A fine food twist on the health opportunity

07 January 2022, 07:50 AM
  • Vegan and health food are here to stay. Can speciality retailers put their own stamp on the trend?
A fine food twist on the health opportunity

It’s a well-established fact that more Brits are taking a mindful approach to their food and drink choices. Forget the fact that January is the time of healthy habit-making, moderation and Veganuary pledges – even beyond these temporary campaigns, the desire for food that nourishes the mind, soul and body, as well as the planet, is gathering pace with consumers.

NielsenIQ called health and wellness the single most powerful consumer force, with 48% of global consumers saying they make proactive health and wellness choices on a regular basis. But what do these abstract desires look like in action in a weekly shop? “Think soft drinks with probiotics, fizzy tonics with added prebiotics and ingredients that highlight sustainability and giving back to the environment,” says Jade Hoai, director of purchasing and operations at Whole Foods Market. Products with words like ‘prebiotic’ on their label haven’t traditionally been the domain of fine food shops, and it can be intimidating territory for shop owners who aren’t health experts but find their customers increasingly seeking out food and drink that enables them to live a healthier life. 

Luckily, there’s a growing band of brands that are blending sustainable credentials, health-boosting ingredients and premium flavours to create products at the intersection of the fine food sector and the health and wellness movement. Jade says Whole Foods has watched these changes in the market play out. “We’ve definitely seen an increase in demand for healthy foods that incorporate finer ingredients, which is evident through the findings in our 2022 trends report. Some products that fit into this category would be Aduna Cleanse Tea made with moringa mint and nettle, Gimber Ginger Juice, an alcohol-free organic drink made from ginger, lemon and herbs, and Osius Bone Broth, organic bone broth made with turmeric.” 

While these products have strong health leanings, they also make use of top-quality ingredients that have the buzz of superfood status, as well as stand-out packaging and a strong sense of provenance. Bethan Wallace Higson, founder of switchel brand Mother Root, says these are principles that the fine food and health food sectors both believe in. “We understand that food and ingredients with provenance, slow grown or products made with few ingredients are often not only the tastiest, but also the best for us, too.” 

Clever positioning

While more and more products tick the boxes for both health and flavour, sometimes all it takes to transform an item on your shelf from deli favourite to health food superhero is smart product positioning and storytelling. “The pursuit of wellness has become a powerful driver with shoppers looking for food to boost mental as well as physical health. And what we’re seeing is that this isn’t just limited to ‘health foods’ or powders and supplements,” says Becky Vale of artisan condiments brand Tracklements

“Our ancestors knew a thing or two about the medicinal properties of some foods: enter wholegrain mustard!” Wholegrain mustard, Becky explains, was historically used as a cure-all, from healing wounds to treating colds. In order to understand these benefits, Tracklements teamed up with Cardiff Metropolitan University to run a trial that proved eating just a heaped teaspoon of wholegrain mustard every day can help achieve healthy blood glucose and cholesterol levels. “This humble hero of the larder and the table not only makes food taste great but It also does you good. So there’s now another reason to love those jars of mustards on your shelves!” 

Retailers can make the most of traditional products with all-natural formulations or powerhouse ingredients with signage and storytelling in-store. These appeal to customers who prefer to get their health benefits the old-fashioned way. As Becky asks, “What could be better than discovering your favourite meal or condiment is actually good for you?” Be a sounding board for customers, and a source of inspiration too. “As shoppers look to increase the healthiness of their diet, they’re likely to turn to their trusted specialist retailer to help them with inspiration. Providing pairing suggestions gives some much sought-after inspiration and a new and different way of using old favourites to liven up new ingredients,” Becky says.

“We are beginning to connect the dots that what we put in our bodies (more than what we take out) has a powerful effect on how we feel, both physically and mentally,” Bethan adds. “Products that have functional benefits can be particularly appealing as they offer the customer an extra feel-good factor. But this is provided they deliver on taste too as that remains the number one consideration.” But don’t relegate these to a ‘health food’ section in a dark corner of the shop – instead, retailers should dot these products throughout the store. “Stay core to your values on taste, but make sure to put interesting food and drinks on shelf that tick some of the key functional and health benefits people are most concerned about today.” These include gut health, alcohol moderation and healthy sources of protein and fibre, Bethan says.

The vegan movement

Another area of the health and wellness movement that can be a big money-maker for retailers is vegan food and drink. The sector is full of innovation and excitement as producers seek to develop best-of-the-best meat replacements as well as stand-alone veggie hero products. Research commissioned by Atura Proteins revealed that 56% of food and drink brand owners and manufacturers are most likely to invest their new product development budget in plant-based products in 2022, meaning even more innovation is on the way. 

January is the time of year when the spotlight is turned to vegan innovation, thanks to the industry campaign Veganuary. According to Toni Vernelli, international head of communications and marketing, more than 582,000 people from 209 countries and territories took part in Veganuary last year, and this year is set to be even bigger. “It has become much more mainstream, with people from all demographics taking part and businesses from every sector getting involved,” Toni says. Jade agrees that Veganuary has become a significant event for retailers like Whole Foods. “We stock over 5,000 vegan products and just in the past year we’ve seen an increase in listings of vegan products. With more people taking part in Veganuary each year, we’re finding that consumers are looking for alternative food offerings that are not only unique and trend-driven but don’t require them to go out of their way in both time and money.” 

Indeed, while innovation is a huge part of the plant-based sector, in the same way that fine food products are often ‘accidentally healthy’, so too can they be ‘accidentally vegan’. “Most people will have assumptions about which foods are likely to be vegan and which aren’t, so they might walk right past something that is suitable and delicious because they never thought it could be vegan. This is where signposting from the retailer is so important – both on the shelf but also in the window or on signs outside the shop,” Toni says. “During January, displaying all of your vegan products in one area is a great idea so it’s easy for those deliberately seeking out vegan goods to find. The rest of the year it’s better to keep vegan products in with similar products but clearly label them as vegan. This way non-vegan customers will still discover them and vegans will easily know the products are suitable for them too,” Toni continues.

While Veganuary is a huge event, with flexitarianism pegged as a major trend for 2022, there’s good reason to invest in vegan year-round. And beware of investing only in meat-like replacements – digging deeper into the vegan sector reveals veg-based products that are easy to cook with too. “Shoppers are looking to reduce their meat intake and choosing easy-to-cook and convenient plant alternatives that can help them make a difference,” explains Anne-Marie Cannon, senior brand manager of Cooks&Co at RH Amar. “Our Cooks&Co Banana Blossom, which is up 237% over the past three months, is a fantastic fish replacement, and an easy swap for fish and chips.”

Vegan and healthy food products are no longer a niche in the fine food sector. “As more and more brands adopt health- and wellness-focused messaging and NPD, we will find this becoming the baseline across a number of categories,” says Max Spiegelberg, marketing director at sustainable tea brand Greenypeeps. “Soon we may well see prominent, health and wellness shorthand symbols as an alternative form of nutritional or calorie labelling appearing on packaging guiding consumers in their purchasing decisions. New wellness sub-categories will spring up throughout the supermarket aisles. It’s already happening in snacking, ready meals, hot and cold beverages and juices. Will it be long before we see widespread health and wellness propositions and messaging across other categories such as soups, dairy and even desserts?” he asks. Health, wellness and plant-based eating will undeniably be part of the fine food industry’s ‘new normal’. Is your shop ready?

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