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Vitamins and minerals are so last year. Everyone who's read a health magazine in the supermarket checkout aisle, or watched an appearance of Nicholas Perricone or Steven Pratt on Oprah, knows it's micronutrients such as flavonoids, carotenoids, antioxidants, anthocyanins and docosahexaenoic acid that do the real nutritional heavy lifting. Or so it would seem. As researchers discover more about the

Vitamins and minerals are so last year. Everyone who's read a health magazine in the supermarket checkout aisle, or watched an appearance of Nicholas Perricone or Steven Pratt on Oprah, knows it's micronutrients such as flavonoids, carotenoids, antioxidants, anthocyanins and docosahexaenoic acid that do the real nutritional heavy lifting.

Or so it would seem. As researchers discover more about the complex web of nutrients found in plants, and how they all work together to keep people healthy, a flurry of diet books, television segments and newspaper articles have begun trafficking in complex terms like those above, and promising shoppers that if they eat the latest “superfood” containing these nutrients, they'll live longer and look better. Not surprisingly, the majority of these foods can be found in the produce department.

Yet many nutritionists and advocates for the produce industry view this trend as a mixed blessing.

“Any positive news is good news, in my opinion,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the Wilmington, Del.-based Produce for Better Health Foundation, whose marketing programs focus on the importance of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. “The only hesitation I have about it is that this whole field of phytochemicals, just as an example, is very young. They are to the field of nutrition what vitamins and minerals were 60 years ago. There are a lot of things we just don't know about phytochemicals yet.”

Superfoods — which in various lists include berries, spinach, broccoli, kale, citrus fruits, avocados, kiwis, nuts, apples, olives and tomatoes — certainly appear to be having an impact on consumer purchasing habits. The recent report “Building a Fresh Brand with Perishables” from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. and partner FreshLook Marketing indicates that total produce sales were up 6.2% to $33.9 billion for the 52 weeks ending August 27, 2006. Sales of berries, which have received significant recent attention related to their antioxidant capacity, were up an even more impressive 11.3% to $2.3 billion during that time.

Another clear indication comes from the grocery aisles, where IRI is predicting continued robust growth for functional foods and beverages. Sales of foods that highlight antioxidant content, heart protection promises and other functionality claims are projected to increase from $36 billion in 2006 to $60 billion in 2009, IRI noted in its recently released “2006 CPG Year in Review” report.

The marketing power of health promises has led to a boom in research funding from state departments of agriculture, fruit and vegetable councils and companies eager to endow their produce or product with a health and wellness message.

For example, the Cherry Marketing Institute, a Lansing, Mich.-based group funded by U.S. cherry growers, launched a public relations campaign this month focusing on the fruit's health benefits.

“Our consumer research found that shoppers weren't aware that cherries were high in antioxidants and anthocyanins,” noted Jeff Manning, a marketing consultant who is spearheading CMI's campaign. “Our strategy basically positions cherries and cherry products as superfoods — right up there with the blueberries of the world, which have gotten a tremendous amount of press in recent years.”

Since health is a hot topic in the consumer press, dollar for dollar, research funding and public relations campaigns often prove more valuable than traditional advertising. Thanks to the CMI's campaign, for example, articles touting cherries as the latest superfood have already been written up by the Associated Press, and featured in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today, among other outlets.

Yet while nutritionists acknowledge that this type of coverage may influence shoppers to try something new or spend more time exploring their local produce department, many express frustration with campaigns that focus on a single compound in a single type of fruit or vegetable, rather than teaching consumers that they simply need to eat more produce in general.

“This is a direct result of deregulation of health claims and, I think, not a good idea,” said Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. “Since all fruits, vegetables and nuts have many different kinds of nutrients, all can be advertised for their health benefits.

“It's absurd. Doing this has nothing to do with health and everything to do with marketing. Every real food has some beneficial quality, so pretty soon every food in the supermarket will have a health claim on it. No wonder the public is confused.”

Other produce advocates noted that the buzz surrounding a handful of fruits and vegetables could cause some shoppers to overlook the fact that other items in the produce department are just as good for them.

“Our position is that all fruits and vegetables are superfoods, and [consumers] should eat all of them,” said Amy Philpott, vice president of marketing and industry relations for the United Fresh Produce Association. “We don't really encourage customers to choose one fruit or vegetable over another.”

Produce department managers can use a shopper's interest in nutrition to their advantage, however, with the right approach of their own. Philpott noted that many retailers host nutritional tours through the produce department. Others, including Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle, incorporate produce sampling programs into their efforts to broaden their customers' nutritional horizons. The company's website also provides extensive resources advising shoppers on how to select, store and prepare various fruits and vegetables, along with nutritional information on each.

“I think some of the best promotional ideas involve just giving shoppers ideas for things to do with a fruit or vegetable,” said Pivonka. She noted that one “superfood,” the pomegranate, could have been especially confusing to shoppers, but when retailers started carrying the fruit, many attached grower-supplied brochures to their bins — offering shoppers directions on how to cut the fruit, along with simple serving suggestions.

This guidance is crucial if marketers don't want to simply produce a short-lived fad, noted Manning.

“Frequency is really important,” he said. “It's not just go out and have a handful of dried cherries once. There are a few ways that we're working to increase usage — primarily through recipe suggestions. There's lots and lots of ways for people to incorporate [cherries] into their diets simply.”

Other retailers have embraced the superfood trend more directly. Albertsons, notably, custom-published 24,000 hardcover copies of Steven Pratt's “Superfoods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life” to sell in produce department displays, and Wild Oats Markets had its staff nutritionists develop a “Superfoods — Super You!” diet plan that includes a large variety of recipes, suggested daily menus of 1,300 to 1,600 calories and other advice to help their customers incorporate more nutrient-dense foods into their diets.

Phyting Words

All this talk of superfoods demands a super vocabulary. “Phytonutrients” have become a hot topic in consumer health magazines and television segments as researchers delve deeper into why eating fruits and vegetables helps people live longer, healthier lives. Here are a few related terms that have been getting the most attention lately:

  • ORAC — Short for “Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity,” ORAC is a system developed by the National Institute on Aging that rates the antioxidant capacity of different foods. Berries, cherries, prunes, spinach and kale all rate highly.
  • Anthocyanins — These plant pigments give many red and blue fruits and berries their color. Recent research indicates that, in addition to their antioxidant effects, these compounds are anti-inflammatory as well, and may reduce symptoms of arthritis.
  • Capsaicin — This compound gives peppers their heat. Recent laboratory research indicates that large doses may also shrink tumors and prevent many cancers from spreading.
  • Flavonoids — This broad group of antioxidants includes compounds such as resveratrol in red wine and EGCG in green tea, both of which have become recent media darlings for their anti-cancer, anti-heart disease and anti-aging potential. Citrus fruits are an excellent source, but all plants contain varying levels of thousands of flavonoids.
  • Isothiocyanates — These compounds are found primarily in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and cabbage. Research indicates that they inhibit tumor growth and may be particularly effective for preventing lung and esophageal cancer.
  • Lycopene — Tomatoes, pink grapefruit, watermelons and guava all get their red color from this antioxidant. Recent research has led to a qualified health claim from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that says, in a roundabout way, that lycopene may reduce the risks of prostate cancer and heart disease.
    — M.E.
TAGS: Marketing