Consumers are asking the food industry: "What are all these weird ingredients that I can't pronounce doing in my salad dressing? And why is the dressing in a nonrecyclable bottle? And why is grocery shopping such a drag?" Americans concerned for their health, the environment and where their food comes from are changing the way they eat. And a yearning for more sensory stimulation is changing the way they shop. In response, manufacturers are changing the way they do business.
Consumers are asking the food industry: "What are all these weird ingredients that I can't pronounce doing in my salad dressing? And why is the dressing in a nonrecyclable bottle? And why is grocery shopping such a drag?"
Americans concerned for their health, the environment and where their food comes from are changing the way they eat. And a yearning for more sensory stimulation is changing the way they shop. In response, manufacturers are changing the way they do business.
In 2008, more products designed to appeal to socially conscious buyers will make it onto shelves, according to food-trend analysts. Companies are focusing on promoting green initiatives and making their food labels easier to read, using fewer scary-sounding ingredients and emphasizing additive-free and "good-for-you" products. At the same time, the grocery industry is turning its stores into pleasure palaces complete with mood lighting, piped-in smells and tasting bars.
Last year, Safeway reopened on First Street in Livermore, making the transition from supermarket to "lifestyle" store - a concept designed to appeal to a generation weaned on iPods and text messaging who complain that grocery shopping "is so boring."
"I actually had a young person tell me that," said Lynn Dornblaser, a trend expert for Mintel, an international marketing research firm. So, she says, the grocery industry is taking its cues from department stores.
Livermore's Safeway is a good example. Its coffee and tea section, a corner of the store bathed in warm lighting with rich hardwood display shelves and lots of free samples, looks more like a department in London's Harrods than a grocery store aisle.
The wine section is no different. Fashioned more like an upscale tasting room in a winery, a pourer serves samples from behind a cherrywood bar. Bottles, aglow from special pendant lamps, are stacked in fine cabinetry. There's a chocolate fountain in the bakery, a nut kiosk at the front of the store, restaurant seating for customers who want to eat their deli selections in house, and a produce section that could double as a Parisian street market with its farm-chic wooden crate displays.
Kara Nielsen, an analyst for the Center for Culinary Development, a San Francisco company that tracks food trends and develops products, said Whole Foods Market has long been a prototype for the multisensory supermarket. But even that posh store is taking it to a new level.
"There's one in Seattle that has a kitchen where you can have the chef cook your purchased food," Nielsen said. "Then you can eat it at one of Whole Foods' tables."
Chris Boveda, an 18-year-old self-described "former fat kid," likes his fancy Livermore Safeway just fine. But he says he doesn't let the bells and whistles lure him off course. The mission, he says, is to eat as healthfully as possible. The high school senior has lost 30 pounds since eighth grade by playing lacrosse and changing his eating habits, and he wants to keep it off. For that reason he does his own shopping - his parents give him $80 a week to spend on food - and prepares his own meals.
Boveda said he sticks to the perimeter of the store where the meat, fruit and vegetables are sold.
"I don't shop in the center aisles because that's where the processed food is," he said, adding that "if it doesn't come out of the earth, swim, fly or run, it's no good for you."
Dornblaser said the food industry wants to get Boveda and others like him back into the middle of the store. They're working on producing more "junk-free" foods by leaving out additives, preservatives, artificial colors, flavors and unknown ingredients.
Some stores, including the Hannaford Bros. New England supermarket chain, have adopted food rating systems. The Hannaford stores commissioned a panel of nutritionists, including ones from Harvard University, Dartmouth Medical School and UC Davis, to grade its products for nutrition value - zero stars being the worst and three stars being the best. Of the 27,000 items evaluated, 77 percent received no stars, and many were Hannaford's own brands.
After a year, the grocery company found that sales of many starred foods, such as lean cuts of beef, increased significantly, while zero-starred foods, like whole milk, dropped.
Locally, Raley's stores are expected to adopt a new labeling system that rates food products on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 going to the most nutritious items. The labels - called the Overall Nutritional Quality Index, or ONQI, score - will show up on about 40,000 products in Raley's locations in the Bay Area over the summer.
Nielsen said there was a time when busy shoppers trusted a product's claim of being good for you, and didn't bother to read the label. Not any longer, she said. Now they're studying packages as keenly as they would an SAT primer.
As a model, Dornblaser points to Innocent, a British company that makes juices and smoothies. "Their labels are more like recipes," she said.
An ingredient list for one of the company's "pure fruit smoothies" reads: 62 crushed cranberries, 12 crushed raspberries, 1/2 crushed banana, 2 1/2 pressed apples and some freshly squeezed orange juice.
Dornblaser said some American companies, including Odwalla and Breyers Ice Cream, have similar philosophies, and she expects that even more manufacturers will adopt the strategy for their own products.