There was a time when customers couldn’t go to a local supermarket and buy organic yogurt or brown rice when such things were found only in one of a couple hundred natural food stores.
Now, according to a former Whole Foods marketing head, natural foods are a multi-billion dollar industry, and they’re spreading their environmental and health ideals even to the “Big Food” companies they once stood in a stark contrast to.
Joe Dobrow, author of a new book about the emergence of the natural foods industry since the 1960s, said many customers still aren’t aware that “Big Food” companies, such as Kraft, Kellogg’s and Heinz, now own many organic and natural brands.
“In the '80s and '90s, when companies like Whole Foods started to prove that they could make a lot of money basically to generate value while they were holding onto their values, the big companies started to look and they started to copy and they started to co-opt a lot of it,” Dobrow said. “And then they started to buy into it.”
This buy-in is leading to new business models, Dobrow said, like Coca-Cola’s ownership of Honest Tea and Dannon Group’s purchase of Stonyfield Farm’s yogurt brand.
In both purchases, Dobrow said, the bigger company kept the natural brand’s founder on board, kept the company intact and didn't stand in the way of the goal of the original founder.
“This is what we’ve come to call the reverse DNA model,” he said. “(The natural brands) are feeling as if we can do greater good for the world if we utilize the distribution systems and the voice and the manufacturing capacity of all these big companies while helping make them more conscientious and better companies from the inside out.”
But much work lies ahead for brands like Pepsi-owned Frito-Lay, Dobrow said, which is starting to shift its products towards “all-natural,” to the point of changing some, but not all potentially problematic ingredients.
One problem the industry will have to overcome yet? Defining “natural.”
Currently, only “organic” has a legal definition, leaving the former ambiguous and easily exploited by brands that don’t share the same idealistic roots.
“The pendulum has swung so dramatically from a world of all-natural and -organic that our grandparents grew up in to a world where there was almost nothing natural and organic when we started to come of age -- it’s going to take a considerable effort to get the pendulum back where we want it,” Dobrow said.
Still, he said, he's optimistic the future of natural brands, with more acres of farm fields being converted to organic crops, and more conventional retailers selling the finished product.
“I think we’re going to continue to see very strong growth there," he said. “I think you’ll continue to see more hybridization from the retail side so you don’t need to rely on Whole Foods -- or for that matter the co-ops -- to find these foods, but you’ll be able to find them everywhere.”