Natural Foods Merchandiser

The raw deal

It’s popping up more and more on grocery shelves, emblazoned on labels, celebrated in store advertising, cleverly incorporated into product names: “raw.”

Mainstream consumers are joining naturals shoppers in embracing the raw-food movement, which promotes unprocessed and uncooked foods and ingredients in the belief that heating destroys enzymes and vital nutrients. In many cities, raw-food restaurants are standard, along with markets, meet-up groups and festivals. And more retailers, of course, are following suit.

During the past year, sales of 100 percent raw-food items and products with raw-food ingredients increased 6.9 percent in the natural channel, reports SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research company. Much of that growth is in raw-food energy bars, which, according to Chicago-based market-research firm Mintel, enjoyed a 23 percent sales increase between 2006 and 2008 and outperformed non-raw bars.

“The trend is picking up,” says Ani Phyo, a Los Angeles-based eco-lifestylist, chef and author of Ani’s Raw Food Essentials (Da Capo, 2010). “It’s tied to the concepts of local, seasonal, organics and whole foods. Raw food is sort of the pinnacle of it all.” Not only are raw-food products linked to nutrition and healthy lifestyles, but they’re also being positioned as a welcome alternative to overly processed, industrial food sources.

Defining raw

There’s no certification or official labeling for raw foods. In fact, many raw foodists dispute whether the maximum cooking temperature for raw-food products should be 105 degrees or 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

That can make stocking raw foods tricky, because many products positioned as “raw,” “all-natural” and “unprocessed” don’t abide by raw-food tenets, says Brigitte Mars, an herbalist and raw-food chef in Boulder, Colo. For example, Mars contacted a popular nut-butter company that described its product as raw and was told the company’s processing machinery reached temperatures between 200 and 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

To appease raw-food consumers, merchandisers need to scrutinize ingredients lists and processing techniques. Items that contain unsprouted flour should raise a red flag, says Mars, because even whole-wheat flour is processed in machinery that can heat up to several hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Mars also suggests treading carefully with almonds, since in 2007 the U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that all California almonds have to be pasteurized, or flash cooked, at temperatures greater than accepted by raw foodists, because of salmonella outbreaks.

New developments

The superfood connection.
Mars believes an increasing number of raw-food products will involve superfoods, which boast high amounts of phytonutrients like antioxidants, vitamin C and dietary fiber. These wholesome ingredients are a natural alternative for raw foodists preferring to obtain nutrients from foods instead of manufactured supplements. “If we are really going to quest after what’s natural, there are foods that are super high in nutrients that are less processed than vitamin pills or herbs made into tinctures,” she says.

Some of these superfoods may clash with another important raw-food concept: eating local. While durian fruit may be a rich source of carbohydrates, proteins and other nutrients, it often originates in southeast Asian countries where it’s difficult to know whether or not chemicals were used in its production. So before stocking any product in the raw section, talk to the manufacturer about its processing.

Savory snacks. While the raw-food industry is dominated by energy bars, manufacturers are developing savory products too. “There’s been a big expansion of crackers,” says Phyo. “Flax is often the binder, helping to hold it together, and they’re blended with different kinds of vegetables like tomato or celery.”

The sweetest things.
Agave and cacao have long been the raw foodists’ answer to sweeteners. But according to Phyo and Mars, reports have surfaced over the past few years that many of these so-called raw products were subjected to high temperatures and chemical additives in their source countries.

That’s changing, Phyo says: “Today, for the first time, companies are starting to go down to places like Ecuador to import raw, unheated cacao.” That way, she says, “nothing gets damaged.” Essential Living Foods, a raw-food distributor, is advertising verified raw cacao from Bali. And several agave brands, including Wholesome Sweeteners, Xagave and Ohgave!, now sell products the companies say are processed at temperatures that fall within raw-food ranges.

Gadgets and additives.
Along with purchasing ready-made raw-food products, consumers are searching for ways to “cook” their own foods without using heat. That means they’ll be on the lookout for affordable dehydrators and high-speed blenders.

They’ll also be shopping for raw-food ingredients like coconut oil and vinegar. Used like condiments, these ingredients add both taste and nutrition to raw-food meals. “It’s not necessarily about eating everything that’s raw,” says Charleston, S.C.-based holistic chef Ken Immer, who founded the raw-food company gRAWnola. “You can put some condiments in your stew that add a lot of the benefits of raw foods to cooked products.”

Yes, most of these raw-food products and ingredients don’t come cheap, says Phyo. But she encourages merchandisers to use this as selling point. “Retailers need to get across that this is not a factory-made item,” she says. “It’s handcrafted and specially made.”

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