Natural Foods in the Mainstream

—by Kjersti Hanneman, HPC Member

I recently started a new job in advertising. I work in (what I consider to be) the most exciting part of advertising—account planning. As an account planner, I bring consumers into the initial planning stages of an advertising campaign through interviews, focus groups, and other qualitative research. I certainly have qualms about working in this field, but so far, I am working with brands that I believe in. One of those brands is an ice cream that features zero additives, artificial colorings and flavors, or other synthetics.

As a loyal HPC shopper and an advocate of sustainable, local food, I am deeply interested in food systems and the distinctions (sometimes rather confusing) between organic, natural, local, sustainable, free-range, hormone-free, etc. My first project at my new job examines how people feel about the label "natural," for food in general, and specifically for ice cream.

Needless to say, this project excites me more than my other projects, which focus on lawn equipment and insurance. While I won’t go into detail, I will share what intrigued me most about the results of my research. People in our specific target audience (30-something moms around the country) read labels and care a great deal about specific ingredients found on those labels. In addition, it is the lack of synthetics, artificial ingredients, additives, transfats, and high fructose corn syrup that defines “healthy” for these moms, rather than the lack of calories and fat. This seems obvious to many of us here at HPC, but it is a significant change of attitude for many. Some people on my team at work couldn’t get over thinking of "healthy ice cream" as an oxymoron.

Mainstream American consumers are redefining what healthy foods mean. As a result, we see evidence of the organic “trend” going mainstream, which is good for co-ops like ours, right?

Yes and no. First of all, the participants in my research were intimidated by the organic category and knew very little about how it differs from other labels, such as "natural." (A whole series of articles could be written about labeling.) Second, they weren’t going to co-ops to find natural foods. They were going to the supermarket, Whole Foods, and Trader Joe’s. Finally, I did not see a broader ethical component in the mainstream trend towards buying natural and organic. The research participants were concerned solely about the health of their families. The health of our soil, planet, and farm economy did not come up.

So, I think it is up to all of us to raise awareness of the significance of labels such as local, organic, "deep" organic, natural, and sustainable. It is up to us to add the context of environmental and societal health to the discussion of natural and organic as healthier than conventional foods. It is up to us to speak up about the importance of sustainability and locally grown foods in this discussion. I firmly believe that if left to run its course, this trend will not incorporate environmental, economic, and societal health into the picture. Right now, the mainstreaming of organic is based on individual health concerns, which are just one part of why food choices are so critical in today’s world. As more and more people in our lives "go organic," let’s be there to shape the discussion of food choice to include the health of our society, economy, and environment.