It's a Natural

By Published on .

Time was there were two kinds of exotic comestibles catering to discriminating foodies: those sold in gourmet stores and those sold in natural food stor es.

Traditionally, the gourmet selections featured sophisticated flavors and colorful, distinctive packaging. Nutrition was not an issue; flavor and indulgence were. Natural foods, on the other hand, also called health foods, were marketed as responsible products, often made with organic ingredients that were good for you and processed and packaged in an environmentally friendly way.

But things change. Gourmet food companies, which at one time wouldn't have deigned to distribute their wares in the folksy, Birkenstock atmosphere of health food stores, are seeing the beauty of cozying up to bulgur wheat sacks. Meanwhile, the naturals are discovering that "organic" and "high brow" aren't mutually exclusive.

Products with gourmet roots that are now being sold in natural food stores have taken to promoting a healthier image: less fat, low cholesterol, and high fiber. Groezinger Provisions, for example, based in Neptune, New Jersey, sells its popular Alexian pate line with some low-fat offerings. Meanwhile, companies like Barbara's Bakery in Petaluma, California, are moving on upscale. Barbara's all-natural line of cookies, crackers, and snacks sport packaging as vibrant and sophisticated as any jar of Silver Palate pesto sauce. Its latest product is a line of organic Wafer Crisps Natural Gourmet crackers, in flavors like roasted garlic and herb, and sun-dried tomato and basil.

Many of the crossover gourmet products also tend to be organic or are fortified with herbs, vitamins, and minerals, something that was seldom seen even a few years ago. SoBe drinks, from South Beach Beverage in Norwalk, Connecticut, are fortified with herbs like Saint John's Wort, ginseng and ginkgo. And they're tasty, says SoBe president John Bello, who also notes that no matter how healthy a product may be, it has to taste great before consumers will even consider trying it. Natural By Nature, a premium ice cream made in Brooklyn, New York, is certified organic and contains no pesticides, hormones, or antibodies, according to the company.

For manufacturers, this means more-and more intense-competition is on the way, as smaller firms multiply their marketing power. In addition, companies must now make a choice to stay in their niche or explore product modifications and new items that can cross the great natural/gourmet divide.

For consumers, it means a greater choice of good-tasting food that fits whatever ethical considerations a consumer may hold dear (no meat, no animal testing, no pesticides, organic, low-fat and such). And with the growing importance of natural food chain stores, such as Whole Foods and Bread & Circus, it means these products are more easily available than ever before.

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