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Corporate Updates from Sara Lee, Seventh Generation and Frito-Lay

Some companies are devoted to health and wellness and work their way into the mainstream; others are just so large to begin with that eventually they pick up some whole health mindshare by developing new products or better-for-you versions of existing items.

Such is the case this week with a few big companies in the news. Not all of it is good, but it’s heartening nonetheless since it shows this segment of the industry is alive and kicking after a couple of years of little or no activity.

First, reports were confirmed that Sara Lee is selling its massive fresh baking unit to Grupo Bimbo, the equally big baker (think Arnold, Entenmann's, Freihofer's and Thomas', among others) after earlier negotiations with Interstate Bakeries (home of Wonderbread and Twinkies) fell through. The deal, worth $1 billion, will allow Sara Lee to focus on the core businesses it is keeping. It’s a strategy similar to one followed by ConAgra several years ago when it sold off its commodities business to focus on brands like Healthy Choice.

The thing about Sara Lee is that they helped push research and development in the area of whole grains. In 2007 it came out with its Soft & Smooth line that boasted of having “the taste and texture of white bread with the goodness of whole grain,” a claim later disputed by public watchdogs.

Still the company made the idea of whole-grain consumption more palatable to many Americans who were just discovering the virtues of whole grains.

Now, onto Frito-Lay. I had a chance to sit down with Steve Reinemund, then CEO of PepsiCo, back in 2005 in Plano, Texas, when Frito Lay was launching a major wellness makeover (that also included its Quaker and Pepsi divisions).

At that time, the focus was on the ingredients. Among the products that got a lot of attention was Sun Chips. Reinemund was keen on them. Fast forward five years to Earth Day 2010, when the company announced a new biodegradable bag for Sun Chips.

And then, boom. Internet chat rooms and bulletin boards sang with complaints about the crinkly noisiness of the bags. Late this summer, PepsiCo pulled the bio-bags and reverted to the original ones while more research was conducted.

Not so in Canada. The Canuck division is scoring a marketing coup by offering free earplugs for anyone who can’t stand the noise. A video on the company’s Facebook page features the offer.

Finally, the continuing mystery at Seventh Generation, where the surprise dumping of co-founder Jeffery Hollender this month has the industry abuzz with suppositions and wild guesses. A number of people close to the story (and by extension, Hollender himself) say the circumstances for the dismissal remain vague, and everyone is waiting for Hollender to emerge at some point down the road and tell his side of the story — which is complicated by the on-again, off-again (now on again) relationship between the board of directors and Hollender’s handpicked successor.

All this is happening as the company announces that it will start supplying more than 1,000 Wal-Mart stores with its green household products… a scenario that only several years ago Hollender said would require hell to freeze over before it happened.