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Organics spreading to snack food aisles

A growing interest in natural and organic foods is spawning an increase in high-calorie treats that come in organic versions. That's good news for the food industry but worries some nutritionists who don't want people to mistake organic for low-calorie.
Is organic Mac & Cheese better for you?  “Macaroni and cheese is macaroni and cheese,” said one shopper while preparing to load up on groceries at a PCC Natural Markets in Seattle.John Brecher /

Kathy Blackman has been seeking out organic and natural foods for decades, regularly feeding her family cereals, canned goods and produce free of things like pesticides.

But that doesn’t mean Blackman rules out favorite American indulgences like macaroni and cheese. It’s just that, instead of picking up a conventional brand that may have food dyes or preservatives, she favors an organic or natural version such as Annie’s — even though she knows it may not save her any calories.

“Macaroni and cheese is macaroni and cheese,” she said recently while preparing to load up on groceries at a PCC Natural Markets in Seattle.

There was a time when the terms “organic” and “natural” conjured up images of bins of whole grains and uncooked beans, alongside a few pock-marked apples and some wheat germ. These days, the gleaming aisles of Whole Foods and other high-end and natural grocers offer organic alternatives for everything from mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese to chocolate cookies and pretzels.

Consumers are gobbling up snacks such as natural colas and organic chips amid increasing overall interest in such foods. The fast-growing U.S. organic food industry accounted for $13.8 billion in sales in 2005, representing about 2.5 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the Organic Trade Association. The group expects sales to rise another 14 percent in 2006, although exact figures haven't been tallied.

Harry Balzer, vice president with the research firm NPD Group, said 22 percent of people his company surveyed between June and August had eaten an organic product in the last two weeks. He expects interest in organics to only increase, in part because it’s a health craze that let’s people indulge to a degree, rather than cut back.

“The health trend this time is, ‘What can we add to our diet?’ ” he said.

That’s been good news for the food industry because it offers a new venue to potentially boost sales. But the trend raises concerns for some nutrition experts, who worry that people don’t realize that even organic snacks can still be packed with as many calories and fat as more traditional junk food.

“You still need to read the food label,” said Christine McKinney, a registered dietician with Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. “Just because it’s organic doesn’t meant it’s healthy.”

The companies that produce such food acknowledge that not all their offerings are lower in fat or calories than conventional competitors. Still, many say that they are providing people with more natural ingredients that they believe are healthier. Some also say some of their offerings can be lower in sodium and other ingredients than mainstream competitors.

John Brecher

“Our snack foods are in some ways better for you,” said Maureen Putman, chief marketing officer for Hain Celestial Group Inc., whose extensive product line includes Garden of Eatin’ chips, among other snacks.

Companies also say that people are drawn to their products for other reasons besides just calorie counting. John Foraker, chief executive of Homegrown Naturals Inc., whose products include Annie’s macaroni and cheese offerings, said he hears from lots of customers who like to know they are supporting a privately held company with a similar set of values.

Others just say they like the food better.

“What consumers will tell you is that they want lower fat, lower sodium ... but what they will ultimately buy is what tastes good,” Foraker said.

Broader interest in organic and natural foods has fueled strong sales growth for companies like Annie’s. Foraker said his company is expecting revenue of more than $100 million for the company’s fiscal year ending in March of 2008, boosted by increased interest from grocery chains and even discounters like Costco and Wal-Mart.

“Over the last five years, natural and organic foods have become so much more of a mainstream concept,” Foraker said.

Amy’s Kitchen, which makes frozen pizzas, pastas and other products using organic ingredients, expects revenue to hit $200 million in the company’s fiscal year ending in June, a fact that surprises even company co-owner Andy Berliner.

“We thought this was going to be a $3 million business when we started,” he said.

The trend has even started to draw in more traditional food companies. Kraft Foods Inc. now offers an organic version of its macaroni and cheese, for example, and big food corporations have started either buying up or launching their own natural and organic brands.

That’s a far cry from how things were when Nell Newman got started in the organic snack food business in the early 1990s. Recalling one kind of pretzel available at the time, she said, “You could break a tooth on them, but you felt good about eating them.”

Newman, president of Newman’s Own Organics and daughter of the actor Paul Newman, set out to make foods under the motto “great tasting food that happens to be organic.” The product line now includes pretzels, cookies and even dog food.

Newman said products such as Newman-O’s, a chocolate cream cookie that doesn’t scrimp on fat or calories, are for people who “want a treat, but they don’t want the pesticides.”

Other natural treats also aren’t necessarily low in calories.

A 2.5-ounce serving of Annie’s Shells & White Cheddar, unprepared, has 270 calories, including 40 calories from fat. By comparison, Kraft’s Macaroni & Cheese has 260 calories, including 25 from fat.

John Brecher

Annie’s Foraker says the company’s unprepared product is higher in fat and calories because it uses more real cheese in its base, and he notes that notes that Annie’s product is lower in fat than Kraft’s when prepared under Annie’s guidelines.

The most popular Amy’s frozen meals, such as pizza and lasagna, aren’t necessarily low fat, although the company’s product line includes things like low-fat, low-sodium and dairy-free alternatives.

Amy’s Web site also offers tips on how to use some of its prepared meals to lose weight. Berliner said one reason they’ve become popular with dieters is because the microwavable dishes allow people to control portions.

If you’re going to eat a bag of chips or a plate of cookies, clinical dietician Diane Javelli with the University of Washington said it is better to choose those that are free of preservatives or hydrogenated oils, or that are lower in salt or sugar. Still, she warns, people need to remember it’s an indulgence.

With or without hydrogenated oils, she said, “A potato chip is still a really high-calorie, low-nutrition food.”

Blackman, who raised her now twentysomething children on natural and organic foods, said the more mainstream acceptance has been good for people like her, who want to choose natural alternatives even when they treat themselves.

Before, she said, the thinking was that natural and organic food is good for you, so you better get used to how it tastes.

Now, she noted, “It’s gotten less grim.”