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Outlier peeks inside Big Food and ‘natural food’ market ‘gut’

Rabobank analysis: Why Big Food market growth is flatlining and the ‘natural’ food segment is flourishing. Clues and cues for producers.

You’ve seen the signs of change — mega-warehouses popping up at interstate interchanges and convenience stores morphing into mini-grocery/department stores. So the next question is: Where will agriculture fit into this ever-changing, consumer-driven puzzle?

Nicholas Fereday, executive director of Rabobank’s Food & Agribusiness Research unit, gleaned a few clues from two recent events: the Consumer Analyst Group of New York conference for large public food companies and the Natural Products Expo West. His bottom line of both events: Big Food — major packaged food companies like Campbell, Kellogg, Kraft and General Mills — is losing market share big time; natural and organic products are gaining.

Big Food market growth has been flatlining in its core food categories for the last few years, explains Fereday. To beef up revenue growth, companies have been frantically pressing the usual growth levers of innovation (mainly through product renovation, including downsized portions), cost-cutting and billion-dollar acquisitions (such as Danone’s purchase of WhiteWave). See Dannon to dump Stonyfield in DOJ antitrust agreement. Even so, all this has had limited effect, he contends.

The companies have been on target with one consumer trend, shifting from “mindless munching” to “better-for-you” snacks. But as Fereday puts it: “Hostess reminded us of the perennial desire for indulgent snacking. Chill, guys. Not everything has to be about health and wellness.”

Yet he’s surprised that some companies are still blindsided by changing tastes in other categories — yogurt, for instance, where trends are moving at a much faster rate than before. “Do companies not realize ‘low-calorie’ and ‘diet’ are no longer a thing?”

After two decades of a 6% compound annual growth rate, the U.S. yogurt market has soured, he points out. This sector is being premiumized by new brands with exciting formats, such as Siggi’s, Noosa and Chobani’s Flip cups, which run rings around Yoplait. “Purposeful snacking” is the current catchphrase.

New logic in logistics
Big Food is also beginning to ditch its own direct-store delivery system in favor of outsourced warehousing. Some of that outsourcing — to companies like Wal-Mart, Giant and Wegmans — also provides competition. Major grocery chains, for instance, are shifting to their own brands and to products more closely identified as “local,” to Big Food’s consternation.

Looking to the future, Campbell CEO Denise Morrison identified coming platforms: the ever-increasing convenience of online food shopping, the shift to purposeful snacking of products with functional benefits, personalized nutrition with food options delivered to your door and locally sourced foods from a transparent food chain.

Naturally stronger growth
Consumer demand for natural and organic products continues to outshine growth of the wider industry, reports Fereday. According to the CAGNY organizers, sales of organic and natural foods grew by about 9% over the past year.

Premium-priced products are increasingly perceived as being healthier, better quality and “just better” than conventional foods weighed down by too many food ingredients. That premium is typically 25% higher than conventional.

Most of the products on display at the Natural Products Expo West, he says, were shelf-stable packaged goods. “The only fresh fruit I saw was an apple lifted from my hotel buffet.”

Emerging food trends
Here’s his short list of new and newer products spotted at Expo West:

• Plant-based everything. Longest lines waited for Beyond Meat’s fake burgers. Markets are establishing for non-dairy, plant-based “milks” — Nut Milk, Milkadamia, banana milk, pea milk and veggie milk.

• Clean labels. “If you haven’t yet got the memo, consumers want shorter, more transparent ingredient lists with recognizable and familiar ingredients,” he says.

• Gut health boosters. Consumers’ love for friendly probiotic bacteria is moving beyond yogurt and dairy drinks to juices, sprouted grain tortilla chips, soups and smoothie mixes. However, scientific evidence has yet to catch up with consumer interest.

• Bone broth. Soup may be back — but thinner. It seems everyone’s boiling bones these days to take the collagen protein craze to the next level.

• Bars galore. The snack bar category continues to bring on novel entries. Here are just a few: Ambition bars, made with tea or coffee; ReGrained bars, made from spent craft beer grain; Green bars, made with fruit, veggies and probiotics; even Truth bars, made with protein, fiber, prebiotics and probiotics.

• Chips still rising. Chips and tortillas in a multitude of flavors still dominate the snack section. Potatoes have new competition from plantain, veggies, beets, lentils, chickpeas, beans, rice and more.

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