Making Produce the Apple of Consumers’ Eyes

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Making Produce the Apple of Consumers’ Eyes

By Jim Dudlicek - 10/22/2019
PMA CEO Cathy Burns delivers her state of the industry address at Fresh Summit

Cosmic Crisp – it’s the hot new apple that’s set to take grocery produce departments by storm and, by some accounts, put the beloved Honeycrisp out to pasture.

And it was the topic that seemed to get the most mass-media attention out of the Produce Marketing Association’s annual PMA Fresh Summit Convention and Expo, held last week in Anaheim, Calif.

But weighing more heavily on the minds of growers, marketers and retailers is what the idea of “plant-based” is really going to mean in the weeks, months and years ahead, and how those who grow and sell fruits and vegetables can lead the discussion of plant-based eating, rather than those who make pea protein disguised as hamburgers.

“We must connect with consumers’ emotions to impact buying decisions,” PMA CEO Cathy Burns declared during her keynote address.

Making that connection will require demonstrating how fresh produce, which many may simply take for granted, and the industry that delivers it reflect consumers’ demand for things like personalized experiences and both social and environmental responsibility, in addition to taste and convenience.

“Forum for the Future” was the theme of this year’s expo, and sessions dug deep into the demographic and socioeconomic trends that, to varying degrees, will influence how the world eats in the years ahead: an aging population, migration to urban areas, multigenerational households, and a hunger for authentic flavors and experiences.

But among pundits and procurers alike, the big three continue to reign supreme: Food needs to be healthy and convenient, but neither matters unless it tastes good.

“You can tell them it’s healthy, but it has to taste good,” Sarah Deaton, North American shopper marketing manager for New Zealand kiwifruit marketer Zespri, told PG during an expo booth visit, explaining why her company’s product is on trend for snackers in 2020: it’s a unique-tasting fruit that’s good for you (high in fiber with a moderate glycemic index), and easy to scoop and eat using the spoon that’s packaged with it.

Megan Klein, founder and president of Field & Farmer, which markets a line of plant-based dips and dressings made from regionally sourced ingredients, foresees growing demand for “cleaner, minimally processed plant-based food.”

Among plants, potatoes are poised for a renaissance of sorts, asserted John Toaspern, chief marketing officer for trade association Potatoes USA. Chatting over lunch, Toaspern told the PG team that reintroduction of the spud by the Whole30 diet is part of a growing re-evaluation of dietary carbohydrates. “There’s going to be a real discussion of good carbs versus bad carbs,” he said.

Of course, when discussing how they eat, consumers often talk a good game regarding nutrition and making sensible food choices, yet contemporary obesity rates suggest that many folks are telling surveys one thing and doing another. But there seemed to be a rising confidence at the expo that the food industry is creating products that are making it more convenient than ever before to choose healthy foods that taste good, too.

Examples on display at PMA included meal solutions from companies like Dole and ReadyPac, offering salad kits replete with vegetables enhanced by animal or plant proteins; multiple varieties of easy-to-prepare seasoned side dishes from The Little Potato Co.; creamy, flavorful snack dips made from almonds and cashews by Fresh Cravings; Mott’s branded apple snack packs with cheese and pretzels by Robinson Fresh (which is also rolling out a 4-pack of avocados in various stages of ripeness, so one’s ready to eat each day after purchase); no-shells pistachios by The Wonderful Co.; and protein-packed, fruit-forward Greek yogurt smoothies by Litehouse Foods.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in products that are used for more than salad,” noted Stacey Miller, Litehouse’s director of trade marketing, observing continued growth in ranch dressing with multiflavored spinoffs that double as dips and toppings.

Functional foods are more mainstream than ever, as demonstrated by Bolthouse Farms’ grand showing at the expo, with multiple products targeting specific nutritional needs.  Among them: a line of keto-friendly protein shakes, and a line of shots designed to enhance immunity, digestion, energy, metabolism and overall wellness.

Also from Bolthouse: a line of “functional infusions” and cold-brew coffee, each serving spiked with 25 milligrams of CBD, at 100 calories per bottle.

Growers, converters and marketers of fresh produce seem truly inspired to develop products that raise consumers’ expectations.

“People want excitement, freshness, something to brighten their day,” observed Richard Vann, VP of marketing for The Little Potato Co. “Our mantra is to feed the world better.”

Here on the front lines of the future of food, the gatekeepers of fresh are definitely headed in that direction.

Follow our live event coverage on Twitter at @pgrocer and @jimdudlicek.

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