snag a sandwich, salad or soup from health-oriented, fast-casual establishments like Chipotle or The Protein Bar or Native Foods Cafe.

Such abundance is an anomaly in many areas of the United States. But there’s evidence that food swamps may start to evaporate in the coming years. CoreLife Eatery, for example, a chain that serves holier items like Sriracha Ginger Roasted Tofu Green Bowls, recently announced a plan to open 40 more locations in 2018 alone, which would raise their total number of stores across the country to 60 locations.

Natural products retailers continue to expand convenience grab-and-go sections, often dishing up items like fresh-made vegetarian wraps, coconut-milk curry and salad bars. They’re a significant part of the solution.

Thanks in part to programs such as the Pennsylvania Healthy Corner Store Initiative, convenience stores and gas stations have for years helpfully proffered apples and bananas at checkout to offer healthy alternatives to customers.

However, a fruit basket doesn't replace the vast assortment of sparkly conventional candy, gum, snacks and sugary beverages available at such stores—it's still a food swamp. The fix? Drain the swamp by making nutritious food even more convenient and more available than junk food. The natural products industry can help make this a reality.

In Session

3 experts share the ins and outs of influencer marketing

How to grow your brand with value-aligned influencer partnerships

"If you do your due diligence in finding that right influencer, and you approach it from an equal value partnership, and make them a part of the process, you will be able to trust your influencers to really powerfully influence on your behalf."
—Rachel Begun, registered dietitian 

Part 1: Basics of influencer marketing


  • Kinds of influencers: Celebrities, super influencers, micro influencers, ambassadors, off-category influencers.
  • "Ninety-two percent of consumers trust an influencer more than a brand advertisement or traditional celebrity endorsement," Denise Lambertson said.



Part 2: Which influencer is right for you? 


  • How would you like influencers to drive you toward your goal? 
  • What do successful metrics look like?  
  • Where do you find the right influencer?  



Part 3: The do's and don'ts of influencer relationships


  • Compensate influencers fairly and send them the right samples.  
  • Promote influencers on social media and use effective precise communication.  



Part 4: The power of value-aligned partnerships 


  • Identify brand values and make sure your mission aligns with the influencer's.
  • Bring the influencer into the strategic process. 
  • Prioritize quality of message over quantity of followers.  



Part 5: Moderated Q&A


  • What is a good entry point for a small natural brand that recently launched?
  • How do small companies manage these relationships without sacrificing time or resources?
  • Do you recommend that compensation be part of the initial outreach? 


Part 6: Audience Q&A 

  • Are there any existing programs to connect influencers and natural product companies? 
  • What is the rate range for a micro influencer and a good standard for engagement?  
  • For an early stage business, how soon would you recommend engaging with influencers? 
  • How would your influencer strategy change based on sales channel?


This session—Growing Your Tribe: An Introduction to Connecting with Values-Aligned Influencers—was recorded at Natural Products Expo East 2017. Click "download" to access the presentation slides.

5@5: Blockchain grows for sustainable fish certification | Cultured, vegan chicken coming soon

Fish Blockchain

Food lobby group's rolls further contract as Hershey and Cargill depart

The Hershey Company and Cargill are the latest food giants to part ways with the Grocery Manufacturers Association as a raft of companies have dropped the association amid a shakeup in the food industry. At least eight major companies have now bailed on GMA, the largest food industry association in Washington, including heavyweights like Campbell Soup Co., Nestlé, Dean Foods, Mars, Tyson and Unilever. Read more at Politico …


One of Europe’s largest meat companies is betting big on cell-cultured, vegan chicken

One of the largest poultry producers in Europe is teaming up with an Israeli clean meat company to get cell-cultured chicken to market within three years. The partnership between Tel Aviv-based SuperMeat and the German poultry company PHW Group marks a important milestone for the nascent clean meat industry. It is also the latest sign that global meat industry players—well aware of a growing interest among consumers for alternative protein sources—are prepared to coalesce around new food technologies to get cost-competitive cell-cultured meat out of the laboratory and into the grocery store. Read more at Quartz …


Are you eating sustainable fish? Blockchain may provide the answer

Eco-conscious diners can rely on restaurants to tell them their fish comes from a sustainable source, but it can be hard to know for sure. That’s why a new certification system, launched by blockchain company Viant and the World Wild Fund for Nature, is intriguing: It provides a step-by-step way to verify a fish’s journey from the ocean to the market to the dinner plate. Read more at Fortune …


‘Raw water’ is the latest health craze. Here’s why drinking it may be a bad idea

Proponents of the “raw water” movement are banking on selling people on the idea of drinking water that contains the things they say nature intended without the chemicals, such as chlorine, often used in urban water treatment processes. In some areas of the country, including the West Coast, it has become a high-dollar commodity — water captured in glass bottles and sold straight to you.  Read more at The Washington Post …


U.S. News' 40 Best Diets Overall

U.S. News' annual ranking of diets is out.  Read more at U.S. News and World Report …

Google searches hint at food trends for 2018

Thinkstock/ThitareeSarmkasat ketogenic diet foods

Now that everyone has made their food trend predictions for the new year (in case you missed them—here are a few from Whole Foods MarketNatural Grocers and the National Restaurant Association), let’s take a peek at what Google says U.S. consumers are curious about when it comes to food, diet and health.

Below are some of the relevant terms that saw U.S. search queries jump in 2017, according to the Google Trends tool. Is there an opportunity to educate customers on the topics they’re searching for?

Take a look inside the Littleton Food Co-op expansion

Northwestern New Hampshire’s Littleton Food Co-op, located less than 5 miles away from the Vermont border as the crow flies, opened in May 2009 with 13,5000 square feet and a mission to support local food, healthy life choices and a sustainable environment.

Just four years later, however, the member-owned corporation’s board of directors realized that little store needed to grow. The work and new space have paid off: Sales are up 15 percent to 20 percent from 2016, general manager Ed King wrote in an email. Take a look at the construction process, this year’s grand opening and the new, bigger Littleton Food Co-op.

5@5: The year of the 'shroom? | Nestlé's innovation plan includes 'internal startups' and acquisitions

Thinkstock dried sliced mushroom

The ‘shroom boom: Will trendy medicinal mushrooms go mainstream in 2018?

The boom in functional foods and beverages has enabled several young brands in the U.S. to popularize mushrooms that have long been treasured in other cultures for their health-promoting properties, like lion’s mane, chaga, reishi and cordyceps. Lifehouse Tonics, for example, is a Los Angeles-based café that whips up ‘shroom-ful tonics, elixirs and shots. Four Sigmatic Foods is working them into coffees and teas and has a coffee café called The Shroom Room in Venice Beach. The next step in this trend going mainstream may just be science—at least a few studies are currently being conducted to investigate the effects of these mushrooms. Read more at Fast Company…


How Nestlé USA is innovating like a startup

When it comes to the quickly evolving culinary demand of consumers, big companies realize they must “either meet them where they are or watch them walk away,” writes Nestlé’s Chief Strategy Officer Rui Barbas. The company is starting by reinvigorating some of its core products and brands, including the introduction of new plant-based creamers under the Coffee-mate brand. It’s also launched an “internal startup” program where employees can quickly design, prototype and test new product lines, and is collaborating with Rabobank and RocketSpace on an accelerator program. Read more at Medium…


B.C. entrepreneurs pump up Canada’s supplements market

Here’s how two former GNC employees and fitness buffs put their heads together back in 2002 to launch a top-selling sports nutrition company, Nutrabolics, at a time when Canada’s strict import and export regulations kept many big-name brands out of the game. Read more at Business in Vancouver…


Part health store, part café, Cherry’s Natural Foods makes its drinks, dishes and ambiance a wholesome treat

The husband and wife team behind Cherry’s Natural Foods, a small natural food market in South Jersey, opened their store in May 2017 to bring healthy products to a place where such items are often hard to get a hold of. But they soon realized that they couldn’t compete with the big-box stores that are expanding their own organic sections and quickly made adjustments. They ended up transforming the store into a natural foods café. Read more at The Press of Atlantic City…


McDonald’s tests new burger with ingredient fans have been asking for

What’s the magic ingredient? It’s—gasp—FRESH beef. That’s right; the fast-food chain is making headlines for using real, actual fresh beef in a new burger it’s testing in Tulsa, Oklahoma. For decades, McD’s has relied on frozen patties for its products, but last year it began a similar test using fresh beef for Quarter Pounders , which it says it will roll out in most of its restaurants by mid-year. Read more at NBC Chicago…

In Session

Cosmetic labeling and claims: Is your product ready for the shelf?

How to ensure your cosmetic product is ready for the shelf

"It's the threatened convergence of drugs and cosmetics that mostly create the regulatory problems that young companies have."
—Jason Sapsin of Faegre, Baker & Daniels LLP

Part 1: Statutory framework 


  • Products are regulated by what they claim they can do, more so than what is actually in the product.
  • Know who is looking at your labels by understanding agency structure.


Part 2: Product development 


  • The FDA does not look at products before they go on shelf. All scrutiny happens after the fact.  
  • Understand the issues of misbranding and adulteration.  
  • A look at the Color Additives Amendment Act; Fair Packaging and Labeling Act; and Microbead-free Waters Act.


Part 3: Ways to violate the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act


  • The language on the label is important.
  • Physical adulteration tends to be handled differently than misbranding claims.
  • What defines a cosmetic vs. drug?


Part 4: How do we bring it to market?


  • Begin the process with premarket approval and product demonstration. 
  • The principle display panel, info panel and color additives are important labeling properties.
  • A look at post-market issues.


Part 5: What the Natural Products Expo standards team looks for on labels 


  • Michelle Zerbib shows examples of unacceptable structure-function claims and drug claims.
  • Hear how to correctly describe the use of ingredients.
  • What is the difference between a drug and cosmetic?


Part 6: Q&A


  • What regulates what you can and can’t say in a retail store?
  • What precautions can retailers take to protect themselves from misbranded products?
  • How does this all manifest in reality when you see so much adulteration?

This session—Cosmetic Labeling & Claims: Understanding Regulations to Ensure your Product is Beautiful on the Inside & Out—was recorded at Natural Products Expo East 2017. Click "download" to access the presentation slides. 

Supplement industry reacts to Sen. Orrin Hatch retirement announcement

Gettyimages Orrin Hatch retire

The retirement of Utah Senator and architect of the landmark DSHEA legislation Orrin Hatch should remind the supplement industry to keep its contacts and context current as political and consumer universes collide, industry insiders noted in the wake of Hatch’s Jan. 2 announcement.

Hatch, the longest-ever serving GOP senator, announced he will not seek re-election, opening the door wider to an anticipated campaign by former Massachusetts governor and 2012 presidential contender Mitt Romney to take the spot in what should be a safe Republican race. Hatch, representing a state that grew into a focus of the supplement industry, has long been a champion.

Hours after the announcement, Council for Responsible Nutrition President Steve Mister noted that the 83-year-old senator’s retirement came as little surprise. CRN and other trade groups have been strategizing on connections to keep the industry’s interests represented at every level. Unlike when Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz announced he was leaving in April, less than halfway through his term, the industry has plenty of time to get ready for Hatch’s departure, Mister said. “We learned some valuable lessons when Sen. (Tom) Harkin retired,” Mister said. “We do need to have lots of people in the wings that are friendly to the industry and not just depend on one or two members.”

The key, Mister said, is to find senators and representatives who not only listen to the industry but have an interest as consumers themselves. “I think one of the strengths of Sen. Hatch was not just that he had the industry in his state but he saw value in the products.” Mister said he hopes whoever replaces Hatch “is really somebody who takes up the interests of the consumer.”

Karen Howard, executive director of the Organic & Natural Health Association, called the consumer connection a pivotal part of any political approach in 2018. The industry can’t depend on champions like Hatch in an age when consumers vote not just with their wallets but with social media and other avenues of expression, she said. Hatch’s retirement is a nudge to re-evaluate the political approach. “With this kind of political environment, really speaking for the consumer’s voice is an opportunity we cannot pass up,” Howard said.

The supplement industry has to align with a mission and movement that isn’t solely focused on senators representing industry interests, she said. “It needs to be bigger than DSHEA. It needs to take care of where people are now.” Consumers can force change far quicker than policy, Howard noted. Depending on a few friends in Congress without choreographing in the consumer doesn’t work anymore. “The consumer drove Campbell Soup into our laps, not the government, not the GMA (Grocery Manufacturers Association),” Howard said. “This is the year of the consumer.”

Scott Steinford, whose Trust and Transparency consultancy is organizing single-ingredient trade groups, says rapid changes in not just the political landscape but in how that landscape functions at bedrock levels requires the industry to become more agile in its political approach. In that respect, Hatch’s retirement is both a wake-up call and an opportunity, Steinford said. The industry can’t afford to look backward at DSHEA and other accomplishments when the world moves more and more quickly. “A new face and a new following are both required,” he said. “I believe that the focus needs to be in relation to where we are as an industry now and not where we were at the beginning of DSHEA.”

Mark LeDoux, chairman of the board at the Natural Products Association, recognized the wake-up call nature of Hatch’s retirement but also noted that new approaches can’t mean ignoring the shoe-leather nature of connecting with Washington lawmakers. LeDoux recalled both Hatch and Harkin warning the industry that they wouldn’t be around forever and said that message fell on some deaf ears. New messages and mediums are important, but the industry still needs to double down on personal connections in Washington. “This is where the sausage gets made,” LeDoux noted. “You have to be there. You have to be engaged. Just thinking that somebody is going to do it for you is ill-advised.”

5@5: Dairies overflow with organic milk | The critical role of data in the meal kit model

Thinkstock organic milk supply

Dairies are awash in organic milk as consumers jump to alternatives

As the very shoppers who drove demand for organic milk turn to plant-based alternatives, organic dairy producers are left figuring out what to do with an oversupply. Sales of organic milk fell 2.5 percent in 2017, according to Nielsen data, while milk substitutes saw a 2.9 percent growth in sales. Retailers are shifting shelf space to nondairy alternatives; dairy cooperatives are cutting prices paid to farmers; and producers are looking to cut capacity or turn excess milk into other products, like cheese or yogurt. Read more at The Wall Street Journal (subscription)…


Data science and the meal-kit subscription business model

Supply chain issues and forecasting challenges are just some of the issues that meal kit companies like Blue Apron and Plated face. One way Plated is approaching those issues is by building a comprehensive IT and analytics operations team, developing taxonomies of food and doing a whole lot of testing. Read more at Forbes…


Nature’s Path packaging takes a bold new direction

With its bright new look, the organic breakfast and snack food company hopes to show consumers how its products differ from others. Bold colors and imagery focus on the visual aesthetics of the food, while the phrase “always organic” has been added to the front of pack, and the back of pack tells the family-owned company’s story and mission. Read more at Packaging Digest…


Food producer highlights small-business innovation

Small companies are leading the way in developing niche markets for socially responsible products and services. Vitala Foods, maker of free-range eggs, is one of those companies in British Columbia. “When you do take good care of the animals it’s a mutually beneficial outcome where, I think, the animals are more comfortable, they’re producing a higher-quality product and are potentially more productive, which is rewarding for both the animal and the farmer,” says founder Bill Vanderkooi. Read more at Business Vancouver…


Tasty Bite aims to double capacity every three years

Preferred Brands International, maker of the Tasty Bite brand of ready-to-service sauces and frozen products, was acquired by Mars Food in the fall, and the company says it’s prepared to scale up and take on new markets. Read more at The Hindu…