New Hope 360 Blog

Are gourmet brands healthwashing or just confused?

Specialty and gourmet manufacturers want to attract naturals consumers, but they're a little fuzzy on which claims they can and can't make.

It's no secret that specialty and gourmet brands have their eyes on naturals consumers. While walking the show floor at the Winter Fancy Food show in San Francisco last week, it was rare to find a company without a health angle. "Free-from" labeling and better-for-you ingredients like quinoa and sweet potatoes took center stage—as did, unfortunately, a lot of misinformation.

I learned the difference between high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup. Apparently, one is much healthier than the other? Can you guess which? I still can't. The term "100 percent natural" appeared on everywhere including foods containing genetically modified ingredients. "Organic" popped up on products without third party certifications—still not sure they can get away with that. And of course, EVERYTHING was gluten free, including products like whipped cream, cheese and beverages that don't typically contain the protein.

 I can forgive such transgressions on smaller brands which are still figuring out the natural/organic space, its rules, and where they fit in. But the big guys should know better.  

Dancing Deer Baking Company which makes my favorite soft gourmet cookies and brownies introduced a line of 100 percent whole grain treats. “There is scientific evidence that every whole grain in your diet helps, so we were inspired to feature whole grains in our gourmet cookie and brownie offerings ,” said Jennifer Shelley, master baker at Dancing Deer Baking Co in a release. And what do these whole grains offer nutritionally ? If you assumed fiber, as I did, you'd be wrong. While I haven't seen an ingredient deck, I was told the fiber difference between the whole grain and regular desserts is negligible. So why introduce and promote a whole-grain line? Sounds like health washing to me.

Similarly, spice and herb giant McCormicK & Co. launched a new ad campaign that aggressively promotes the antioxidant benefits of its products. One commercial encourages people to "add antioxidants to your morning scramble" by sprinkling pepper on scrambled eggs, Advertising Age reports. Interestingly, like many other flavor-focused brands, the new emphasis is a complete divergence from previous ads which vowed to "save the world from boring food." While I agree that certain spices are shown to exhibit antioxidant properties, I disagree that a sprinkle here and there makes for an efficacious dose. I'm calling foul, and am interested to see if the Food and Drug Administration does so as well.        

Unlike natural/organic shoppers, specialty/gourmet consumers may not be clear on what to ask when evaluating the health benefits of various products. They're much more likely to rely on the established brands they trust for this information. If it says whole grain, it must be healthy. If they say antioxidants, it must deliver.

While I'm excited to see a blurring of the lines between the specialty and gourmet categories, it's paramount that the quality standards that have sustained these categories stay intact. For naturals shoppers that means better-for-you products that also actually taste good. And for specialty shoppers, it's flavorful products that deliver nutrient-dense ingredients and are marked by third-party verified labels such as USDA Certified Organic and Certified Fair Trade.

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