Green Gourmet: The Dish on What’s Hot
Navigating the many tastes of the gourmet market is no easy task. Today’s buzzwords – organic and natural – are served up with many specialty food items. See which gourmet gifts curry the most favor among your customers today.
here is a growing segment of consumers who are looking for quality products that can make a wider difference than the gifts they are giving someone,” says Barbara Haumann, senior writer and editor for the Organic Trade Association, a membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America, headquartered in Brattleboro, VT.
According to the OTA, U.S. organic food sales totaled just over $29 billion in 2011, up 9.4% from 2010 (the latest figures available). The market was growing approximately 19% a year until the recession hit in 2009, says Haumann. “We still don’t have enough organic farmers. Consumer demand outpaces supply,” she says.
Certified organic products – ones that sport the USDA seal – have met the requirements of national standards administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Standards such as no toxic or synthetic fertilizers or pesticides used on a farmer’s land for three years and no genetic engineering, among other things, says Haumann. The USDA seal signifies 95% or more of the ingredients in a product are organic.
Numi organic teas, headquartered in Oakland, CA, carry this seal. While organic was always a focus at Numi, not every product was when they began in 1999. “As organics became more and more important to us, we converted all of our products, adhered to the standards and adopted the seal. Sales lifted because it not only showcases our product quality, but our company values that are shared with our consumer,” says Reem Rahim, creative director/co-founder.
“I just think it’s important to buy organic for our own health and the health of our environment,” says Michele Tsucalas, founder and owner of Michele’s Granola in Timonium, MD, manufacturer of five kinds of granola, including Cherry Chocolate and Pumpkin Spice. Michele’s Granola does not sport the USDA label, yet. As of now, approximately 70% of the granola’s ingredients are organic. “We have been slowly adding organic as our business grows,” she says. At first, organic was cost prohibitive, because of the goal in offering a handmade product at a competitive price, but as volume has grown, the organic opportunity has increased. From the beginning, Tsucalas has extensively researched where her ingredients come from and how they have been processed, as it is important to her and her market of “conscious foodies,” she says.
The non-GMO project
Little Duck Organics, manufacturer of organic kids’ snacks in Brooklyn, NY, sports both the USDA and the Non-GMO Project Verified seals on their products. “The Non-GMO seal is important for moms and dads. Organic is the norm. Parents want to go that extra mile,” says Gillian Grefe, director of communications at Little Duck.
GMOs, as defined by the Non-GMO Project (a non-profit organization/third party verification for GMO avoidance in Bellingham, WA) “are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. These experimental combinations of genes from different species cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. A growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems and environmental damage,” among other things.
USDA organic products do not contain GMOs, so the question becomes, why have both verifications? “Unfortunately, because of the increased proliferation of GMOs over the last 15 years, there is a growing risk of unintentional contamination to all non-GMO crops, including organics…what the Non-GMO Project does that the NOP [National Organics Program] does not do, is require testing and set action thresholds. These tools make it possible to exercise control over contamination, and give consumers reassurance that the most rigorous GMO avoidance practices possible have been followed,” says Chris Keefe, retailer programs manager for the Non-GMO Project.
“We got certified with the Non-GMO seal. It’s more meaningful to me compared to organic,” says Samantha Abrams, founder of Emmy’s Organics, in Ithaca, NY, manufacturer of vegan, gluten-free snacks made with raw ingredients. “I think non-GMO is becoming larger. I believe this is the next thing people are getting excited about,” she says. The USDA seal was not an option for Emmy’s because of the conscious choice (due to preferred quality) to use an ingredient that is not organic, almond meal. “You can’t get certified if you are choosing to use something you could get organically,” says Abrams.
“For some companies, Non-GMO Project Verification is a stepping-stone toward organic production, and for others, organic or not, verification simply represents their commitment to providing shoppers and their families with reliable non-GMO choices, now and into the future,” says Keefe. Either way, there are now over 9,000 Non-GMO Project Verified products available on the market that account for over $3.5 billion in annual sales, says Keefe.
The USDA organic seal is not for everyone. 479 Degrees in San Francisco, CA, wholesales uniquely flavored gourmet popcorn, such as recently launched toasted coconut caramel, and heirloom popcorn and sea salt. 479 Degrees’ popcorn canisters used to carry the USDA organic seal, but no more. Due to inconsistent quality with certain organic ingredients, such as the cheese powder, and needing to custom order ingredients that weren’t widely used, three years ago, they decided to discontinue the certification process. “There was no difference in sales when we pulled off,” says Jean Arnold, founder and CEO. “We source from reputable farmers that care about the environment and the quality is still the same,” she says. They continue to use many certified organic ingredients, such as the popcorn itself.
FunkyChunky, Inc., manufacturer of popcorn and pretzel confections in Edina, MN, such as, recently introduced Ronni’s, a blend of popcorn, caramel, chocolate and nuts, isn’t yet convinced the USDA seal is necessary. “It is going to cost more. There is a market for that, but we don’t know how big it is,” says Tore Swenson, director of sales and marketing. “If I’m indulging, does it need to be organic?” she asks. Instead she focuses on all-natural, defined as: “no partially hydrogenated oils, or artificial flavors or colors,” says Swenson.
The USDA seal is not a viable option for The Spice Lab, wholesaler of over 200 different salts and spices from 30 countries, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Salts come in test tube jars packaged as gift sets, allowing cooks to sample many different salts, such as Himalayan Crystal Pink Fine Grain. “Salts aren’t classified as organic, because they are minerals,” says Brett Cramer, owner. The Spice Lab’s salts and spices sport the Natural Verifiers label, an independent, third party verification agency for the organic and natural industries, based out of Tucson, AZ.
Keep in mind, there is no USDA standard or definition of the word “all natural.” The only regulation for natural is USDA’s FSIS regulations for meat, says Haumann. “‘All natural’ is an unregulated term. Consumers are totally misled by that…I’m not belittling natural products, I’m just pointing out there is no guarantee,” says Haumann. Retailers may want to probe deeper into what natural verifications entail.
Beyond the bite
Whether organic, non-GMO or all-natural, being green goes far beyond the list of ingredients in a product. Little Duck launched “Mighty Oats” in March, a package of three single serving cups of “instant super cereal” that once empty, can be planted to grow vegetables, such as tomatoes, carrots and lettuce. “We embedded the casing that keeps the serving cups together with vegetable seeds,” says Grefe.
“We are very conscious about the packaging choices we make and our carbon footprint. Our macaroon package has 87% bio-based materials,” says Abrams. “We are conscious of all that and try to produce as little waste as possible. We try to communicate that we are the founders and have a heavy hand in that process,” she says.
“We only work with small and eco-conscious companies,” says Romain Gaillard, founder of The Detox Market in Los Angeles, CA, retailer of “hard-to-find, best-in-breed eco-friendly brands.” “I think that there is a new generation of companies that is eco-friendly but won’t use it as a selling point, it is just the right thing to do,” he says.
From behind the scenes to the ingredients themselves, organic, non-GMO and all-natural gourmet wholesalers are producing gifts that give on many different levels, serving up a category that’s easy to sink your teeth into.