As a staple of the lauded Mediterranean diet, olive oil has been praised for its healthful qualities and flavor in countries such as Italy and Greece for quite a long time, and now it’s gained a foothold in the United States as well.

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There’s a transformation underway in the natural retailing community. After decades of strong leadership, many pioneering retailers are scaling back their duties or passing the reins of their stores to the next generation of retailers—some family members, others young entrepreneurs. At the same time, we’re seeing stores grow from the ground up under the guidance of young owners who are new to natural or retailing or both.

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If any consumer today feels that food is not a means of improving their lives, they are in a distinct minority. Data from the Natural Marketing Institute indicate nearly four out of five people believe “healthy foods and beverages can be used to increase the quality of their lives” (1). This explains the current zeal for what functional foods, from nutritious greens to probiotic-infused cookies, have to offer.

Here, grab a glimpse of who is buying functional foods, what they’re buying, and how they’re learning about their options.

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The chocolate game has changed. Today, gourmet chocolatiers are adding exotic fruit, spices and cacao nibs to their premium bars and they are flying off the shelves.

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The ballots are in. The votes are tallied. And now without further ado, we are thrilled to share with you the winners of the 2014 WholeFoods Natural Choice Awards.

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All signs point to a continued rise in interest in alternative diets. A 2012 study from the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 2.5% of U.S. consumers self-identified as “vegan,” up from 1% since as recently as 2009 (1). Couple this with the documented decline in meat consumption, and it is clear that widespread dietary changes are afoot. Raw food-centered lifestyles also continue to garner interest. In each of these areas, food companies are stepping up to the plate to turn curious shoppers into loyal customers through marketing and innovation.

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Ice cream sales generate big dollars in the United States. $10 billion, to be exact, in 2011 (1). Manufacturers in the competitive ice cream space are pulling out all the stops to grab their piece of the pie (à la mode, of course). The results are some pretty unique high-end gourmet products that are far from vanilla. We’re seeing outside-the-carton ingredients and flavor combinations like herbs and salty-sweet varieties that have piqued the interest of shoppers. And the cherry on top are premium ingredients that bring products to new levels in terms of flavor and social responsibility.

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Pet products are a big deal. So much so that a slew of “big box” retail outlets are devoted to the business of pet ownership. But pet dollars can still be captured at natural retail by properly presenting safe, healthful offerings and the right variety of products to suit the needs of the most common pets.

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A peanut butter sandwich on whole-wheat bread, washed down with a nice tall glass of cold milk sounds like a delicious and healthy lunch for kids and adults alike. Unfortunately, for nearly 15 million Americans today, that meal could lead to severe health consequences. Peanut, wheat and dairy allergies and intolerances are becoming more and more commonplace; between 1997 and 2011, food allergies among children spiked 50% (1). Though there are many theories as to why they are becoming more prevalent, a direct cause is still unknown. But the fact is, for those with peanut allergies, dairy intolerances or gluten sensitivities, these conditions are very real and can disrupt and even threaten their daily lives.

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Continuing on our discussion about Gourmet Snack Foods, we have an online exclusive interview with Angie Bastian, founder of Angie’s Artisan Popcorn of Mankato, MN. Angie's pops fresh popcorn batch by batch. The line includes Boom Chicka Pop Sea Salt and Boom Chicka Pop White Cheddar, as well as Sweet and Spicy, Salted Caramel, Kettle Corn and more.

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