01 fevereiro 2007

Organics spreading to snack food aisles

Companies offer natural, organic versions of chips, cookies, mac & cheese
By Allison Linn, Senior writer

Kathy Blackman has been seeking out organic and natural foods for decades, regularly feeding her family cereals, canned goods and produce free of things like pesticides.

But that doesn’t mean Blackman rules out favorite American indulgences like macaroni and cheese. It’s just that, instead of picking up a conventional brand that may have food dyes or preservatives, she favors an organic or natural version such as Annie’s — even though she knows it may not save her any calories.

“Macaroni and cheese is macaroni and cheese,” she said recently while preparing to load up on groceries at a PCC Natural Markets in Seattle.

There was a time when the terms “organic” and “natural” conjured up images of bins of whole grains and uncooked beans, alongside a few pock-marked apples and some wheat germ. These days, the gleaming aisles of Whole Foods and other high-end and natural grocers offer organic alternatives for everything from mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese to chocolate cookies and pretzels.

Consumers are gobbling up snacks such as natural colas and organic chips amid increasing overall interest in such foods. The fast-growing U.S. organic food industry accounted for $13.8 billion in sales in 2005, representing about 2.5 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. The group expects sales to rise another 14 percent in 2006, although exact figures haven't been tallied.

Harry Balzer, vice president with the research firm NPD Group, said 22 percent of people his company surveyed between June and August had eaten an organic product in the last two weeks. He expects interest in organics to only increase, in part because it’s a health craze that let’s people indulge to a degree, rather than cut back.

“The health trend this time is, ‘What can we add to our diet?’ ” he said.

That’s been good news for the food industry because it offers a new venue to potentially boost sales. But the trend raises concerns for some nutrition experts, who worry that people don’t realize that even organic snacks can still be packed with as many calories and fat as more traditional junk food.

“You still need to read the food label,” said Christine McKinney, a registered dietician with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “Just because it’s organic doesn’t meant it’s healthy.”

The companies that produce such food acknowledge that not all their offerings are lower in fat or calories than conventional competitors. Still, many say that they are providing people with more natural ingredients that they believe are healthier. Some also say some of their offerings can be lower in sodium and other ingredients than mainstream competitors.

“Our snack foods are in some ways better for you,” said Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer for Hain Celestial Group Inc., whose extensive product line includes Garden of Eatin’ chips, among other snacks.

Companies also say that people are drawn to their products for other reasons besides just calorie counting. John Foraker, chief executive of Homegrown Naturals Inc., whose products include Annie’s macaroni and cheese offerings, said he hears from lots of customers who like to know they are supporting a privately held company with a similar set of values.

Others just say they like the food better.

“What consumers will tell you is that they want lower fat, lower sodium ... but what they will ultimately buy is what tastes good,” Foraker said.

Broader interest in organic and natural foods has fueled strong sales growth for companies like Annie’s. Foraker said his company is expecting revenue of more than $100 million for the company’s fiscal year ending in March of 2008, boosted by increased interest from grocery chains and even discounters like Costco and Wal-Mart.

“Over the last five years, natural and organic foods have become so much more of a mainstream concept,” Foraker said.

Amy’s Kitchen, which makes frozen pizzas, pastas and other products using organic ingredients, expects revenue to hit $200 million in the company’s fiscal year ending in June, a fact that surprises even company co-owner Andy Berliner.

“We thought this was going to be a $3 million business when we started,” he said.

CONTINUED: Mainstream appeal growing
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