Long a popular hot beverage in its native South America, yerba mate is rearing its rain forest-friendly head in America's funkier coffee shops, natural food stores and ethnic groceries. But, while the drink seems to have established a foothold in chains such as Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Fred Meyer and H-E-B Central Market, it remains to be seen if it will follow the path to popularity paved by green tea, or more recently, white and red teas.
"There's a lot of interest in yerba mate," said Brian Keating of Sage Group, a Seattle-based consulting firm that focuses on specialty teas. "Probably more interest than sales at this point, though. It's still a very small category."
Brewed from the leaves and stems of the yerba mate plant, the drink does have several promising attributes. It has particularly high concentrations of naturally occurring antioxidants and polyphenols -- those same compounds that helped draw consumer attention to green tea. And, while assertions that it lowers cholesterol, improves lung function and boosts libido have not been scientifically verified, it has much more caffeine than green or black tea, allowing it to serve as a coffee substitute for some customers.
"It's a healthy stimulant," said David Karr, who in 1996 co-founded Guayaki, the leading importer of yerba mate. Karr also claims the drink gives users a gentler, less jittery buzz than coffee.
The earthy packaging on Guayaki's boxes, bags, concentrates and now single-serve ready-to-drink bottles helps communicate the company's core commitment to sustainable rain forest agriculture -- which has earned it special recognition from the United Nations, the government of Paraguay and researchers at Cambridge University.
Meanwhile, Pixie Mate, an upstart competitor led by a pair of coffee shop owners from Boulder, Colo., sports a hip, retro look on its boxes and concentrates.
"It's interesting that Pixie as a new entrant isn't trying to imitate the category leader," Keating noted. "One appeals to the green consumer, who is interested in sustainability, and the other has more of a retro look that might appeal to younger consumers looking for something different."
Although rumor has it that at least three major supermarket chains in the Northeast are planning to test Yerba Mate soon, Keating added that mainstream popularity will take time. "Seeing Guayaki and Pixie trying to get traction in [conventional] supermarket distribution?" he said. "The jury's still out. I think it's going to take some time."
Consumers often go to the closest, most convenient supermarket. Unfortunately, the same can't said of the potato they're buying.
A growing awareness of environmental and animal treatment issues has prompted activists to invent a new term designed to compute the distance some foods travel, taking into account the impact of long-hauling on quality and healthfulness: food miles.
"Locally grown food helps decrease greenhouse emissions because the food doesn't have to travel far at all," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. He added that the recent fuel crisis and commodity price hikes helped bring that point home.
Supermarkets know the power of local-grown produce and have benefited from offering local goods. Posters and signs pointing out the proximity of farms and the story behind the product is a powerful buying trigger.
As appealing as the idea is, however, no one has quite determined if customers are willing to forgo some items because they aren't in season, or are too far away. Retailers of any size can certainly make the commitment to defer to local products whenever feasible. For large chains especially, the local touch is especially effective in connecting with shoppers.
"They're showing commitment to the local economy, rather than the economies of scale," Cummins said.
Quick quiz: Who represents $90 billion in retail spending per year, and is very dissatisfied with their current grocery options?
Answer: Shoppers in America's inner-city neighborhoods fit the bill on both counts, according to researchers from Boston-based Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.
"Inner cities have two to eight times higher retail opportunity than average small-city or suburban areas," said Dierdre Coyle, communications director for ICIC. "It's the largest emerging retail market in the United States."
Inner cities have also become some of the most unhealthy areas of the country, and several recent studies have established a direct link between the lack of grocery stores to higher rates of obesity and diet-related illnesses, such as diabetes. With very little access to produce and other fresh foods, inner-city residents are prone to eat a lot more junk, the studies indicate.
"Obesity is in the bull's-eye, at least from the critic's standpoint, and a lot of these inner-city communities are the hardest to reach and disseminate the right [health] information to," noted Mark Baum, executive vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association.
Major supermarkets have taken advantage of local public-private partnerships such as Baltimore Healthy Stores, The Food Trust or the Fresh Food Financing Initiative, but Coyle says there's a caveat: "Because of the demographic differences and land assembly issues, you have to be creative and really understand the market."
A few chains have made successful ventures. Pathmark and Stop & Shop, for example, have found their highest-grossing stores are in low-income communities, according to "Healthy Food, Healthy Communities," a report released this fall by Policy Link, an Oakland, Calif.-based non-profit. Of course, that report also notes that Pathmark spent eight years fighting court battles over condemned buildings to get the land needed to build its Newark, N.J., location.
To produce a "win-win" situation for the health of inner-city consumers and the bottom line for supermarket owners, groups such as Policy Link are working to cut through that type of red tape.
"We want to figure out ways that public policy could remove obstacles and create incentives," said Rebecca Flournoy, senior associate at the group.
Hang on to your mountain bike helmets -- a small segment of the energy bar category is doing a 180, leaving those hefty lists of vitamin, mineral and protein fortifications in the dust.
The new trail is leading to raw food bars. Recent introductions include products from Larabar, Yaoh, ReNew Life and ThinkOrganic, among others. Even category leader Clif Bar has come out with a new "Nectar" lineup. Instead of adding performance-enhancing supplements, these bars opt for a much simpler approach, mashing together additive-free blends of five or six minimally processed ingredients, such as fruit, nuts and all-natural flavorings like vanilla or juice concentrates.
"They are a departure [for the category]," said Stephanie Steiner, grocery buyer and merchandiser for PCC Natural Markets, Seattle. "Many question the added vitamins and fortifications of standard energy bars."
As Steiner sees it, the bars are an offshoot of the broader "raw food" movement [See "Living in the Raw," WH Fall 2005].
"The raw food trend, in general, is based on the nutritional benefits believed to be available to the body through food that hasn't had the natural enzymes cooked out of it," she explained. "I think the mainstream companies jumped in [to this] so that they stay cutting edge and don't lose ground to upstarts."
Raw food is still a tiny slice of grocery retailing, even within the natural food channel, but Steiner noted that when established brands like Clif Bar get involved with something, it tends to draw attention.
Lara Merriken, the entrepreneur who launched the category in 2003 when Whole Foods Market became the first retailer to offer her Larabar line, told WH that she came up with the idea while training for a marathon.
"I had been trying to take most refined sugars out of my diet, but I still needed a portable, convenient food," she explained. "As a consumer, I started thinking, 'Why hasn't anyone made a clean, unprocessed [energy bar] without all of the extra sugar and additives?"'
Traditional physicians have long demonstrated a stubborn adherence to established medical practices, with little regard for alternatives like homeopathy or chiropractic. Attitudes are changing, however, as their patients empower themselves with knowledge, and new policies give these "consumers" a stronger voice in treatment options.
Supermarkets are one of the beneficiaries of the evolving relationship between doctor and patient -- and, by extension, medicine and food. Smart retailers see the chance to move beyond diabetes store tours -- the crux of many in-store programs -- to other chronic conditions where food plays an integral part.
"There is no question that the supermarket as a point of choice is important in the overall scheme of the obesity epidemic," said Dr. Stephan Daniels, a Cincinnati-based pediatrician and associate chair at Children's Hospital Medical Center there. "We counsel patients and their families on approaches to purchasing food as they work to make their home environment more healthful."
Most consumers confine their supermarket/remedy relationship to the pharmacy, without considering the rest of the store as a potential source of wellness. Retailers are adding to their whole health programs, or hiring dietitians, to change this behavior. Reaching out to doctors, hospitals and clinics is one way to jump-start in-store activities. Retailers can also network at health fairs or similar forums where medical practitioners are also often present. Homeopaths and other practitioners of nutrition-guided wellness can be another source.
"The conventional doctor's strong point is in emergency medicine and with treating acute illnesses. Their weak point is chronic health care," said Steven Waldstein, co-founder of Classical Homeopathy, Aurora, Colo., and former president of the North American Society of Homeopaths. "We get the migraine sufferers, arthritis sufferers, people with depression -- these are all long-term health problems." Food often figures in their treatment, he added.
Dr. Robert Baker, co-chief of the digestive disease and nutrition center at Women & Children's Hospital of Buffalo, N.Y., discovered help at Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., through a newsletter mailed out by a local gluten-intolerance association.
"What we found helpful, and have used, are their store tours for celiac disease," he said. "They have a food section for special products, but they also bring patients and their parents around and show where they can get foods that are gluten-free."
With their clinical minds, however, physicians are hoping retailers take a more scientific approach to food merchandising.
"I think it will be necessary for research to be done so that any changes made in the approach to shopping, the way stores are organized, and services offered at stores will be evidence-based," Daniels said. "An important issue from my perspective is that new approaches should have a behavioral modification component rather than merely providing information."
Funding extensive research isn't feasible, but both sides acknowledge the merging common ground -- and the common goal of providing consumers with healthful opportunities.
"There's a lot to be learned from just trying to help people shop smart," Baker said. "Supermarkets can play a big role in health."
The aging Silent Majority seems to be fighting a new foe these days: Silent Inflammation. To control this ominous-sounding condition, people need to eat more fatty fish or take a lot of omega-3 supplements, eat more fruits and non-starchy vegetables, less red meat and fewer processed foods, use mono- and polyunsaturated cooking oils like olive oil, and slash their intake of trans fats, alcohol, caffeine and refined carbohydrates, such as sugars and white flour.
This advice doesn't stray too far from modern nutritional wisdom, but there's a twist: A bevy of new books claim that if you ignore silent inflammation, you could fall victim to a holy host of terrifying health conditions now beginning to worry baby boomers: from wrinkles to Alzheimer's.
Emerging evidence links what nutritionists call a "low-grade inflammatory response" to the development of a few specific chronic conditions like heart disease, according to Allison Beadle, nutritionist for H-E-B Central Market, San Antonio. "Some of the mechanisms behind the nutrition-inflammation relationship have been identified, such as how certain types of fat can increase or decrease inflammation," she said.
But by specifically targeting the health concerns of an aging generation and linking them primarily to poor eating habits, authors like Barry Sears, Nicholas Perricone, Floyd Chilton, Laura Tucker, Jack Challem and Richard Fleming may be at the cusp of kick-starting a new dietary buzzword.