DALLAS -- A variety of consumer and lifestyle trends are converging to create a bright future for the fresh-cut produce industry, according to an industry observer who spoke here at the 13th Annual International Fresh-cut Produce Association Conference and Exhibition.
"I have never seen an industry segment that is so perfectly positioned as the fresh-cut industry today," said Elizabeth Sloan, Ph.D., president of Florida-based Sloan Trends & Solutions. "And it has such great years ahead of it."
Consumers today have the understanding that fruits and vegetables are the healthiest foods for them, she said, adding that "fresh" is the most sought-after food claim by shoppers today, equaling, and sometimes surpassing, foods claiming to be low-cal or high fiber.
In addition, Sloan said about 50% of American households today eat at least two meatless meals each week, and in some homes, the number is even higher. She pointed to this, as well as decreased numbers of vegetable side dishes served as accompaniments to meat entrees, as prime areas for action on the part of the fresh-cut industry.
"We're seeing the erosion of the side dish, which is dangerous for this industry," she said. "That's our business, or at least it should be. [The fresh-cut industry] needs to step in and prove that we have options that are as simple, but better for you and better tasting than the frozen options."
Sloan recognized a movement in the restaurant industry from recipes that are French in origin to dishes with their roots in the Pacific Rim or Asian continents. As all mainstream trends do, this transition is expected to cross over into the home as well.
"There is a Far Eastern influence moving in," she said. "And that's good for fresh-cut produce because those recipes require fresh foods -- vegetables in particular."
But once introduced to the exotic, consumers naturally want even more exotic items, Sloan noted. Once they have such foreign cuisines readily available to them, the simple items that first broke through become blase.
"Teriyaki just won't impress anymore," she said. "But Teriyaki Ginger will. You have to keep the ideas new to keep their interest."
In the same respect, unique items like seasonal and locally grown produce, as well as baby veggies and heirloom crops, have gained in popularity across the nation.
"Different is interesting," Sloan said. "We need to use that to our advantage."
According to Sloan, there is a new generation of comfort foods emerging which will utilize some of those different ideas.
"Roasted meats and meats cooked over wood are becoming immensely popular," she said. "We need to come up with side dishes that will accommodate that smoky flavor."
Sloan encouraged the audience to investigate what they're up against. More than 50% of people will not cook a recipe if it has more than five ingredients, she said, adding that it's not necessarily the cook time, but the prep time that is often discouraging to consumers. "They generally don't care if something has to cook for an hour," she said. "As long as they don't have to stand there for that hour. If they can take 10 minutes to prepare it, pop it in the oven, go do other chores and come back to it later, that's okay."
The time constraints of today's busy consumer also put a damper on the diversity of their home menus, according to Sloan.
"The average household has eight distinct meals which it prepares on a rotating basis," she said. "They do it because it's easy, so the options we offer them have to be easy as well."
One advantage that is available to the fresh-cut segment is that, while pressed for time, consumers still admit to loving the idea of cooking something that is fresh and good for their family.
"They might not have hours to spend laboring over a meal," said Sloan. "But they still like to hear that sizzle, they still like the idea that they did it themselves. That's a big plus for [this industry] since the pre-cut produce you supply makes it easier for them to do so."
One area of the fresh-cut category which Sloan said needs more attention is the education of the consumers as to the particular health benefits of different fruits and vegetables.
"There has been this increasing trend toward the idea of whole health and the produce industry is not keeping up with other categories here," she said referencing an SN article [see "Produce Lacking in Whole-Health Programs," SN, Dec. 6, 1999]. "People today are steering away from over-the-counter drugs. They want their nutrients in the natural form."
To best capitalize on this trend, the industry, at every level, must know the benefits of each item it produces and sells and must effectively relay that information to the consumer.
"Know the facts," she said. "Know that cranberries are used to combat urinary tract infections and prevent plaque from building up and clogging your arteries. Know that oranges have an aspirin-like effect and that mushrooms bolster immunity."
Sloan pointed out that some companies are extracting the vital nutrients from mushrooms and making pills from them.
"Hello!" she said. "Why don't we just sell them the mushrooms?"
She pointed to one retailer using these strategies that sold more oatmeal in the middle of the summer than it had in the dead of winter by erecting an informative product display in the pharmacy area, rather than the cereal aisle.
All that in mind, Sloan said that sales success is all about getting the right message out to the consumer.
"They're on the right track," she said. "They know that, in general, fresh fruits and vegetables are good for them. We need to give them the details.
"Tell them why they're good, how they can easily incorporate them into their lives, how to get their children to eat them. Help them make these lifestyle changes and they will," Sloan added.