When Delicious Living’s inaugural issue rolled off the presses 30 years ago, Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” ads were luring people to fast-food joints in droves, Wonder Bread was the country’s best-selling loaf, and mainstream shoppers seeking “healthier” options were turning to preservative-laden Lean Cuisine dinners and aspartame-infused Sugar Free Jell-O.
Into this dubious food landscape stepped the nascent natural products industry, as small-scale food co-ops of the 1960s and ’70s gave way to sophisticated, full-service markets. Still, with just $2.7 billion food sales in 1985 (out of $290 billion overall) and a lingering reputation as “wheat-germ-crunching food faddists,” the natural foods lifestyle faced an uncertain future, says Joe Dobrow, author of Natural Prophets: From Health Foods to Whole Foods—How the Pioneers of the Industry Changed the Way We Eat and Reshaped American Businesses (Rodale, 2014). “It was still thought of as little more than an aging hippie sideshow to the serious business of feeding America,” he says.
Fast forward 30 years, and the cultural influence of the natural products movement cannot be overstated. Sales of natural and organic products topped $109 billion in 2013, according to Natural Foods Merchandiser, with food sales growing at a 10 percent to 12 percent clip annually, radically outpacing the sluggish 3.4 percent annual growth of conventional groceries. Eighty-one percent of U.S. families now buy organic items at least sometimes. Giant retailers, from 7-Eleven to Walmart, eye trendsetting natural foods stores for cues on what to stock next. And widespread concerns about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), allergens, pesticides, and artificial ingredients are shaping innovation in food, supplements, and personal care like never before.
“It has been a complete sea change,” says Dobrow. “This industry is now the shining beacon on the hill.”
How did we get here, and what’s next? In celebration of Delicious Living’s 30th year, here’s a look back and a glimpse forward.
Taste takes a back seat
This magazine, originally dubbed Delicious!, intentionally sought to counteract a stereotype that has plagued health food for decades: that it tastes crummy.
To be honest, that stereotype was often deserved, says Sylvia Tawse, founder of Fresh Ideas Group, a Boulder, Colorado-based communications firm, who took her first job at a natural foods store in the mid-1980s. There, she found brittle oat-bran muffins alongside steaming pots of “brown goo” (seitan or tofu chunks in mystery sauce).
As Dobrow says in Natural Prophets, “through the 1960s and 1970s, there [was] little more than a sprinkling of dreary health foods stores across the country, offering a laughably small selection of wheat germ, tofu, brown rice, and other products that were decidedly lacking in mainstream tastes, and for that matter lacking taste altogether.” People ate them not to delight the palate, but to fix what ailed them or to follow their conscience. “It was food as prescription or food as philosophy,” says Tawse. “It didn’t matter how it tasted.”
Fears cause missteps
Back then, there were plenty of reasons to eat unpleasant health food anyway: On September 22, 1985, the inaugural Farm Aid concert sounded the alarm that America’s burgeoning factory farms were forcing the loss of 32,000 family farms each year. In 1989, demand for organic produce blew up in the wake of a 60 Minutes special pegging the chemical pesticide Alar as “the most potent cancer-causing agent in the food supply today.”
Soon, concerns about a heart disease epidemic were luring in people who had never thought about stepping foot inside a health foods store. Unfortunately, “heart health” awareness brought with it a misguided fat-free craze and a new generation of bland, hyperprocessed “better-for-you” snacks. (Remember fat-free SnackWells?) As food manufacturers moved further away from “real food” toward unpronounceable ingredients, historic (and delicious) ingredients got left behind: Home cooks began to eschew “fattening” butter for fake-food margarine, banished nuts as too fatty and caloric, and abandoned cholesterol-heavy egg yolks for insipid whites.
Then something shifted. “Spurred on by the unrelenting idealism of a few visionaries and by a series of food scares that laid bare the presence of dangerous chemicals in everyday foods, society began to rediscover the world of natural and organic foods,” writes Dobrow. “Natural foods became more abundant, more accessible, more sophisticated, more palatable, [and] more desirable.” By 1996, more than 6,600 natural health foods stores dotted the country, ringing up $9.17 billion in sales—a fraction of overall food sales, but representing an astonishing 17 percent annual growth over the previous five years, which was four or five times the rate of conventional grocery.
In the late 1990s, a countertrend to food-as-duty emerged—one in which people rediscovered real food as a source of joy. “We went from a ‘health food’ movement in the ’80s to a more hedonistic ‘gourmet food’ movement in the ’90s,” says Tawse, recalling the glorious selections of artisan cheese and chocolate that began to appear in health foods stores.
Flavor and simplicity reign
Peruse the aisles at a natural foods store today and the offerings typically taste better than their conventional counterparts, says Carlotta Mast, senior director of content for New Hope Natural Media. “The taste profiles have improved dramatically over the past 30 years,” she says, pointing to a surge in snack and other natural and organic foods with creative, full-flavor ingredients. Some that spring to mind: snacks like Food Should Taste Good Sweet Potato Chips and Dang Foods Coconut Chips and tasty but healthful convenience foods like Evol’s gluten-free burritos and Maggie’s Conscious Vegan Cuisine meals.
As a backlash to decades of hyperprocessing and in response to a surge in demand for allergen-free food, manufacturers are also simplifying ingredient lists and packaging. For instance, Tolerant Foods’ organic, vegan, gluten- and allergen-free pastas contain—get this—just one ingredient: red lentils or black beans. That’s It bars contain only two: apple and one other fruit. KIND’s gluten-free cereals and bars come in see-through packs with a pledge that “if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, it shouldn’t go into your body.” That increasingly holds true for what goes on your body, too; forward-thinking personal care companies are working to eliminate potential toxins from products and to source cleaner options.
As the pendulum swings back toward real foods instead of lab-created pseudofoods, Ancient is the new New. You can’t walk down a natural foods store aisle today without noticing the proliferation of ancient grains like quinoa, millet, teff, and amaranth, all gluten free and nutritionally dense. Thanks to meat’s questionable production and carbon footprint, vegan, vegetarian, and raw offerings continue to gain popularity among health food purists and mainstream shoppers alike. And in the wake of new research suggesting they’re actually good for you, eggs (particularly pasture-raised), potatoes, and coconut are enjoying a renaissance; even “butter is back,” The New York Times happily declared last March. “People today want minimally processed, simple food made from whole-food ingredients,” says Mast. “Our food future looks a lot like our past.”
Today’s shopper, perhaps more than ever, also cares about the story behind the food: who made it, where it came from, and how it improves the world. Research by Kansas City advertising agency Barkley shows that more than half of Millennials (those born between 1977 and 2000) use cell phones to make shopping decisions, and 37 percent say they’ll pay more for a product if it supports a cause they believe in.
“Manufacturers are realizing transparency is key,” says Mast. Just scan your phone over the QR code on One Degree Organics bread, and your screen will light up with a video about the farmers who grew the grains. Punch an ID number from a Gaia Herbs’ bottle into the Meet Your Herbs app, and you’ll find out how its ingredients fared in purity tests.
“I see the next phase as a ‘true food’ movement,” says Tawse. “People today not only expect their food to be healthy and taste good, but they also want to know it’s clean and produced fairly.”
The burning question on the natural industry’s mind now: How can we feed the world without destroying the planet? Expect natural foods makers to get increasingly creative as they work to answer that question.
“It is pretty obvious that our current food systems are completely unsustainable with regard to natural resource consumption,” says Pat Crowley, founder of Salt Lake City–based Chapul, which sells energy bars made from cricket flour. “You can raise high-protein crickets in a warehouse, in stacked bins, where you use far fewer land and water resources.” (Because you’re wondering: They taste kind of like sunflower seeds.) “The math is simple: If we shift even a small fraction of our protein consumption to environmentally friendly, healthy (and tasty!) insects, we can reduce the huge amount of water that irrigates the massive, mechanized farms that exist solely to feed cattle and pigs,” Crowley says.
Likewise, Hampton Creek, a San Francisco–based food technology company, operates from a mission to create a more sustainable food system. Its scientist-studded team tested more than 1,550 plants from 40 countries to discover a particular yellow pea subspecies, the foundation of its flagship product: plant-based, egg-free, and non-GMO Just Mayo. “By producing plant-based egg substitutes sustainably and at lower prices than those offered by industrialized agriculture, Hampton Creek has the potential to reframe much of the debate around natural products that stalls with charges of elitism and lack of access,” says Marc Brush, editor in chief of Nutrition Business Journal.
Simpler and personalized
When it comes to supplements, Tim Avila, president of Systems Bioscience Inc., sees a trend toward cleaner offerings, free of the past’s mysterious preservatives and extraction methods, and a slight shift away from single-compound pills toward more synergistic whole-food materials like whole acai fruit pulp (shown in a recent study to stabilize blood sugar) and organic whole cranberry.
“Whole-food” supplements, made by companies like New Chapter, MegaFood, and Garden of Life, are already among the fastest growing supplement categories. This “back-to-basics” approach is also happening in personal care, where companies like Antho and S.W. Basics craft skin care products out of cocoa, almonds, and strawberries, as the entire industry strives to get endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like phthalates and parabens, out of its products.
Big picture: Jim Kean, founder of the health technologies company WellnessFX, envisions a day in the not-too-distant future when people routinely send a blood or DNA (via saliva) sample to a lab and, with the guidance of an online practitioner, receive a personalized menu detailing what to eat and take to not only fend off illness but optimize wellness. Some supplement companies, including Thorne Research Inc. and Metagenics, are already partnering with diagnostic companies to move in this direction.
Scaled up, same mission
Growth-wise, natural and organic foods still constitute only a fraction of overall food spending, and organic agriculture still contributes only 2 percent of the total U.S. food supply. Many experts predict the steep part of the growth curve lies ahead, as large conventional stores further embrace organic, driving the price down and making it more accessible. Walmart, for example, recently announced a plan to roll out a new line of reduced-price Wild Oats brand organic offerings; Safeway’s O Organics brand, launched in 2005, tallied $750 million in sales in 2012.
“The taste, quality, variety, packaging, and value of natural foods [have] improved to the point of near parity with conventional foods, so they’ve gained wider acceptance,” says Dobrow. “Additionally, … Millennials have come of age with a holistic interest in natural foods but an indifference to where they are purchased.”
Sky View / Thinkstock
Whether the products are sold at small-scale stores, big-box retailers, or even gas stations, natural products visionaries will be there to keep innovating, largely because of something that has not changed over the years: a mission to promote better health for people and the planet. “The vast majority of [natural and organic] companies are still purpose-driven companies doing much more than just launching a new food or personal care product or supplement,” Mast says. “They are trying to change the world.”