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Packaged Foods: Are You “Conveniently Healthy”?

It's easier than ever to get nutrition on the go.

By Alexandra Williams, MA on Feb 14, 2017

Have you ever counted the numerous brands and flavors of protein bars in well‐stocked grocery store aisles? Probably not, as there are so many, and it would take a while. How times have changed! In the late 1980s, when a number of aerobic champions were asked what snacks they ate on competition days, almost all of them named the only protein bar then in existence. Now the rows next to all those protein bars are filled with other healthy foods that are also easy to toss in a gym bag and eat on the go.

In a 2012 study in the Journal of Public Health, researchers—noting that convenience foods are "generally associated with less healthy foods"—wanted to discover whether people would choose healthier foods if they were more convenient, and would still opt for less‐healthy foods if they were less convenient (Hanks et al. 2012). To find out, the scientists studied a school cafeteria lunch line in which only healthier foods were on display in one of two lines (the other line remained as it was). Sales of healthier foods increased by 18% and consumption, in grams, of less‐healthy foods decreased by about 28%. Simply put, display it and they will buy.

From protein bars to bags of veggie chips and more, foods that are both convenient and healthy are now staples in fitness professionals' lives. What is the big picture, and what can you learn that would benefit you and your clients?

Market Growth

For 2016, as reported by Packaged Facts, market growth for healthy‐ingredient snacks was predicted to rise 6%, with sales reaching $20.3 billion (Menayang 2016). At that growth rate, healthy‐snack sales would outpace the overall food and beverage market by 4.7%. Going forward slowly but steadily, sales are expected to reach $25.4 billion by 2020, reflecting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.7%. For this particular report, healthy snacks were defined as "cereal/granola bars, snack nuts and seeds, dried fruit snacks, trail mix and other sweet/salty snacks, and meat snacks."

The Packaged Facts report specifically mentions KIND® breakfast bars as an example of the growth in breakfast products (Menayang 2016). Although KIND was already in the breakfast space with pouches of granola, it recently launched a new line of breakfast bars nationally. According to a KIND spokesperson mentioned in the report, the bars are geared to the 31 million Americans who skip breakfast because they are too busy to prepare standard breakfast fare. Essentially, a 220‐calorie bar can take the place of a sit‐down bowl of oatmeal with all the fixings. The first can be eaten while driving to meet clients; the second would be a mess if eaten that way. Plus, the bar is healthy, and it has a transparent label—factors important to healthy‐snack consumers.

The growth of healthy convenience doesn't stop at breakfast. Experts attributed double‐digit market growth to gains in the meat‐snack and trail‐mix categories in the years 2014–2016, as well as strong growth in snack bars in 2015. The Packaged Snacks report Healthy‐Ingredient Snacks in the U.S., 2nd Edition attributes the expected CAGR of 5.7% to a variety of trends:

  • a growing preference among snackers for healthy options
  • "free from" snacks, with allergen‐ and gluten‐free as the most popular
  • bite‐sized snacks with protein
  • "innovative flavors"
  • an increase in the percentage of adults who believe their snacking is now healthier (30% of all adults within the last decade)

In 2016, The Boston Consulting Group and Information Resources Inc. published a 4‐year analysis of the consumer
packaged‐goods industry. Some of the largest gains were achieved by companies that pushed forward into the "protein‐rich and healthy, mindful" snacks sector. According to Jim Brennan, a BCG partner and co‐author of the study, "Our research confirms that consumers' desire for more healthful eating remains a powerful trend that packaged‐foods companies can't ignore."

As examples of this desire, Brennan mentions mid‐sized companies ($1 billion to $5 billion in sales) like Eggland's Best® and small‐sized companies ($100 million to $1 billion) like Quest Nutrition as top growth leaders (Boston Consulting Group 2016).

Private‐label snacks are now also a force to be reckoned with, as chains create and specifically market offerings in the "healthy, natural" category. As they continue to market these products, chains are even highlighting healthier eating overall, which could continue to drive the upward trajectory of market share and further promote a healthier culture. For example, in 2015 Wegmans grocery store chain started displaying information about healthier meal preparation, with an emphasis on fruits and vegetables.

Labeling

In August 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration partially updated its Food Labeling Guide (Chapter 7: Nutrition Labeling is still under revision) (FDA 2016a). While the guide is a little cumbersome, highlights include conditions for using the word "healthy." For this and related terms to apply, a food must have specific levels of total fat, saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, beneficial nutrients and fortifications; to be labeled "antioxidant," an item must fulfill four requirements; and to make a "qualified health claim," a product must meet stringent FDA requirements.

What does this look like in practice? Let's examine a few labels and see. General Mills offers lemon and olive tapenade hummus by Food Should Taste Good®. While the front of the package touts the food's hard‐earned certifications—
gluten‐free, vegan, kosher and cholesterol‐free (different from the FDA labeling), the nutrition label claims that the hummus has 0 grams saturated fat, 0 g trans fat, and 0 g cholesterol (which matches the package marketing). Therefore, a shopper can buy this hummus and feel confident it has met the FDA requirement for an implied claim of being a healthy food.

Another example of comparing a label with its claims would be a 100% Whey ready‐to‐drink shake from EAS®. The front of the container promises that the vanilla shake is 100% whey and has 30 g protein, no added sugar and 170 calories. This is easily verified by reading the legally required nutrition label.

Similarly, if you see a qualified health claim on a food label, the maker is guaranteeing that the product meets FDA standards for making such a declaration. A claim might, for example,

  • link nuts with protection against heart disease;
  • connect omega‐3 fatty acids with staving off coronary heart disease (CHD);
  • suggest that monounsaturated fatty acids from olive oil
    can ward off CHD;
  • promote green tea as a way to avoid cancer;or
  • state the benefits of tomatoes/tomato sauce for avoiding prostate, ovarian, gastric and pancreatic cancers.

More labeling changes. In further changes to labeling rules, the FDA is

  • requiring larger fonts for calories and servings%semi;
  • improving the definition of "percent daily value";
  • updating information about nutrition science
    (i.e., added sugars);
  • listing actual amounts for nutrients (e.g., micrograms
    of vitamin D2); and
  • changing what's meant by "serving size," which is perhaps the most confusing element.

The serving size for an item will now be based on what people are actually eating, not on what they should be eating, as it has been until now. This change reflects the difference between how much people eat and drink today and what they ate and drank in 1993, when the previous serving sizes were published (FDA 2016b).

In some cases, serving size will decrease, yet mostly it will increase, because container size is now taken into account. For example, the label on a can of La Croix® Muré Pepino blackberry cucumber sparkling water states that the serving size is one can. In the past, 8 ounces was specified as one serving size, yet very few people stop drinking a 12‐ounce sparkling water at the 8‐ounce mark. In actuality, the serving size is the entire can, as that's how much people tend to drink.

For foods like yogurt, the serving size has decreased from 8 ounces to 6 ounces, again to reflect actual consumption habits. Consider Dannon's® Oikos® Triple Zero Greek nonfat coffee yogurt. The serving size is "one container," yet Dannon also lists the number of grams (150). That works out to 5.3 ounces, so technically it could be considered less than one serving, yet in reality the entire container (but not more) will most likely be eaten at once, making "one container" a more accurate serving description. At first glance, the label may seem to contradict the "triple zero" designation of 0 artificial sweeteners, 0 fat and 0 added sugars, because it lists sugars at 6 g. But if the yogurt did have added sugars, they would be listed directly below "total sugars." The important distinction is that the 6 g of sugar are not added; they are naturally occurring. This difference is important when helping clients understand how to read labels.

Studio Snacks

On April 5, 2016, The Washington Post published an article about the holistic approach that fitness studios are taking by pairing exercise and nutrition (Douglas‐Gabriel 2016). Not only are studios offering recipes and nutrition advice (hopefully within scope of practice), but they are also selling products that complement that advice. Would you like an EPIC® chicken sriracha or beef habanero meat bar? Head to your local CrossFit® or indoor cycling studio. How about a Coco Libre® vanilla protein coconut water to wash that down? Chances are your gym stocks cold ones in a fridge by the front entrance. Maybe you want something that satisfies your "indulgence" craving after yoga, such as the salted brownie bites from Hail Merry® or Kellogg's® Special K® Protein Bites in peanut‐butter chocolate or caramel nut. You don't even have to leave the building, as you can buy them at the in‐house juice bar.

According to the 2015 market research report The Global Sports and Fitness Nutrition Foods and Drinks Market Trends, Driver, & Projections, from Global Industry Analysts Inc., the U.S. fitness industry is providing what consumers want, particularly sports nutrition/functional foods. Outside the United States, Latin America represents the fastest‐growing hotspot for sports and energy drinks. The report attributes this to a number of factors, including an emphasis on general health over performance, the core cluster of nonathletes who now populate gyms, aging baby boomers, and growing awareness of the health issues associated with sedentary lifestyles (Global Industry Analysts Inc. 2015). Smaller fitness facilities are profiting because they recognize that consumers have escalating income levels and will pay for convenience foods that contain healthy ingredients, have "novel packaging" and are more convenient than packing a snack before leaving home. So go ahead and stock those Kashi® Savory Bars!

Drinks and Bars

No, not drinking at the bar, unless it's a juice bar. As mentioned, healthy drinks and protein/energy bars are hot (especially if you choose something like Lärabar®'s organic turmeric, ginger and beet superfood bar). It's extremely convenient to grab a bar and beverage, and the flavors are richer in adjectives and varieties than you could have imagined even 5 years ago: apple pie plus from Pure Protein®, dark‐chocolate caramel macadamia from Mauer™ Sports Nutrition, Kellogg's Special K Fruit & Nut Protein Trail Mix Bar, or something with a twist—Lorissa's Kitchen™ Szechuan Peppercorn Jerky.

The Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition General Mills (2015) website links to research on the positive relationship U.S. adults have with snacks and nutrient‐dense diets. A 2012 study of 11,209 adults concluded that "total fruit, whole fruit, whole grains, milk, oils and sodium" were positively associated with snacking frequency and a higher overall diet quality (Zizza & Xu 2012). So it's probably not a coincidence that many of today's energy bars have plenty of fruits and grains.

Whether you prefer smoothies, shakes, juices or milk, the world is your blender. Have you been hiding your Kellogg's To Go™ Milk Chocolate Breakfast Shake, afraid you'll be laughed at for loving chocolate milk? Hide no longer. Even Children's Hospital Colorado is on your side, as it lists 10 benefits of chocolate low‐fat milk for exercise recovery, including electrolyte replacement and muscle repair (Furuta 2016).

With an eye to consumer preferences, brands are highlighting drink features that would have been called "hippy dippy" in the past. For example, Shake360 from Nutrisystem® wants buyers to know that their vanilla berry shake has 16 g of plant‐based protein, three servings of greens, probiotics, 16 superfoods and antioxidants, and no artificial sweeteners, colors, flavors or preservatives. This kind of information is a far cry from the marketing emphases of past generations.

And Nutrisystem isn't alone. Yakult has been selling its small bottles of Lactobacillus casei Shirota probiotic dairy drink since 1935 (in 2016, net sales increased 5.9%) (Cornall 2016). People must be fond of Lifeway® Kefir, with flavors like pomegranate açai blueberry or raspberry and honey Helios kefir, as Forbes listed Lifeway as one of America's best small companies (Forbes.com 2014). Forbes also named Suja®, makers of organic, cold‐pressured juices, second on its list of America's most promising companies (Forbes.com 2015).

Plant‐Based Convenience

Some of the most convenient foods go essentially straight from farm to table. Take dates, for example. Thousands of years ago, the Mesopotamians used date palms and their fruit in more than 360 ways; as food, of course, but also to make needles, thread, baskets and mattresses. Nowadays, California and Arizona are known for producing over 40 million pounds of dates (See California 2016). Want a pumpkin pie–spiced date roll? Bard Valley's Natural Delights® reach out to fitness enthusiasts by emphasizing the "grab‐and‐go whole fruit snack" aspect.

In the past, many people felt that fruits and veggies were "forgotten" as convenience foods because lobbyists and large public‐relations firms weren't touting their benefits. However, with healthy food back in vogue, community supported agriculture (CSA) is a popular method for linking consumers with farmers. Companies like Farm Fresh to You are moving beyond farmers' markets and providing fresh produce via home delivery. Data collected in 2012 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 12,617 farms in the United States were reaching consumers via CSA, a 0.5% increase over 2007 figures (USDA 2016).

Besides plants in their original state, you can select from myriad options that range from unique to ubiquitous. ENERGYbits® fall into the unique category. Geared for athletes, particularly runners, these "tiny algae tabs" look like dark‐green breath mints. Do you consider broad beans unique? What if they're roasted, sprinkled with salt, and then seasoned with cinnamon or cocoa? Enlightened® wants to "spill the beans" that Roasted Broad Bean Crisps are now a snack item.

Other, more common convenience foods that have a "twist" and vie for attention are products like Three Sisters Chili™, with corn, squash and ancho peppers, from Better Bean™. A far cry from the unremarkable varieties of yesteryear, the company's seven flavors come in brightly colored tubs that fit easily into a gym or lunch bag. Another food that went from blah to bling is kale. Could you find kale chips in your average supermarket 10 or even 5 years ago? At a co‐op, maybe, but not in the supermarket. And who even used the word "superfood" back then? Take a walk down the chips aisle in your local grocery store and notice how standard potato chips have yielded much of their shelf space to options like kale chips from Rhythm® Superfoods in mango habanero or Bombay curry, or to rosemary truffle kale chips or gingerbread‐spice toasted coconut chips from Made in Nature™.

Companies have sprung up everywhere to meet the demand for flavorful, plant‐based packaged foods, and brands are using herbs, spices, natural sweeteners and oils to change the perception of plant‐based foods from tasteless and boring to trendy, desirable, mainstream and tasty. This is quite an occurrence in less than one generation.

Frozen Foods

In the spring of 2016, Grand View Research released a report that predicted the global frozen‐foods market would be worth $307.3 billion by the end of 2020 (Grand View Research 2016). Driving factors for this growth are an improved standard of living and changing lifestyles, including the "rising population of working women and female entrepreneurs across the globe." According to market research publisher Packaged Facts (2015), "Consumers are slowly warming up again to frozen foods due to both the well‐known convenience of the products and the recent introduction of more natural and organic frozen offerings that are lending the segment a much needed health halo. Consumer concerns about preservatives and other ingredients are alleviated by the notion that if the products are natural or organic, they must be fresher, or at least healthier."

This research parallels the U.S. government's updates to food labeling. Simply put, consumers want to know what's in their food, and when they feel comfortable about the ingredients, they'll purchase accordingly. The Packaged Facts report singles out the brand Annie's® Homegrown Foods (now under the General Mills umbrella) as a factor in this increased growth, owing to its "natural and organic frozen dinners and entrées."

Desserts are included in the surge in popularity of frozen foods, of course. Companies like Arctic Zero® were created specifically to cater to people who want ice cream, yet have health issues like type 1 diabetes. Calling itself the pioneer of "fit frozen desserts," Arctic Zero uses monk fruit as the sweetener, while eschewing artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors. A small melon grown in the subtropical hillsides of Asia, monk fruit was barely a blip on the U.S. market as a sugar substitute as recently as 2011. By the first quarter of 2015, debuts of products using the fruit had doubled compared with the same period in 2014 (Watson 2015).

The frozen‐yogurt market is also reaping the benefit of consumer desire for healthier desserts. In a survey of 350 consumers, 95% of respondents said they felt frozen yogurt was "better for you" than ice cream (Statistic Brain 2016). Brands like Dannon are paying close attention to these preferences and beliefs, and changing their products accordingly. In a 2016 pledge for "sustainable agriculture, more natural ingredients and more transparency," Dannon lists as one of its key components a commitment to "bring all products from three flagship brands (Dannon, Oikos and Danimals®) towards the use of fewer and more natural ingredients that are not synthetic and non‐GMO" (Dannon 2016).

Accessible Nutrition

From chips to cheese, and yogurt to yams, consumers want convenience coupled with health, and they are getting it. Fresh and frozen are no longer antonyms; grocery stores are fully stocked with frozen, fresh foods. In a shift perhaps accelerated by the digital age and by ready access to information, people are reading labels to determine how much saturated, trans or monounsaturated fat is in their chips. They are stopping by juice bars after their workouts and discovering that vegetables can be healthy and tasty. The era of healthy, tasty and convenient is finally here, and that is good news for fitness professionals and their clients.


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Alexandra Williams, MA

Alexandra Williams has taught fitness for 17 years and has a master’s degree in agency counseling, with an emphasis on marriage and family. Her professional training has forced her to scrutinize her own value system, especially as she attempts to raise ethical children. The author wishes to thank Jack Raglin and Jim Gavin for their helpful insights and suggestions.

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