It's apparent throughout the industry that the number of natural and organic food products are increasing.
According to statistics collected by New Hope Network and Sterling-Rice group shared at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore last month, natural and organic products are expected to be worth more than $200 billion in 2017. And, according to marketing experts at New Hope Network and the Natural Marketing Institute, the reasons for that growth can be attributed to three macroforces: A climate of change, conscious consumption, and moving beyond nutrition.
“It’s not just a growth story we have to share today,” said Carlotta Mast, executive director of content and insights for New Hope Network. “This industry, because we are growing, because it is so influential, has a broader impact on broader food and CPGs.”
Natural food, organic food and functional foods have all grown at rates of about 11% in the last year, according to statistics presented at the session. And those products are being sold in many more places. Mast said that there is currently more organic produce being sold at warehouse-club retailer Costco than natural grocer Whole Foods – about $4 billion a year. Currently, the biggest problem is supply keeping up with demand.
But who’s buying, why, and what can natural food companies do to keep the ball rolling and make a change in the world around them?
A climate of change
While the natural foods industry supports products with responsibly sourced ingredients, easy-to-understand labels, better-for-you items, and health benefits, companies also tend to make environmental sustainability one of their goals.
Mast said that food enters the discussion on the environment and climate change “as a victim, villain and solution.” Conventional agriculture, especially for livestock, is an example of things in the industry going wrong for the environment. Food waste is also a big problem for the industry. But, she stressed, food does not have to be part of the problem, and can also be a powerful solution.
“It’s very very cutting edge, very focused on how do we feed a population with less land and less waste,” she said.
With plant protein consumption on the rise, Mast said that food is getting more sustainable in the long run. Many new products that make use of protein from grains, nuts, vegetables and fruits are being launched and successful. Additionally, the new products are shifting the traditional paradigm of what makes a balanced meal, and consumers feel more OK about eating meat-free meals.
As the world population continues to grow, Mast said that companies are also finding more ecological ways to feed consumers. Cricket flour-based Chirps chips, algae protein used in Enjoy Life allergen-free brownie mix, and still-under-development Perfect Day, which uses chemistry to synthesize dairy milk without cows, all take the best of what’s available and provide it to consumers.
According to statistics, Maryellen Molyneaux, president and founding partner of the Natural Marketing Institute, said that about 80% of the population has some interest in food choices that will improve both their health and the environment. The most concerned are those driven by lifestyles of health and sustainability—which she abbreviated as LOHAS—who make up about 22% of the population. This group is made up of people who adopt natural food trends and choices first, and they spend 10% more than any group on products that meet their ideals of healthiness and good health.
This group makes up just under a quarter of the population, but Molyneaux said they have an impact on all consumers. Their consumption habits are close to those of a group she called the naturalites, which primarily looks for products they deem healthy. This group, which makes up 21% of the population, cares about the environment too, but it is a secondary concern.
The next two largest groups, called drifters and conventional, are more driven by price and brand preferences, but they also have find natural and environmentally friendly products important, Molyneaux said. Only 18% of those surveyed were classified as unconcerned.
With so many consumers caring about the health and sustainability of the products they buy, Molyneaux said they have helped drive the growth of organic food, as well as buoy the plant-based protein movement. All consumers are seeing plant-based proteins as a viable option, with 41% of the general population eating them last year, and demand for them is continuing to grow.
“We’re going to continue to see more and more of that as we continue in the marketplace,” she said.
With so many people interested in the environmental impact of the products they buy, Eric Pierce, director of strategy and insights for NEXT at New Hope Network, said that manufacturers should take the opportunity to tell the story of how their products help the environment – through waste reduction, eco-friendly manufacturing and impact on plants and animals.
“You need to connect the food people eat every day, the products people use every day with sustainability,” Pierce said.
With so many choices for consumers, Mast said that purchase decisions are sometimes based on the manufacturers’ values. This has heralded the growth of what she called the “purposeful brand” – a company that is trying to meet a bigger challenge than how to make money on producing a satisfying product.
“This is a place where our industry shines like no other because of the values and the stories,” she said.
A challenge that faces all manufacturers today is reducing waste, and Mast said there are food companies today that go above and beyond by repurposing byproducts from other product production. Some manufacturers are creating new products with their own waste, while others are using what another manufacturer might have thrown away. Forager has started turning what’s left of the vegetables it presses for juice into chips. And Sir Kensington’s turns the aquafaba left over from other companies’ hummus production into its vegan mayonnaise alternative, Fabanaise.
Molyneaux said that consumers are likely to make purchases from companies that have values similar to their own – especially millennials, 56% of whom said that it helps determine their purchases.
“They like to know that their purchase is going beyond more than feeding the company’s coffers,” she said.
Consumers want food companies to communicate with them, providing messages that are believable and authentic, Molyneaux said. Some symbols and labels – like non-GMO verified and fair trade seals – resonate with consumers who say they care about their health, the environment and how products impact the rest of the world.
However, she said, the communication should speak to all consumers. One product she worked with was only purchased by a small percentage of naturalites because there was no messaging on the package about its nutritional benefits.
Mast said that the natural food industry has always been about providing nutritious and wholesome products, but today’s consumer is looking for more. They want products that can help them feel and perform their best, and that reflect who they are as people.
“A growing number of consumers are prioritizing food as their first source for healing and prevention,” she said.
Molyneaux said that 65% of consumers say they watch what they eat. However, only 2% of them follow any single diet. And the vast majority of these people are following generic low-carb diets, controlling portion sizes, or incorporating more fish, vegetables and herbs through the Mediterranean diet.
“Most consumers make up their own thing and make their own diets. They don’t do just one thing,” she said.
While the paleo diet captures a lot of headlines and attention, Molyneaux said only 1% reported following it. Pierce said that paleo’s values of clean labels, minimal processing and easily understood ingredients are shared industrywide.
There are many opportunities for growth for fortified and functional foods, which have stayed relatively flat over the last decade, Molyneaux said. Consumers are interested in what the foods can do and are influenced when the label tells them that products do things like provide energy or boost immunity. On the other side of that coin, she said they are concerned about whether their bodies can absorb and use the nutrients in the products.
Pierce said this is an opportunity for communication with consumers and advancement of science.
“We need to think as an industry how we fund and do research, and show consumers the value of the nutrients we are selling them.”