1) Power to Change
Analysts are predicting another summer of higher energy prices. President Bush is promoting the use of switchgrass to make ethanol. Automobile manufacturers are taking back orders for hybrid vehicles. Motorists are honking mad at the idea of $3-a-gallon gas.
Suddenly, the idea of solar panels, wind turbines and power exchanges no longer seems outlandish or unfeasible. Pathmark Stores, Carteret, N.J., heeded the call and recently signed up to have three of its 141 stores in the New York area outfitted with solar power systems that will provide a total of 750 kilowatts.
"We're constantly evaluating technology to buy power cheaper, and to find ways to use less, which helps business, and it's less that the generating plants have to provide for our stores," said Steve Castracane, the retailer's energy manager.
The decision was helped by New Jersey's Clean Energy Program, which offers rebates for qualified projects. In this case, Pathmark is expected to save upward of $2.5 million. The system also qualifies for federal tax benefits, Castracane said.
The move to ease energy demands and environmental impact has been accelerating since 2004, when an 80,000-square-foot Giant Eagle supermarket outside of Cleveland became the first supermarket in the United States to be certified for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design by the U.S. Green Building Council. Last year, Wal-Mart's McKinney, Texas, store caught the attention of other retailers when it opened with two energy-producing wind turbines, roof-mounted solar panels, natural light sensors, heat-reducing reflective ceramic paint, radiant floor heating, and a rainwater harvesting and treatment system.
Solar power and skylights cost money, making them impractical for smaller operators, but there are capital-free options as well. Firms like Renewable Choice Energy offer homes and businesses the opportunity to purchase wind power credits that are exchanged for conventional power on the national grid. By adding wind-generated energy, the need for fuel derived from coal and oil is displaced, according to the company's co-founder and chief executive officer, Quayle Hodek.
"Every one megawatt-hour of wind electricity put into the system is one less megawatt-hour that needs to be created by burning coal or gas," he said, adding that the credits are tracked and verified by guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Energy.
There are no cost savings with such plans, though the price difference between the renewable energy and conventional fuels has dramatically narrowed in the past few years. This near-parity has made it attractive for a number of retailers, ranging in size from Whole Foods Market, which became the largest company in North America to replace the power needs for all stores with 100% wind-powered energy, to Ellwood Thompson's, which purchased a year's worth of credits for its single store in Richmond, Va., back in January.
2) Berry Promising
In search of the ultimate smoothie, the invisible hand of capitalism has rummaged through the South American rainforest to discover the acai berry and thumbed around Tahiti to procure the noni. Now, the quest for the next miracle fruit appears to be headed to Asia.
Mangosteen, gac, goji and sea buckthorn each have three things in common - lengthy pedigrees in traditional Asian medicine, unusually high concentrations of antioxidants and a relative inaccessibility to North American consumers.
Advocates of these superfoods, such as James Chappell, a board-certified naturopath and chiropractor based in Ojai, Calif., argue that the modern world is full of more pollutants than ever, and finding new sources of powerful, natural antioxidants has the potential to prevent disease.
"Regardless of marketing hype, anecdotal testimonials or folklore, humans need non-toxic, nutrient-dense food not only to survive, but to reach and maintain optimum health," he said.
Of the up-and-coming Asian fruits, the sea buckthorn is already demonstrating a great deal of potential for mainstream product applications. Dense with antioxidants, phytonutrients and omega-3s, oils from the plant have already begun appearing as an ingredient in many all-natural cosmetics, sunblocks and HBC products. It doesn't hurt that it's a hearty grower, and thrives just about anywhere.
3) Healthful Halal
One of the ripple effects of global events like the ongoing war in Iraq is an increasing number of books, television shows and newspaper articles examining the various components of the Arab world, including culture, politics and society.
Discussion of food centers on one word: halal, or "permissible," encompassing all aspects of a person's livelihood, including faith, finance, clothing, actions, prayer - and diet.
In the United States, halal consumers purchase some $12 billion in food products each year, primarily fresh beef and poultry. But this Muslim cousin to kosher is gaining in frozen and prepared foods, too. Pizza, hot dogs and deli meats are attracting shoppers beyond the 8 million Muslims living in the United States.
"The ethnic market is definitely the core group, but the emerging market is in the mainstream supermarket setting in select markets," said Jalel Aossey, director of Midamar Corp., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the country's top supplier of halal foods. He counts among the growing U.S. mainstream Jews who understand halal's parallel standards regarding many foods, immigrants from the Far East familiar with the name, natural and organic consumers who like the category's sumptuary laws, and young adults and travelers - including servicemen and women returning from their Middle East tours of duty - who tend to adopt more expansive world views.
"You might not be of a particular race or of a particular religion or ethnic group, but you're familiar with some of the foods eaten, and that's where the crossover comes," Aossey said.
Like kosher, halal is faith-based. Slaughtering techniques are similar, and both do not allow the consumption of pork. Retailers interested in adding some halal selections can mix the 10 best-selling items into their international aisles. However, the mainstay of the halal consumer is fresh beef and poultry.
"It doesn't have to be extensive, but it should have core items, such as ground beef, stew meats and roasts, and whole and cut-up birds on the poultry side," Aossey said.
And this is one area where halal and kosher differ, to a retailer's advantage. Kosher meat cases need to be strictly segregated and have their own knives, slicers and displays. Fresh halal meats do not require as much direct oversight, though there are guidelines that need following. Supermarkets can be certain they're adhering to the letter of the law by receiving certification through one of the four organizations qualified to approve operations, such as the Islamic Services of America and the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America, among others.
4) Turning Pro
For generations of Americans, bacteria was bad, something to avoid at all costs. What consumers didn't know - and what science didn't tell them - was that there is good bacteria, too. It's only been recently that everyone has begun reassessing their opinion of these lowly creatures and finding there's a lot to like in them after all.
"Americans are going to have to overcome their cultural leanings and become better-informed about probiotics," said Allan Walker, director of Harvard Medical School's Division of Nutrition.
Research shows probiotics, the name for the good bacteria, play a fundamental role in regulating a person's health. A recent symposium moderated by Walker focused on the growing body of evidence that the rise in allergies and autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and eczema in developed nations may be attributable to a lack of probiotics in the diet.
"Probiotics might work to counteract or reverse a process where babies in industrialized countries are born with an imbalance of bacteria, opening them up to autoimmune diseases later in life," Walker said.
Several practices factor into this so-called "hygiene hypothesis": Babies born here are protected from exposure to germs that might actually help boost immunity in the future; they are prescribed antibiotics at a high rate; and many are born through Caesarean sections that deprive them of helpful bacteria found in the birth canal.
Adults can benefit, too. Probiotics can be used to bolster the immune system, which typically becomes less effective as people age.
There are more than 400 types of bacteria known to science, and several probiotics have emerged as super strains. Many are available now in capsule or tablet form, such as ConAgra Foods' Culturelle, a patented probiotic called Lactobacillus GG.
However, most Americans get their probiotics in a yogurt or yogurt-based beverages, and that's where most retailers are seeing sales activity: Dannon has rolled out Activia, containing bifidus regularis, as well as a fermented dairy-based beverage called DanActive, with a trademarked strain of lactobacillus casei; Stonyfield Farms adds six species of bacteria to all of its yogurt products; Lifeway Foods, the largest U.S. seller of the fermented milk beverage kefir, markets Basics Plus kefir containing six live, active cultures and a yeast; and Horizon Organic Dairy includes lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium in all its yogurt and cottage cheese products.
5) Entrees to Health
Consumers say they often feel like they're trading health for convenience when they pop a frozen-food tray in the microwave at work or after a long day at the office. That opinion may start changing, however, as manufacturers ramp up new lines of healthier frozen dinners, entrees and side dishes.
"What you're seeing now is very consistent with the broader food industry," said Chris Krese, senior vice president of industry affairs for the American Frozen Food Institute. The McLean, Va.-based association's umbrella Fresh Look Initiative, unveiled in March, is using this new emphasis on health and wellness to reacquaint health-minded shoppers with advances the industry has made in ingredients, recipes and packaging. The campaign recognizes the power that convenience holds in guiding consumers in their food choices, and highlights the newer, more healthful choices available in the frozens case.
"I'm amazed at how many people are afraid of brown rice, or tofu," said Judy Dodd, a registered dietitian, and food and nutrition counselor for Giant Eagle Supermarkets, Pittsburgh. "But once they taste them in convenience items, they like it, and this opens a whole new market for them to try other healthful things."
The updated versions of classics like spinach alfredo and chicken marsala contain less fat, sodium and sugar; some include organic proteins, while others offer vegetarian proteins like soy. Among them is TofuTown, a newly branded line of products under the WhiteWave Foods division of Dean Foods. Heat-and-serve, marinated "tenders" in four varieties come in a microwaveable tray. Fairfield Farm Kitchens is adding more beef and chicken entrees to its lineup of Organic Classics entrees, such as Lemon Chicken Piccata with Wehani Rice, and Macaroni & Meat Sauce.
"The appeal today is a combination of organic and selective ingredients, like reduced-sodium sea salt instead of free-flowing salt, which keeps the sodium level down a bit," said Frank Carpenito, president of Fairfield Farms Kitchens, which also licenses the Moosewood name for a line of organic vegetarian soups.
Retailers should watch their stores as the tide of consumers begins migrating from the perimeter to the grocery sections in search of healthful dining options. Sales figures from ACNielsen show that supermarket-only sales of single-item, organic chicken entrees are up 6.2% over last year, while beef entrees enjoyed a 25.2% increase. That's a pretty healthy appetite.
6) Brain Food
You are what you eat, or, as many baby boomers may soon begin hearing, you remember what you eat.
Half of all baby boomers say that losing mental capacity is their biggest fear with regard to aging, and 46% feel that their mental fitness has declined since a decade ago, according to the Natural Marketing Institute's 2006 study for its Healthy Aging/Boomer Database.
As it turns out, a better diet may be one of the best ways to allay those concerns.
Several recent studies indicate links between food and memory among aging adults. For example, a four-year study of 2,200 New York residents showed that those who followed a Mediterranean diet high in fish, olive oil, whole grains, fresh produce and wine were 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.
Similarly, results from a 12-year study of 5,000 residents of Cache County, Utah, concluded that diabetes is associated with memory loss and possibly Alzheimer's disease, while eating fruits, vegetables and foods high in antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, appear to protect memory.
For supermarket retailers, concerns about brain health present a growing opportunity to reach out to boomers and older customers in the fresh food and supplement aisles. While 90% of the boomers surveyed by NMI said that regular exercise was a key to healthy aging, four out of 10 said that they were "confused about what they should be doing to eat healthy."