TRENDS

1. FULL STEEP AHEAD

Not even an adverse decision by the Food and Drug Administration is enough to dampen the general aura of health surrounding green tea. All sorts of retailers, from The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to Starbucks -- which launched a major initiative around green tea drinks this past summer -- all promote the health benefits of consumption on their Web sites. Green tea drinks remain "strong sellers" for The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, according to Lisa Steinkamp, the specialty retailer's director of marketing.

The activity is especially telling since the FDA earlier this year turned down a qualified health claim petition by a tea company looking to promote green tea's cancer-fighting properties. Joe Simrany, president of The Tea Association of the U.S.A., said no one is reading too much into the agency's decision.

"An individual packer went forward with an ill-prepared petition that focused on cancer benefits," Simrany said. "The evidence is much stronger on the cardiovascular side, at least initially."

He also noted that there are hundreds of ongoing studies around the globe focused on the general health benefits of drinking tea. According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, sales of bagged and loose teas in the food/drug/mass channels increased 3.5% this past year, reaching $716 million.

"The evidence is certainly building about the positive benefits of drinking tea," Simrany said, adding it is the main reason behind tea's healthy sales growth.

Green tea's potential as a cancer preventative is still being probed. Some of the newest scientific support comes from researchers funded by the American Institute for Cancer Research. A study released this summer reached several intriguing conclusions: A specific substance in green tea, called EGCG, targets and defuses a basic, cancer-sparking protein found throughout the body; EGCG interacts with NfkB, an important regulator of the body's immune and inflammatory responses; EGCG and other green tea components prevent the proliferation of prostate cancer cells; green tea slows the growth of breast tumors; green tea suppresses the metastasis of breast cancer cells; and green tea can induce cell death in lymphoma cells.

AICR's position is that the laboratory/experimental evidence linking green tea in general, and EGCG in particular, to cancer prevention is considerable and continually growing.

"We're looking at the same research [as the FDA] and saying, 'What do we fund next? Where is the action? Where should we direct our resources?"' said Glen Weldon, AICR's director of communications. "Green tea is certainly an area that we're trying to get more people involved and invested in." -- Dana Dubbs

2. BROWN RICE RETURNS

Health-minded consumers have always liked brown rice, but were discouraged by long cooking times, which reached 45 minutes in some cases. No more. Brown rice has become popular again as part of the whole grains movement, and the industry is eager to develop more convenient home-cooking methods.

It's paying off -- U.S. brown rice sales were up 18% last year, outpacing the 5.8% increase in overall rice sales, according to the USA Rice Federation. Many of the sales are packages of boil-in-bag, frozen or microwaveable, shelf-stable bags.

Becoming an equal-time alternative to white rice has allowed the trade group to begin promoting brown rice as the new white, a "familiar whole grain," said Anne Banville, vice president of domestic promotion for the Arlington, Va.-based organization. "The exciting part of the brown story is the quick-cooking products."

To help fuel continued interest in the trend, the rice group joined the Whole Grains Council, and has been highlighting brown rice as a whole grain option in its updated literature. Efforts will culminate with this month's annual National Rice Month promotion.

"It's a topic that we are putting in our retailers' kits so they can use it in the stores," Banville added. "[Retailers] love it because they are seeing a spike in their sales." -- Jessica Rothschuh

3. LIVING IN THE RAW

Raw food is all the rage, and supermarkets are being urged to get naked, too.

The diet-based philosophy eschews processed foods in favor of plant-based, uncooked fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains, sea vegetables and sprouts -- ideally always organic. Supermarkets already carry most, if not all of these items, so it would be easy to merely add some informational signs to draw attention to products that fit the lifestyle.

"Supermarkets need to take the produce angle and get a good quality and a good variety," said Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian in Dallas and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Raw food or not, if you have quality produce, that gets people eating more fruits and vegetables and onto an overall healthier diet."

Though she suspects the diet might be too restrictive for most people to follow, Sandon said it's likely people would incorporate raw options into their regular nutrition lifestyle. Shoppers don't even have to necessarily know what the "living food" movement is all about in order for them to take advantage of consuming healthful food items in their least-processed state.

"Even if someone's not on the raw food diet or a vegan diet, just having a sign up saying 'Fits into a raw food diet' -- people will still probably purchase it, thinking that it must be healthier," added Melinda Johnson, a Phoenix-based registered dietitian who's also with the ADA. Raw food adherents believe cooking destroys enzymes, which aid in digestion. Additionally, some claim heating causes toxic chemical changes in a food's composition. Followers felt vindicated in 2002 when Swedish researchers discovered cancer-causing acrylamide present in high-carb foods cooked at high temperatures, like potato chips.

"I believe that raw food is going to be the dominant conversation in health food stores and eventually in all of agriculture and our way of life within the next 20 years," said David Wolfe, co-founder of Nature's First Law, a San Diego-based raw food organization, and co-author of Nature's First Law: The Raw-Food Diet.

He just might be onto something. Though vegetarians comprise only 2.8% of American adults, according to a 2003 Vegetarian Resource Group/Harris Interactive survey, between 30% and 40% of Americans overall are judged to be a "good market for meatless items." -- Jessica Rothschuh

4. WHEN SAYING 'I'M ORGANIC' ISN'T ENOUGH

The National Organic Program, approaching its third birthday, was a Herculean undertaking for advocates and visionaries who worked with, through -- and over -- the federal government for more than 20 years to develop universal industry standards. Many may have considered the October 2002 introduction of the program to be the apex of their efforts.

Instead, it seems the NOP is another stop on the road to enlightenment, or perhaps more specifically, enlightened marketing.

"I think now that 'organic' has become codified into what it is, it's not going to radically change in the next few years," said Urvashi Rangan, senior scientist for Consumers Union, Yonkers, N.Y. "There are a number of other claims now that take an add-value approach beyond organic."

A just-released worldwide poll by ACNielsen shows that 64% of North Americans claim to "mostly" understand food labels. As many U.S. consumers continue to shift at least part of their spending to health and wellness, they're likely to be paying more attention to the logos, icons and related marks denoting certain causes.

The danger that's emerging, however, and something the industry and retailers must watch for, is a label or claim that is superfluous or just plain exaggerated. And it doesn't have to necessarily be a new claim. Some old standard-bearers have been abused. "Terms like 'natural' don't have any standards or guidelines. There's no certification for it," Rangan said. "We often tell consumers to look for additional specifications. I've seen things labeled natural that contain partially hydrogenated oils in them. To me, that's not natural."

In many ways, the bottom line for all labels and logos is the concept of sustainability. Whatever the food item, it needs to be available -- period. So, at some level, every single label and certification program looking to go beyond organic should include provisions that protect supplies through a combination of harvest limits and environmental controls, Rangan said. -- Robert Vosburgh

5. PACKAGE MAKES PERFECT

The "healthy products/healthy planet" market is currently worth more than $440 billion in the United States, covering everything from consumer products to industrial services. One area that's booming right now is the demand for eco-sensitive packaging and anything else that consumers call "disposable."

The products are varied, and so are the players. In one case, the Environmental Protection Agency this spring honored Annie Chun's, San Rafael, Calif., with an Environmental Achievement Award for using a fully biodegradable bowl for its noodle meals. The bowl, made primarily from cornstarch, and the lid decompose completely into the soil, according to the company.

Good Housekeeping magazine highlighted in a recent issue more unique items: Biota Spring Water with bottles made of corn fiber, and the Recycline Preserve Razor, which relies on handles made from used yogurt cups.

There's even footwear. For $10.95, consumers can don a pair of Teko Ecopoly socks made from recycled plastic bottles.

Yes, they're soft, according to product testers.

In the case of food trays, the changes are especially timely. Skyrocketing oil prices have pushed the cost of conventional, petroleum-based plastic containers up as much as 80%, narrowing the wholesale price gap between those and corn-based trays to less than 10 cents, in some instances.

One of the pioneers of corn-based containers, NatureWorks, is expanding its customer base. Wild Oats Marketplace, the first U.S. food retailer to embrace them two years ago, quickly rolled them out to all its stores.

"We started with deli in Portland, but we're using them all over now. In deli, produce, at our juice bars, salad bars, bulk departments, even the small cups at our water fountains," said Wild Oats spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele.

Now, the 104-unit Boulder, Colo.-based chain is testing cutlery made from the resin. Meanwhile, Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn., using the containers in deli and produce for more than a year, has just begun to use them in its bakeries.

"We're starting with a four-count muffin package, but we'll be getting more this month. What's happened over the last year with petroleum prices has made it feasible to run with this program," said Steve Beaird, bakery director at the nine-unit chain.

The list of alternative packaging fans continues: Big chains such as Kroger and Albertsons are making use of corn-based containers in their produce departments. Newman's Own Organics is using a rigid package for its salad program and Del Monte is testing the containers for cut fruit.

One of NatureWorks' original partners is Intec Alliance, represented by Innovative Packaging Corp., Cambridge, Minn.

"This is the future. There's a groundswell," said company partner Dave Fosse. "What's most important is these products are made from an annually renewable source." -- Roseanne Harper

6. HELLO HYBRIDS

Retailers might want to walk out into their parking lots and count the number of hybrid vehicles parked there.

"If your store decided to take some steps to be more environmentally friendly, that would be seen as positive in many people's eyes," said Sam Butto, spokesman for Toyota Motor Sales USA, which makes the best-selling Prius.

Some chains like Wal-Mart and Giant Eagle are doing just that, opening stores operating on solar power or wind turbines. They might seem natural destinations for smart car owners.

Toyota introduced the U.S. version of the Prius (PREE-us) in July 2000. The Torrance, Calif.-based auto manufacturer sold 53,000 last year -- even though there was a 10-month waiting list in some areas. Such demand (and patience) connotes an extremely loyal clientele -- just the consumer every retailer dreams of. It doesn't hurt that Prius drivers are becoming less the hard-core environmentalist, and more the older, educated -- and wealthy -- baby boomer. The median age of owners is 56 years; 48% are male; 84% are married; 19% have children under age 18 in the household; 78% are college-educated; and the median household income is $94,600.

Get these drivers in the store, and they're good candidates for high-margin health and wellness purchases. But Prius gets 60 miles per gallon in the city and 51 miles on the highway, so don't expect to see them lined up at the gas pumps in the supermarket parking lot. -- Robert Vosburgh