While there may be questions over mainstream momentum, there’s no debating that health and wellness is a dynamic, ever-evolving category in and of itself. New trends develop while old ones fade away, and every year brings a spirited contest as various claims and standards vie for shelf space.
In 2009, the top wellness trend according to stakeholders was natural and organic private label, followed by whole grains and certified-organic products. Last year the tables turned, with whole grains claiming the top spot, largely due to an increase in manufacturer rollouts and promotion from organizations like the Whole Grains Council.
This year’s poll showed gluten/allergen-free in first place, with 30% picking it as the top trend, followed by organic at 17.5% and whole grains at 16%.
It’s interesting to note what’s happening outside of the top trends, as well. Omega-3s, which have been promoted in foods due to their heart and brain benefits, were listed as one of the top three trends by 29% of stakeholders in 2010, but by only 14% this year. Similarly, the low-sodium trend received top-three mentions from 31% of respondents last year, but only 18% this year.
Natural and organic energy drinks, on the other hand, have burst onto the retail scene and were listed as a top-three trend by 24% of polltakers, all of which goes to show how fierce the competition is in a category that’s full of young, hungry companies and subject to questionable claims.
“Little by little, larger amounts of products are moving to the health and wellness platform, including some that don’t really belong,” observed a respondent.
The constant shifts in hot-button claims and ingredients are part of whole health’s appeal as a category. But this year’s poll results also highlight the value of enduring social and agricultural principles. Organic (81%) and fair trade (39%) were two such standards that stakeholders said enjoy a high level of consumer awareness. A newer cause that’s making waves is the non-GMO movement, with products certified by the nonprofit Non-GMO Project hitting $1 billion in sales this year. Forty percent of respondents picked this topic as one of their top three in terms of consumer awareness.
Another enduring segment of the whole health category is natural and organic private label. Back in 2009 — when the recession was still in full stride — it was the top wellness trend with 44% of votes. That sentiment held up last year, with 53% of polltakers saying consumers were continuing to choose healthy private label over brands.
“Private label is taking much more share in the organic market across all categories as consumers see the private label and branded items as the same,” noted one person in the 2010 WH Asks poll.
The story continues this year as retailers like Safeway and Wal-Mart released store brand products fit to rival national brand competitors.
“Store brand sales have continued to climb,” noted a retailer in the 2011 survey.
It’s clear that natural and organic options are an important piece of the overall private label strategy for these companies, but it seems this segment’s impact has been overstated to this point. For all the excitement surrounding natural and organic store brands, 43% of stakeholders said these products accounted for less than 5% of their total store brand sales. Overall, 79% of respondents said their natural and organic made up less than 20% of their total private label sales.
Retailers and manufacturers hope to expand private label and other choices, but there are inconsistencies that merit attention as consumer awareness grows. Local products, for instance, have seen steady growth at retail over the past couple of years, yet there remains no consensus as to what, exactly, “local” is. Interpretations vary widely. When asked what their company considers to be local, poll respondents answered with everything from within 5 miles to within 250 miles to within 1,000 miles to, simply, “I don’t know.”
Similarly, those polled expressed concerns over claims like “natural” and “free range”, which are loosely defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture compared to standards like organic.
“The consumer is confused as to the viability and expense of organic versus all-natural items,” one respondent wrote.