21 August 2014
Have natural foods gone mainstream? It sure seems so when mainstream retailers are jumping in to compete with natural foods experts like Whole Foods Market. Consumers can now find natural products at retailers catering to all income levels—and are. Sales have never been better, rising 9 percent annually compared to 4 percent for the entire U.S. food and beverage industry, notes Plunkett Research.

In truth, most consumers are becoming increasingly interested in eating healthier foods that maintain and boost their wellbeing as well as prevent diseases; a recent Gallup Poll shows 45 percent of all Americans "actively seek out" organic foods in their diets. Consumers with middle and lower incomes are also buying natural products, as noted in a recent article by The Hartman Group. No wonder natural is going mass market and becoming a quickly growing force in the food and beverage industry, estimated to be worth $1.26 trillion in 2013 according to Plunkett Research.

Some look for foods and beverages without artificial flavors, colors, preservatives and other additives. Others choose locally grown and/or heirloom fruits and vegetables—in some cases, favoring imperfect produce with blemishes, bruises and irregular shapes over textbook pretty versions that may be far less tasty or genetically modified.

Other natural foods enthusiasts are becoming do-it-yourselfers by growing their own fruits and vegetables and then pickling or canning them when the time is right. Those who may not be ready to take that plunge are often found at one of 8,144 U.S. farmers’ markets, embracing the local foods trend. Some have adopted limited diets, such as avoiding foods with gluten, which keeps them from eating wheat-based American staples including pizza and bread. And at the extreme is the paleo diet, with followers striving to mimic consumption patterns of their ancestors.

Seeking to reach natural foods enthusiasts, the big box retailers that sell groceries have entered this arena with the same competitive spirit they bring to all they sell and are offering private-label natural and/or organic products. Target and Wal-Mart are cases in point. On average, Wal-Mart’s organic product line costs 25 percent less than national brands, notes The Wall Street Journal, making it irresistible to cost-conscious consumers.

With the natural foods market growing almost 9 percent annually and expected to be worth nearly $226 billion by 2018, according to New Hope Natural Media, organizers of the industry’s largest natural products expos, it’s time for all food and beverage companies to explore its potential. Here’s how:
  1. Consider the future of the term. While use of the word "organic" in labels is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration"natural" is not so its meaning can vary by producer. That may change soon, since this September an industry group is meeting at Natural Products Expo East to discuss the issue. Companies should choose high-quality ingredients that will weather scrutiny when deciding to ‘go natural.’
  2. Look for alternate technology that eliminates the need for unnatural ingredients. Processing and packaging technologies can enable products to be preservative free and can help preserve food’s original quality and nutrients, giving consumers a perception of foods being closer to fresh.
  3. Carry the natural theme throughout the product, even into packaging. Consumers who value natural products often appreciate greener packaging, such Tetra Pak cartons that are made mainly of paper from sustainably managed forests.
  4. Develop products that support cooking with fresh foods. Broths, tomato sauce or ready-to-use sauces, for example, are often paired with fresh foods to create meals.
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