Will tomorrow's shoppers see fruits and vegetables as an alternative to aspirin and flu shots?It's possible, noted industry observers who peered into their crystal balls for SN. Consumers are likely to regard fresh produce as good for what ails them, and that should increase consumption of veggies and fruits. The popularity of organics and regional, artisan foods will continue as well, sources said.

Will tomorrow's shoppers see fruits and vegetables as an alternative to aspirin and flu shots?

It's possible, noted industry observers who peered into their crystal balls for SN. Consumers are likely to regard fresh produce as good for what ails them, and that should increase consumption of veggies and fruits. The popularity of organics and regional, artisan foods will continue as well, sources said. Most provocative of all, some observers predicted home cooking will make a comeback.

Thanks to the Internet, consumers have all sorts of information at their fingertips. If enough people read about former insomniacs touting the virtues of fresh turnip puree to ensure a good night's sleep, then a run on turnips wouldn't be out of the question.

"Fresh foods are the new functional foods," said Bea James, director of natural, organic and health and beauty care at Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn. "I know that as the consumer continues to get better informed, he'll see the value of fresh foods as the highest source of nutrients. The human body utilizes nutrients in fresh foods better than in anything processed."

Consumers also will eat more produce to maintain their weight, and cut down or completely eliminate processed foods, James predicted. With ingredients like trans fats coming out of the closet, it will be easier for shoppers to make healthy decisions.

"We know that satiety comes quicker with fresh foods," said James, who is studying holistic nutrition. "Somehow, they let your brain know you've had enough. Processed foods don't. It would be difficult to binge on a bag of apples or a plate of steaks."

Other sources SN talked to see the obesity epidemic as a boon to fresh foods. Consumers have started to focus on their waistlines, and the collective concern about weight problems bodes well for produce in particular.

"The future of fresh food is bright indeed," said Carol Christison, executive director, International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association, Madison, Wis. "The fat factor is not going away and consumers equate fat in food to fat bodies."

Consumers will gravitate to produce and products that are minimally processed and perceived as healthy, she said.

IDDBA has been doing consumer attitude and purchase behavior studies for 20 years and, more recently, added surveys of retailer perceptions. Time and again, the research has turned up "major gaps between what's important to the consumer and what the retailer thinks is important to the consumer," Christison said. With that in mind, retailers should educate themselves on the attributes of particular foods so they can give their customers more guidance in the future.

As health care costs continue to spiral, some consumers, often out of necessity, will look to food to bolster themselves against illness. Producers are already responding with natural ways to hike the nutrient value of their products. Omega-3 eggs are just one example. Through altered feed for the laying hens, eggs are delivering a greater nutritional wallop. Then, of course, there are fortified juices and even marinades.

"In a world of rising health care costs, shoppers are already turning to foods as a potential source of vital nutrients and high-

potency antioxidants," said Linda Brown, executive vice president, Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif. "However, research has shown that the actual nutrient levels in fresh fruits and vegetables can vary enormously. The produce department of the future will guide shoppers to items that provide guaranteed nutritional benefits."

Fad diets seem to be on their way out, and consumers are beginning to see the big picture, said Larry Shiman, researcher at Opinion Dynamics Corp., Cambridge, Mass. "Retailers and marketers will have to decide which health benefits [of fresh foods] to focus on. Fruit juice and even milk may be the bad guys by then, but other products will be newly identified as having particular health benefits."

With health becoming a top priority for consumers, retailers are paying more attention to organic fresh foods. In interviews with SN, retailers noted they have increased their organic produce offering, in some cases creating dedicated sections. Kowalski's Markets, a St. Paul, Minn.-based chain of 20 stores, is breaking out organic produce and assembling attractive, bannered sections in its new stores. Health and convenience really go hand in hand at Kowalski's. An attractive, multi-deck, upright case displaying cut fruit in single-serve containers has been moved up front to the entrance of the produce section. Officials credit the new location for doubling and tripling cut-fruit sales.

While consumers will seek out healthier food, they also will expect it to taste good.

"I've noticed consumers are exhibiting an absolute passion for taste," said Mona Doyle, president, Consumer Network, Philadelphia. "It goes beyond organics. People are talking about natural, farm-fresh eggs and how much more flavor there is to them. The same with heirloom tomatoes. Once they've tasted those, their quest for them will definitely continue."

IDDBA's Christison echoed Doyle.

"Consumers are willing to make trade-offs if necessary [sometimes for convenience]. But what they won't pay for is food that doesn't consistently meet their taste expectations." The passion for taste is connected to a renewed interest in regional, artisan products. That's where the real flavor is, said Steven Jenkins, partner, Fairway Markets, New York.

"I predict the distribution channels for mainstream supermarkets will be transformed, will become localized, as their customer bases will demand access to small-production, artisanal, fresh, traditional, seasonal foodstuffs," Jenkins said. "In a few years, supermarkets and specialty grocers in every region of the U.S. will have access to reliable quantities of local, seasonal foods, a result of the profitable niche found and nurtured by food artisans."

Though it may seem like a complete reversal of the trend retailers see now, there are those who believe home cooking will make a comeback. Ten years from now, Jenkins thinks more consumers will be making their own meals as a way to ensure great taste and quality. An official from Wild Oats Markets agreed.

"People are looking for functional foods that give them something extra in nutrition, but they want taste, too," said Wild Oats spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele. "Back in the '70s, we thought we might be taking pills or pellets for our food requirements by 2000 for the convenience of it, but actually, we're going in the other direction. More people are cooking at home now and they're more concerned about taste than ever before. I think that will continue."

Produce could taste better 10 years from now. In fact, the produce industry is dedicating enormous resources toward improving the flavor of fruits and vegetables throughout the supply chain, SCS' Brown said.

"Ten years from now, supermarkets will be able to offer produce items that not only have cosmetic appeal, but more fully meet the flavor expectations of their customers," she said.

The threat of contamination and even bioterrorism could lead to changes in fresh food containers, sources said. "Tamper-evident, see-through packaging will be seen everywhere," said Alan Andrews, director of marketing for egg packaging for Pactiv Corp., Lake Forest, Ill. "There'll be a need for new packaging equipment to make more types of food packages tamper-evident."

Other sources expect individual fruits, vegetables and eggs will be laser-etched with codes to make traceback easy.

All things considered, there 's no doubt that freshness will be top-of-mind with tomorrow's consumers, SN's sources agreed.

"The notion of 'fresh' has become a cultural trend, no longer an abstract idea," said Michelle Barry, vice president of consumer insights and trends for the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash. "It's been bubbling up for three years but there's been a huge shift in this last year in terms of interest and even conversation.

"Consumers are looking at location within the store and even at seasonality when they think of whether something is fresh," she said. "This near obsession with fresh will continue into the future and will affect packaging, expiration dates, distribution channels, etc."

Contain Yourself!

The future looks rosy for renewable packaging.

Ten years from now, fresh foods could be in containers made from tapioca, rice, sugar beets or potatoes. Corn-based containers took off with NatureWork's introduction of corn resin for packaging a couple of years ago, and the concept is growing, sources told SN. Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., was the first supermarket chain to roll out the packages. More recently, Wal-Mart Stores started using them.

The alternative is cost-effective as well as environmentally friendly, and those factors will help the concept grow. By 2015, at least half the packaging at retail will be made from renewable sources such as plant starches, predicted Dave Fosse, partner, Intec Alliance, Cambridge, Minn.

"That'll certainly be true if petroleum prices continue up or even stay where they are," Fosse said. "The cost gap between corn-based and petroleum-based packages is disappearing, making corn-based a real option for more retailers."

Intec Alliance, which manufactures packages from NatureWorks' corn resin, has seen double-digit growth for the past two years, a clear sign that corn-based containers are gaining acceptance.

Consumers also will see eye-catching containers with the advent of full-color printing on "surfaces people wouldn't have thought of two years ago," Fosse said. Colorful graphics on pouches and thin film wrappers will be commonplace, he said.

More packaging of fresh foods will be consistent with the growth of branded product, including supplier and store brands, predicted Neil Stern, senior partner, McMillan/Doolittle, Chicago. The proliferation of value-added items, such as bagged salads and chopped onions, will add to the sea of containers in produce departments.

"Expect to see more portion-controlled, pre-packed and prepared items, particularly in produce and meat," he said.

All kinds of alternate packaging, in limited use now, will be widely available in the future, said Ira Blumenthal, president, Co-Opportunities, an Atlanta-based food industry consulting company. More plastic pouches, holding meat and produce, along with gas-flushing, self-chilling and self-heating packages will be used as well. Innovations in packaging and the return of irradiation will help preserve the premium flavors that consumers are seeking, he said.

"There will be freshness monitors on everything," Blumenthal said.