Consumers covet the virtues of value-added produce in the eating-for-better-health trend.
America's No. 1 New Year's resolution this year is to "lose weight." Also making the top 10 list of resolutions: "staying fit and healthy," according to the University of Scranton's Journal of Clinical Psychology.
'Tis the season consumers strive to make fruits and vegetables a more significant part of their plates, at least in theory. While Americans continue to fall short of the recommended daily intake of vitamins and nutrients vital to good health, progressive grocers can help consumers bridge the gap between wanting and doing with a variety of new products that makes a rainbow of produce easy and delicious to prepare.
The Heart of the Matter
February is heart month, but heart health through better eating is likely to be one of the year's most important food trends. U.S. News & World Report, which recently released the findings of its fourth annual Best Diets rankings, named the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet as the best of 2014.
The report takes a comprehensive look at 32 diets, and includes reviews from a panel of nutrition and health experts. Developed with the help of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, in Bethesda, Md., the DASH diet won top honors for its role in reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease, lowering cholesterol, and lowering blood pressure.
"Overall, DASH reflects the medical community's widely accepted definition of a heart-healthy diet – it's heavy on fruits and vegetables and light on saturated fat, sugar and salt," notes the report.
"One of the hallmarks of the DASH diet is more fruits and vegetables," concurs Dr. Linda Van Horn, an American Heart Association (AHA) nutrition committee volunteer and professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University's Feinburg School of Medicine, in Chicago. It's a critical component in the effectiveness of this diet, given that most Americans eat far less than the recommended servings. "In fact, only 1 percent of the population gets the 25 to 30 grams of fiber recommended per day," Van Horn says.
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are the main dietary sources of fiber. "As the average consumer gets only 11 or 12 grams of fiber a day, it's a big indicator that people are under-consuming these foods," Van Horn says. "And we see this across all demographics: men, women, different ethnic backgrounds, young and old.
The eating pattern in this country is upside-down. The average American eats only one to two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, instead of the five to nine recommended."
– Dr. Linda Van Horn, American Heart Association Nutrition Committee
"The eating pattern in this country is upside-down," continues Van Horn. "The average American eats only one to two servings of fruits and vegetables a day, instead of the five to nine recommended." To make matters worse, most people replace their servings of fresh produce with foods high in fat, sodium and other dietary demons."
One of the challenges in turning the nation nutritionally right-side-up may be the number of people who don't know how to prepare fresh vegetables.
"We are in an era where many younger individuals have lost the idea of how to cook," says Van Horn, who has observed this trend with the young med students she teaches. "Those who sell produce really would do their consumers a favor, as well as themselves, by providing simple recipes and giving shoppers a taste, so they know this tastes good and it's good for me."
Shop the Rainbow
According to the American Heart Association, based in Dallas, the best way to get the variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients required for good health is to eat fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors every day. The association breaks down the colors into five main groups: blue/purple, red, orange/yellow, green and white.
A rainbow of recent product introductions, many of which feature recipe-touting packaging, is making it easier for consumers to get their recommended daily produce intake in a way that's delicious, fresh and convenient.
Buying Into Blueberry Health
New research from the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council (USHBC), in Folsom, Calif., shows that Americans are nearly twice as likely to buy blueberries in the coming year as they were nine years ago. The research also indicates that the number of households saying they've purchased blueberries within the past month (69 percent) has nearly doubled since 2008.
Today's blueberry consumers are also trending younger, more ethnically diverse and more aware of the health benefits of eating the fruit, according to the USHBC.
"Consumers associate blueberries with health, which is good news for marketers, because awareness of the fruit's nutritional benefits is closely tied to propensity to purchase," says the council, which further notes that 99 percent of consumers believe blueberries to be a healthy food.
What's more, the council reports that 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they were aware of specific health benefits associated with blueberries, a 115 percent increase over 2004.
Eggplant is more than just a pretty purple. This low-calorie vegetable is a source of B vitamins, including niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and folate. But consumers unfamiliar with the many fast and tasty ways to prepare aubergine might be missing out.
Wholesum Harvest's newest packaging aims to change that. The Nogales, Ariz.-based company has introduced 1- and 2-count packs of eggplant in compostable, unbleached plant fiber trays.
The packaging also features a QR code that allows consumers to access tempting recipes, as well as a YouTube video in which Wholesum Harvest chef Tony Merola shows users how to cut, skin and bake eggplant.
While many consumers are aware that tomatoes are a good source of the red pigment lycopene, they may not know that watermelon contains higher levels of this carotenoid than any other fresh fruit or vegetable (15 to 20 milligrams per 2-cup serving), according to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, in Orlando, Fla.
Even though it's a perennial heart-healthy choice, fewer people think of buying this summertime favorite in the heart of winter. "No one wants to lug a whole watermelon around through the snow and cold," admits Gordon Hunt, director of marketing and communications for the board.
As to grab-and-go, value-added alternatives, Hunt notes: "The challenge has always been the shelf life with cut watermelon." However, new technologies may soon change that.
Hunt points to clamshell containers from Atlanta-based Maxwell Chase Technologies. "The packaging wicks away excess moisture and keeps the watermelon from disintegrating," he explains. "I think it will be really big for the watermelon industry."
With regard to larger watermelon cuts and quarters, Hunt has his eye on Maglio and Co., in Glendale, Wis. "They have introduced a clear bag with a handle that allows you to carry pieces of watermelon, and they find it extends shelf life," he says.
Dubbed a "21st Century Superfood" by Reader's Digest, pomegranates are another red fruit that has gained the attention of an increasing number of health-conscious consumers in recent years.
Firebaugh, Calif.-based Ruby Fresh is introducing a new grab-and-go way for consumers to get more of this vitamin C- and antioxidant-rich fruit into their diets.
Ruby Fresh "Jewels" are pomegranate arils now available in a convenient snack-cup size. Eliminating the somewhat laborious task of removing arils from a pomegranate, Ruby Fresh offers ready-to-go arils in 4-ounce and 5.3-ounce cups.
Rich in phytonutrients and antioxidants, squash is a great source of heart-healthy produce this time of year. Baloian Farms, in Fresno, Calif., recently introduced two value-added squash products featuring both yellow and green squash with seasoning.
"We created this product to be an easy and healthy side-dish option for consumers to make with minimal prep work and time, and it's proving to do just that," notes Jeremy Lane, Baloian Farms sales manager.
The line launched at Kansas City, Kan.-based Associated Wholesale Grocers in December. "We decided to start with one retailer so we could gauge the results, and so far it has been very successful," says Lane, adding that Baloian Farms plans to expand distribution with more retailers this year.
High in vitamin A, folic acid and dietary fiber, asparagus is a low-calorie vegetable packed with nutrition. Los Angeles, Calif.-based Gourmet Trading Co. recently introduced a tray and flow-wrapped asparagus product with extended shelf life.
The tray, available in sizes ranging from 8 ounces to 1 pound, is made of a 100 percent compostable fiber, while the film overlay is also compostable.
Additionally, the company's website features a host of mouthwatering asparagus recipes, along with easy-to-follow instructions for preparing the vegetable.
America's Appetite for Avocados
The latest nutrition news on avocados may drive sales of this already hot category higher still. According to the Hass Avocado Board (HAB), in Irvine, Calif., retail sales of avocados topped $1.2 billion last year, with Hass avocados representing a 94 percent dollar share for all avocados.
Now, a new study funded by HAB and conducted by researchers at California's Loma Linda University suggests that adding avocado to a meal may increase satiety and curb overeating.
The new study, published in Nutrition Journal, found that participants who added half of a fresh Hass avocado to their lunch reported a significantly decreased desire to eat by 40 percent over a three-hour period, and by 28 percent over a five-hour period following the meal, compared with their desire to eat after a similar lunch without avocado.
Veggies in the white category, such as garlic, onions and chives, not only offer health benefits, they also allow consumers to prepare more flavorful, nutritious food.
"Eating a rainbow of color is a great idea, and garlic can add flavor to almost any vegetable," says Patsy Ross, VP of marketing for Christopher Ranch. "Because garlic is so versatile, the flavor profile can go from hot and pungent – if used raw – to mild and nutty – if roasted – and every dimension in between; it is a perfect option with bland or mild vegetables."
This year, Gilroy, Calif.-based Christopher Ranch expects to sell mote than 70 million pounds of fresh California Heirloom Garlic. The company also offers a wide variety of garlic forms, from fresh, raw garlic, to peeled garlic, to jarred items.
Also, don't hold the onions. "As far as heart-health benefits are concerned, onions are an allium vegetable like garlic and scallions," explains Greg Smith, marketing communications manager for Bland Farms, in Glennville, Ga. "Doctors and scientists around the world have recently confirmed that there are, in fact, heart-related benefits that come from eating these types of vegetables. Onions and other allium vegetables act as antioxidants, as they help the body to detoxify itself. They also increase the responsiveness of the immune system.
Sweet onions add a great deal of flavor to practically any dish and tend to eliminate the need for excessive seasoning or other less healthy ingredients like butter or oil."
–Greg Smith, Bland Farms
"Sweet onions add a great deal of flavor to practically any dish and tend to eliminate the need for excessive seasoning or other less healthy ingredients like butter or oil," continues Smith. "As a result, we like to say that sweet onions are a great way to add flavor without the fat."