Healthy side up

A growing number of consumers are shopping for all-natural and allergy-friendly breakfast foods. Stocking a variety of options can help retailers attract these loyal customers.

Following an all-natural or gluten-free diet used to require making a trip to a specialty health food store or searching out a small corner section of the supermarket. Generally, the only consumers looking for these products were those suffering from Celiac’s disease or another type of food allergy.

But times have changed.

With health information on food allergies more readily available to the public and a significant improvement in the taste and convenience of gluten-free and other allergy-friendly foods, consumers are opting for these healthier options, allergies or not.

“There are three types of gluten-free eaters. The first are those faced with Celiac’s disease; the second are people who don’t feel well when they eat wheat; and the third are dieters who eliminate gluten to lose weight,” says Maria Emmer-Aanes, director of marketing and communications at Nature’s Path Foods. “And the last two groups are a lot larger than the first.”

One segment seeing a significant shift towards all-natural, allergy-friendly options is breakfast. Gluten-free is not the only trait in demand either; consumers are looking for packaging that features organic, all-natural, high in fiber and dairy-free, to name a few.

Consumers are reading labels, says Emmer-Aanes. “They are looking for a sense of transparency from a source they can trust.”

Nature’s Path was built on these ideals. All of the company’s foods, such as cereal, granola, toaster pastries and waffles, are organically grown and produced, and it offers a line of 28 gluten-free options that Emmer-Aanes says is “growing like crazy.” The Richmond, B.C., Canada-based company has seen double-digit growth over the past six to seven years, which it attributes to a high level of trust and loyalty among its fans and from attracting enticing new shoppers.

“We picked up a lot of ‘light green people’ who shop grocery instead of natural stores but aren’t intimidated by gluten-free. The result has been an increase in the pool of people who might have accepted us without losing the loyalty of our current consumer base,” adds Emmer-Aanes.

Significant improvements in taste and variety are helping the category grow among conventional shoppers. This especially rings true when shopping for kids with food allergies. Often when one child is allergic, the entire family and even some of their friends will eat allergy-friendly foods.

“It tends to radiate from the first degree out. In addition to parents and siblings, we see grandparents, relatives and best friends all buying allergy-friendly foods to accommodate the allergic child,” says Dena Zigun, director of marketing for Ian’s Natural Foods.

This is the motive behind the Framingham, Mass.-based company’s all-natural frozen breakfasts. Both the French toast sticks and breakfast sandwiches have undergone recipe improvements to appeal to the entire family. Company officials say there has been a boom in their Wafflewich breakfast sandwiches—in addition to being gluten-free, one is meat-free for vegetarians and the other is dairy-free—but the French toast sticks remain consumers’ favorite, says Zigun. “Kids just want to eat what their friends are eating. The French toast sticks offer a solution for kids who can’t have wheat, dairy, eggs or soy—all of which are usually found in French toast.”

This shift in purchasing decisions is changing the way consumers shop, say industry observers, and this creates opportunity for retailers to expand their relationship with their customers.

According to Michael Smulders, founder and president of Bakery on Main, based in East Hartford, Conn., retailers are beginning to grow their gluten-free product selection.

“Smart retailers understand that they are not just selling to the 1% of the population with Celiac’s but selling to the entire family. If a grocery store has a dedicated gluten-free section it will become the family’s destination store and they will buy everything there,” he says. “Even if that section isn’t turning a huge profit, the retailer will benefit by earning a dedicated customer.”

With more consumers shopping the natural segment, retailers need to reconsider product placement. According to observers, it boils down to retailers’ commitment.

Often retailers dedicate a section to the segment and turn it over to a distributor, says John DePaolis, chief cookie officer at Country Choice Organic, based in Eden Prairie, Minn. “They know they have to offer it but it is not their focus. Chances are a very small fraction of shoppers are going to walk through that section. For us it’s the aisle of death; it just sits there to collect dust.

“On the flip side,” he adds, “the ones who are committed will have a four-foot section of organic products next to their conventional counterparts. This allows consumers to make a comparison.”

Smulders agrees. “Retailers should put large blocks of gluten-free products throughout the store. A four-foot section of gluten-free cereal in the cereal section is big enough. They can’t mix in half a shelf here and there; that’s a disaster and Celiac shoppers won’t shop it.”

Manufacturers say that an integrated section will soon be the norm, resulting in an increase of natural category products coming from large national conventional brands.

“When General Mills sends their organic brand to retailers, you can bet they want it on the same shelf as Cheerios,” DePaolis says.

The conventional segment has paid close attention to what is going on in the natural segment, say observers, noting many brands in the natural segment have seen double-digit growth.

With growing competition from large conventional brands, companies in the natural segment have had to hone their marketing tactics. Without extensive budgets for national advertising campaigns, many companies are teaming up with retailers to reach consumers directly.

Officials at Lifeway Foods, known for its kefir probiotic drinks, find that frequent sampling and talking directly to consumers about kefir is key. The Morton Grove, Ill.-based company has created demo kits for each sampling that includes FAQs, information cards with recipes ideas and nutritional benefits and coupons for on-the-spot purchasing.

“We recently began working with in-store pharmacies to promote our bio kefir line,” says a spokesperson for Lifeway. “Bio kefir has targeted health benefits like supporting immunity and digestion. Some pharmacists distribute information cards and coupons, creating a unique cross-merchandising opportunity.”

Sampling also worked for Oat Solutions, the company behind the Simpli brand of gluten-free oat products. In order to familiarize retailers with OatShakes, its all-natural oat-based beverage, the company’s co-founder, Mika Manninen, conducts retail samples and demos himself.

The tactic works. The company scheduled 350 demos in a five-week period. “For a company our size, that’s a lot,” says Manninen, who founded the company with his wife, Helena Lumme. “I spent six days in Texas conducting demos where I met about 1,400 people. It was great to talk to them about the product and see their response. They flipped—they could not believe the OatShakes are not dairy-based.”

The OatShakes, which like the ingredients in the Palm Beach, Fla.-based company’s other products, are imported from Finland, where GMO-farming is banned. The founders introduced them as a snack idea but shoppers quickly put them in their place—a convenient breakfast option.

Convenience is still a growing priority for consumers, both in the oatmeal/cereal category and the frozen food aisle. Cedarlane Natural Foods, based in Carson, Calif., expanded its frozen all-natural egg-white omelette line. “New consumers want handheld, all-natural on-the-go breakfast options and until now it was a choice of breakfast burritos, pancakes or waffles,” says Matt Gillespie, director of trade and sales planning. “I think the success we’ve seen is because they are so low in cholesterol, under 280 calories and gluten-free.”

In addition to expanding its offerings, the company is undergoing a brand makeover to appeal to a younger demographic. “We’re making a real effort to circle back and see who our core customers are. We have been around for 30 years; there is a whole new demographic in the natural channel. We want to resonate with a younger demographic—20s, 30s and young families,” adds Gillespie. The new packaging calls out the health attributes of the product and includes a QR code to link shoppers to a landing page with product information. 

The excellence of eggs

Eggs have received mixed reviews over the years. While popular with the carb-cutting dieters and athletes, they also received a reputation as a culprit for high cholesterol. Still they remain a staple for many people and Marcia Greenblum, the senior director of nutrition education at the Egg Nutrition Center, says eggs deserve the attention.

“Eggs are nutrient dense for the amount of calories they supply,” Greenblum says, “and more people are recognizing that standards for protein have been set for minimizing disease rather than optimal health.”

According to the Egg Nutrition Center, research shows that breakfast is the most important meal to include adequate protein so a person’s body can continue to build muscle tissue throughout the day. This is especially true for the Baby Boomer generation that requires more protein to maintain muscle mass, says Geenblum. “Eggs are a great source of Vitamin D, many B-vitamins and iron. They can be especially beneficial to vegetarians who don’t get all the nutrients they need from meat.”

High cholesterol is often the result of a genetic malfunction, adds Greenblum. “But there is a problem if you eat too much of anything and don’t exercise or maintain an active lifestyle. Sit on a couch all day and, sure, too many calories could be harmful.”

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