The PM Vision

Healthy Foods Is the Great Marketplace Evolution You’re Not Watching

What’s up with consumers and healthy foods?

The market is demanding more and more healthy dining options, and as a product & growth marketing enthusiast, the dynamics are very interesting. You may not realize how wide a trend this really is.

No doubt you’ve seen some of the headlines….but you’re on the web. To you, this feels “normal.” Unlike you, food retailers and manufacturers aren’t treating this as “normal.” Have you been paying attention?

This reflects a tectonic shift in consumer preference…..or the Second Coming. Your call. 🙂 “Whole Foods” have moved mainstream. People want healthy foods that are sustainably raised rather than raised in brought up in a large-scale commercial setting.

While it’s true that more and more about human health is known every year, I personally credit the internet for the modern day growth in health consciousness.

What are the underlying trends?

There are a few trends that I sense contribute to today’s focus on health:

Think about the impact of documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Super Size Me. Both of these films had minor box office impact during their in-theatre release, but have lived on through the magic of Netflix.

Think about the number of people who became activists after viewing such films, and the impact they’ve had by spreading information to their networks and beyond after becoming more educated. These two films alone made people afraid of conventional meat production and fast food; now they want healthy foods.

That network effect is similar to that which is making alternative medicine information more accessible than it was one or two decades ago. Practitioners like Dr. Mercola, Mark Hyman, David Perlmutter, Dr. Oz and others who operate from a holistic, “functional” (some say “quack”) perspective have more of a voice than in the past.

So do those sharing alternative nutritional and fitness viewpoints such as Dave Asprey, Tim Ferriss, Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf.

While I won’t debate the accuracy or scientific support behind every claim of members of either group, the theme I see is these individuals are making mainstream some of the discoveries being made in the scientific community.

The reason it’s important is that genetic testing and the impact of various macro and micronutrients are leading to a number of impactful discoveries, which take a long time to trickle into the thinking of conventional physicians. People know this and are seeking out this information as early as they can find it.

An example of people taking their conditions into their own hands is the story around the awareness of gluten intolerance. Awareness was only raised after people with this condition began to rally together online and put pressure on food manufacturers. There is debate about whether non-celiac gluten intolerance is a real thing, but celiac disease itself would clearly not have the profile it does today without this grass-roots effort.

Local farmers markets are seeing increased business as part of this trend; people want to buy food directly at the source so they know how it was created. We’ve seen the rise of the urban food garden, where people in cities set aside a little of their precious space to grow their own herbs and vegetables. Office workers are joining local food cooperatives, which deliver fresh produce from local farms to members at their places of work.

This is all in an effort to make more food at home, rather than buying processed foods at the grocery or even eating at restaurants.

A telling passage from the Fortune article:

The idea of “processing”—from ancient techniques of salting and curing to the modern arsenal of artificial preservatives—arose to make sure the food we ate didn’t make us sick. Today many fear that it’s the processed food itself that’s making us unhealthy. Indeed, nearly half of the respondents in a recent Bernstein survey say they distrust the food system.

Large food manufacturers have to adapt.

How does this affect brand managers at companies like General Mills and Kraft? So far, it’s seemed like a typical reaction to a minor change in consumer taste–the ingredients change.

For years, whenever studies showed the negative impact of a specific ingredient, manufacturers came out one by one and announced that they were swapping out that ingredient for a “healthier” one.

In the 1980s, fat was replaced with sugar. Coconut oil was replaced with canola oil. Butter was replaced with margarine.

Of course, now that trend is reversing.

But now, it’s not a specific ingredient that’s called into question. It’s all of them.

People want to avoid those CAFOs and eat sustainably raised whole foods. Restauranteurs are seeing the success of more locally-owned chef-driven restaurants serving gourmet fare, in place of the chain restaurants of yesteryear.

At the grocery store, more and more people are shopping primarily around the perimeter of the store buying whole healthy foods, rather than picking up the packaged goods in the center.

In a recent special report on titled The War on Big FoodSteve Hughes, formerly of ConAgra, was quoted as saying:

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years,” he says, “and this is the most dynamic, disruptive, and transformational time that I’ve seen in my career.”

This is big. Companies have to adapt. But how will they?


First, large food brands have gone and are going shopping. A number of names seen in the organic / healthy food sections of your grocer may be part of a conglomerate. A few examples:

Ownership provides access to resources, but in some cases (such as that of Cascadian Farms as shown in the BI article) it leads to modifications of recipes with cheaper and less wholesome ingredients.

These are not acquisitions in which the buyer will rebrand the acquired company. These are acquisitions where the acquired company will retain its name and attention will not be drawn to the acquisition, in order to keep them separate in the prospect’s mind.

Branding and Rebranding

Let’s look at what Mayfield Foods is doing. Mayfield, owners of 31 regional milk brands, is adding an umbrella brand called “DairyPure” to all its regional brands. The new brand reflects Mayfield’s health-conscious practices:

The new DairyPure label includes the company guarantee that all milk is tested for antibiotics and for purity, all milk comes from cows fed a healthy diet that doesn’t include growth hormones and all milk is shipped fresh from local dairies, Dean Foods officials said in announcing the new labeling Monday.

Beef jerky sales are going up a little due to the industry actively positioning it as a source of healthy protein for athletes and health-conscious consumers.

Last year, we saw a number of brands adopt ingredient changes in foods marketed to children, and some companies pledged not to market to children below a certain age. Chobani LLC changed its marketing and branding approach to focus on the natural nature of its products rather than the taste.

And many companies struggle with the ethics and accuracy of labels such as “natural” and “healthy” for their products, as experts and consumers evolve their definitions of what is natural and healthy.


An interesting element going along with rebranding and acquisition in some cases is the technology-sector trend of “acqui-hiring.” From the Fortune piece:

Legacy food companies are on an acqui-hiring spree, hoping to gobble up foodpreneurs, their more agile management operations—and their know-how in the natural food arena.

This is one way to bring in people with fresh ideas into the company. Of course, the article goes on to warn against bringing in those people and absorbing them into the existing corporate culture, rather than encouraging retention of what made them unique.

In other cases the culture may be explicitly changed. Also from Fortune:

In what may be the clearest sign that Morrison is intent on doing more than “putting the barn on the package,” she backed Plum’s decision in 2013 to become a public benefit corporation, which codifies the business’s social and environmental purpose in its charter. It is among a slew of changes in corporate culture that Morrison has tried to make. Executives now even talk a bit differently, infusing a more wholesome-sounding vocabulary in day-to-day conversation. The company “cooks” and “preserves” rather than “processes” and “manufactures”; employees follow “recipes,” not “formulas.”

This itself is part of a bigger trend towards a company’s ethical and social behavior being considered more a part of its identity than simply a set of rules and things to say “no” to. That trend is quite visible in the world of corporate compliance, but is having ripple effects in industries directly tied to the common good.

What’s the End Game?

Where does it go from here? Do the healthy foods around the perimeter of the grocery store completely overtake the processed foods in the middle? Do Whole Foods and online startup Thrive Market take over food retailing from your local grocer?

Not so fast–Costco may already be the leader in organic food retailing!

Where do we go from here? Please tell us in the comments!

A final note: For those of you who might be interested in healthy eating, I’m starting a newsletter & blog around that topic and my new passion, bodyweight fitness. Please sign up for updates if you’d like to learn more.


Image source: Flickr