In 1952, the family doctor was smoking Kools. In 2002, the local grocer dispenses wisdom on anything from whole grains to hypertension. A lot has happened in the interim, spawning a veritable whole health revolution in the Center Store.
Today's consumers are aware of saturated fats and pesticides, and they are looking for a supermarket that understands. According to J.B. Pratt, chief executive officer of Pratt Foods Supermarkets, Shawnee, Okla., this knowledge is the driving force behind the growth of natural and organic grocery categories.
"Health issues may have been primitive 50 years ago. People simply didn't know it," Pratt said.
Education has been the cornerstone of the whole health movement since the first co-ops sprang up on college campuses in the 1960s. Industry observers attribute the birth of the health-food movement to the social and political mores of that era.
The "health food" stores of the '60s and early '70s bore slight resemblance to the full-service, health-food supermarkets of today, according to Pratt. Basically, the formula was pills, granola and a lot of literature.
Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas, is generally deemed the earliest progenitor of the modern health-food supermarket. The chain opened its first store in Austin in 1980. At 10,500 square feet, the unit was manned by a staff of 19. Today, the chain boasts 135 stores in the United States and Canada, and plans are in the works for an 80,000-square-foot store in Austin, according to company officials.
Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards, Wild Oats Market, Boulder, Colo., credits the creation of the packaged, natural product to the emergence of an entrepreneurial caste in the 1970s. Visionaries like Gene Kahn, the founder of Cascadian Farm, and Mo Siegel of Celestial Seasonings, redefined health food, she told SN.
"Previously, 'health food' consisted mostly of nuts and berries, and everything was sold in bulk. These people came along and realized that this stuff could be put in boxes, and sold with a brand name."
The evolution of processed organic is key to the segment's mainstream viability.
"The world that we live in demands a processed product that can be kept on a shelf, and manufacturers and retailers continue to adapt," said Pratt.
The wellness ideal continues to penetrate traditional media, and the natural and organic customer base is expanding in concert. According to Wild Oats' Mulry, one of the initial hurdles to processed organic was the political agenda. The environment came first, she said, and activists weren't interested in convenience. However, the notion of health and well-being has transformed natural and organic foods into a personal choice for the broader audience.
"The shift has been away from the environmental prerogative. New customers want to see the natural option in the products they are accustomed to, and they want to see that choice represented throughout the aisles," Mulry said.
Unlike Wild Oats and Whole Foods, Pratt's stores are conventional supermarkets. His customers are not necessarily looking for an alternative option. However, Pratt is dedicated to promoting healthy living. He begins the process by emphasizing the basics and, in order to communicate with the average consumer, Pratt uses language they can understand.
"You talk about the 5 A Day program and teach people how to read labels," he explained. "None of this has anything to do with natural or organic, but it lays the foundation."
Pratt offers nutritional brochures and highlights relevant information in appropriate sections throughout the store. The chain also conducts guided tours for customers with health-related concerns.
One of the most marked turning points in the history of the health-food movement was the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990, said Mulry.
"The industry realized they needed to get together on a piece of legislation that would establish a national standard," she said.
Previously, individual states and independent agencies had varying methods and standards of certification. After 10 years of collaboration, the final rule took effect in 2001, providing a uniform set of production and handling standards to be regulated by the USDA.
Members of the organic community are largely optimistic about the federal government's new role. According to Mulry, the legislation stands as powerful testament to the currency of the whole health movement.