It's okay to spoil yourself from time to time with healthy indulgences

The next time you catch a client looking longingly at your chocolate selection, remind them that good things come to those who indulge wisely. Many of our industry's most succulent delicacies not only treat our mouths, but they also boost our spirits and give our bodies nutrition. Therefore, it's okay to tell customers to spoil themselves from time to time with tasty treats like chocolate, wine, cheese, olive oil and veggie chips.

lykovuonoThe Best of Both Worlds
Perceptions about what is "healthy" and what is "indulgent" differ from person to person. Indulging could mean satisfying a craving, splurging on a premium item or eating something that's "all about me." But one thing's for sure: natural products customers won't settle for great taste alone. They want to know the ingredients are good for them and the environment. This pairing of interest in healthy bodies and a healthy planet is a key market driver in the gourmet foods industry.

"Organic, gourmet food shoppers…are more educated about ingredients and their origins and how health is affected by those ingredients," says Reonne Haslett, co-owner of Earth's Sweet Pleasures, Nevada City, CA. "Many are concerned about the welfare of the planet and how food policies affect the Earth and its inhabitants. Most have awareness that there is a transformation taking place in the farming and food industries and that they may have to pay more for quality until demand is created."

Nonetheless, taste cannot fall short of the mark. Mark Palmer, global brand director at Green & Black's, Plano, TX, points out, "The days of people compromising on taste in order to be green are fast disappearing as natural foods transitions from minority interest to the everyday mainstream."

Retailers should choose products for this section carefully (for tips on how, see "How to Stock Your Aisles," p. 22) because some consumers have "post-purchase dissonance" after they buy premium products. In other words, they feel they've paid too much or aren't satisfied with their purchase. To keep customers happy with your gourmet offerings, "[They] must be special. People are looking for food that they not only love, but also feel good about eating," says Seth Novick, vice president of marketing at The Kitchen Table Bakers, Syosset, NY.

And now without any further ado, let's discuss the benefits behind some absolutely decadent healthy foods.

Chocolate Heaven
Chocolate is one of nature's perfect foods, and the epitome of healthy decadence. Says Mike Litton, CEO of Bridge Brands Chocolate (formerly The San Francisco Chocolate Factory), "The chocolate industry is fortunate to have a food that people like to eat and a scientific community that is constantly finding new health benefits of eating chocolate.  Today's customers are often searching for added health benefits before they buy, and in chocolate, they find what they are looking for."

Chock full of antioxidants and flavonoids, chocolate (especially the dark variety) is said to help promote good cardiovascular health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the flavonoids in chocolate "are believed to help the body's cells resist damage caused by free radicals, formed by normal bodily processes such as breathing or environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. When the body lacks adequate levels of antioxidants, free radical damage ensues, leading to increases in LDL-cholesterol oxidation and plaque formation on arterial walls" (1). And, other research indicates that cocoa-derived polyphenols may inhibit platelet activity.

vita speltOne recent publication found that individuals who ate dark chocolate for a week had "improved lipid profiles and decreased platelet reactivity." In fact, bad cholesterol levels fell 6%, while good cholesterol rose 9% (2).

Just half a bar per week (6.7 grams) may be enough to ward off heart disease, according to researchers from the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso and the National Cancer Institute of Milan (3). In a study of more than 4,800 healthy individuals, those who ate dark chocolate regularly had significantly lower levels (17% less) of C-reactive protein in their blood than those who did not eat chocolate. All results were adjusted to take into account other sources of polyphenols. "In other words," says Romina di Giuseppe, lead study author, "their inflammatory state is considerably reduced." This reduction, she adds, is enough to "decrease the risk of cardio-vascular disease for one-third in women and one-fourth in men. It is undoubtedly a remarkable outcome."

And, the dark variety is said to reduce inflammation (4); lessen cravings for salty, sweet and fatty foods (5); and even help achieve the "Ahh…that's better" effect (6). Regarding the latter, a 2007 study showed that eating chocolate improves a negative mood due to its palatability. "Sometimes, it is important to relax and have fun," says Steven Meyers, co-owner of Boulevards LLC, Brandenton, FL, maker of organic hot chocolate mixes. "This lowers people's stress levels." So go ahead, point your frazzled clients to some your hot chocolate offerings in the name of stress management.

If your consumers believe that eating a drug store-variety chocolate bar is just as good, be sure to set the record straight. Wayne Zink, CEO of Endangered Species Chocolate Co., Indianapolis, IN, notes, "In the chocolate industry, you may have what is perceived as a gourmet chocolate bar, but when you turn it over you find high-fructose corn syrup on the ingredient listing," he says.

mimiccremeOur industry, however, formulates products with health in mind. "[Earth's Sweet Pleasures] fudge is made with 65% dark chocolate, evaporated cane juice and vegetable oils," Haslett says. "The sugar (14%) and saturated fat (2%) content is lower than a traditional candy bar." In contrast, conventional fudge is often made with high-fat milk chocolate, white sugar and butter.

Dark versus milk chocolate is an important distinction. "Not all chocolate has equal levels of flavonoids," says Santiago Peralta, founder of Pacari Chocolate, West Palm Beach, FL. "Dark chocolate is shown to have the highest levels of flavanoids. Pacari takes this to the next level with its line of raw chocolate." According to the company, the cacao in raw chocolate is not roasted for added health benefits. "In raw chocolate, the cacao ingredients are kept at lower temperatures and minimally processed to preserve the maximum amount of flavonoids," says Peralta.

In addition, many industry chocolate specialists make the choice to use organic and fair-trade ingredients over other cheaper options. Says Palmer, "At Green & Black's, we are driven by making the most delicious chocolate bar possible, using the very finest ingredients available and we believe that these ingredients should be grown organically as it has always seemed the right way to do things as far as we are concerned."

Adds Zink, "We focus much of our attention on premium ingredients that are gentle on the planet. Sourcing ethically and sustainably grown cacao, fruits, nuts and sugars is a top priority—one that our customers expect and appreciate. The fact that these ingredients tend to be healthier for our bodies is proof that if you take care of the planet, it will take care of you."

Grape Expectations
Many of your clients love wine for its unique taste, but they should also embrace it for its potential health benefits (when enjoyed in moderation). Says Caroline Frey of Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley, CA, maker of organic, sulfite-free wine, "In the wine business, we are lucky enough to have much scientific evidence supporting the health benefits of a moderate amount of wine. Many people actually view drinking wine as a health practice while others use it to relax and enjoy life. We get a lot of people who call up and joke, 'I'm only ordering this wine because my doctor told me to!'"

One often-researched benefit of wine is for heart health, probably thanks to wine's high resveratrol content from red grape skin. According to the Mayo Clinic, some heart-healthy benefits of wine include: raising good cholesterol, inhibiting the formation of blood clots and helping prevent artery damage from bad cholesterol. Citing a 2000 Danish study, the Mayo Clinic states on its Web site, "Red wine in particular seems to have even more heart-health benefits than other types of alcohol…The study, known as the Copenhagen City Heart Study, found that those who drank red wine had about half the risk of dying of heart disease as those who didn't."

Rao'sAnd according to a new study from Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, men who drank one to two glasses of red wine everyday averaged less incidence of lung cancer. The most significant reduction in cancer was found among smokers who drank red wine (60% reduction in lung cancer). The sample size included 84,170 men (7).

Another benefit could be for cognitive function. A published study of 2,031 participants (70–74 years old) found that drinking 75–100 mL/d of wine improved performance in a battery of cognitive function tests (8). Chocolate and tea also had good results, though the most positive effect was found with wine. Results were dose dependent. It should be restated that like many of our industry's decadent gourmet products, wine should be enjoyed in moderation.

Cheese, Please
It shouldn't take much to explain to customers that cheese (and other dairy products) supports bone health because of its high calcium content. And, some feel eating dairy products is more preferable than supplementation. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that those consuming dietary calcium (70% of daily intake from food) had stronger bones and improved urinary estrogen metabolites than those who got 70% of their daily intake of calcium from dietary supplements (see WholeFoods August 2007, p. 10).

Cheeses also contain other essential nutrients like protein, phosphorus, zinc, vitamin A, riboflavin and vitamin B12. And, according to the National Dairy Council, certain cheeses (like cheddar, Swiss, blue and Monterey jack) may help reduce the risk of tooth decay because they stimulate saliva flow.

Retailers offering high-quality, non-hormone cheeses should be on the lookout for new healthy offerings in this category such as probiotic-enriched cheeses and gourmet cheese snacks. On this front, Novick of The Kitchen Table Bakers, notes his company's parmesan chips are baked, low-carb (0–1 net carbs/serving), gluten-free, sugar-free and are rich in protein (6–7 grams/serving) and calcium (15–20% of daily allowance). "The Parmesan Crisps fill so many dietary requirements, yet we are a true gourmet product," he says. "We worked with the best cheese scientists in the country to make sure our extremely high specifications for our parmesan cheese are perfect. We test every batch of cheese to these specifications so that our finished crisps are always uniquely decadent by design."

pacariStrike Oil
Consumers don't need to avoid oils in their cooking, if they choose healthy products and use them in moderation. For example, polyphenol-rich olive oil has long been enjoyed for its taste and health benefits. David Neuman, president of Lucini Italia Co., Miami, FL, cites comments from Andrew Weil noting that "high-quality extra virgin olive oil has the highest percentage of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat of any edible oil and also contains abundant antioxidants which have been shown to provide cardiovascular and anti-cancer effects."

In 2005, scientists from Monell Chemical Senses Center and collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and Firmenich Inc. explained that oleocanthal, "a naturally occurring chemical found in extra-virgin olive oils is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent." According to Neuman, this compound "inhibits activity of cyclooxygenase, or COX, enzymes, a pharmacological action shared by ibuprofen. The finding is significant because inflammation increasingly is believed to play a key role in a variety of chronic diseases."

Many attribute this factor to the heart-healthy benefits of the Mediterranean diet. On this front, Peter Panagotacos of Lykovouno Olive Oil Co., San Francisco, CA, adds that olive oil is an important part of this diet and "has been proven to be a major reason for the longevity of people in southern Greece (Lakonia and Crete) who consume more olive oil per person than any other people on the planet." According to the Mayo Clinic, "cooking with olive oil is a healthy choice" because it contains monounsaturated fats, which can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing bad cholesterol levels. Just two tablespoons per day, says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, may be enough to achieve this effect.

Product trends in this area reflect consumers' (both kids' and adults') desires for new, interesting flavors. Says Neuman, "American palates are getting more sophisticated; consumers are seeking more ethnic and fusion flavors and exposing their children to increasingly varied taste experiences earlier and earlier. As parents seek healthy, natural foods for their kids, we're seeing families move further into the premium product category." In response, Lucini recently launched a unique line of infused extra-virgin olive (lemon, garlic, basil and chili) and artisan vinegars (savory fig and dark cherry balsamicos and pinot noir red wine vinegar).

Olive oil isn't the only healthy culinary oil. Others include grapeseed, walnut, coconut and pumpkin seed oil, which all have unique health benefits. Pumpkin seed oil, for example, is rich in nutrients such as vitamins A and E, zinc and omega-3/6. This oil is said to have anti-inflammatory properties and relieve urinary difficulties caused by prostate problems.

Chip Away At It
Those who crave crunch but don't want the fat and cholesterol of other snacks can still indulge in healthy chips. For example, B & R Classics, Huntington, NY (distributor of Joseph Banks Cassava Chips), says the benefits of the company's cassava chips include being a good source of fiber and being low in salt. In addition, the cassava chips have 30% less fat and a lower glycemic index than potato chips. Norman F. Barnes, the company's chairman, notes that the products' all-natural ingredients "deliver great-tasting flavor and texture. Healthy without taste is not going to build a business."

This combination is no easy feat, says Angela Ichwan, CEO and co-founder of Arico Natural Foods, Beaverton, OR, who notes that the company's cassava chips have 30–40% less fat and offer twice the fiber of leading brand potato chips. "We pride ourselves in offering consumers better-for-you and great tasting snacks. People often think they need to sacrifice overall taste in order to eat healthy…It is challenging, but this is why Arico has been successful thus far."

How to Stock Your Aisles
If you're thinking about adding to or revamping your gourmet food section, quality should be a top concern. Rem ember, your customers are expecting a lot of your choices. Says Meyers of Boulevards, "Natural/organic food shoppers often pay a premium for products and they expect high-quality ingredients." With this in mind, check the ingredients of all products you intend to sell. "Make sure all ingredients contribute to the product taste or texture and are not being used to 'cut' the product. Second, sell products that don't blend with all the others on the shelf," he says.

Taste everything and seek input from others about flavor and texture. "Quality also means the indulgent food must deliver a pleasurable, satisfying taste. The market drivers for indulgent food products are a desire to deliver the best-tasting product to themselves and their family with minimal health implications," Meyers notes.

And when bringing in a new line, remember that shoppers of gourmet products often want something new and exciting. Says Frey, "They want something exquisite, outside the norm, out of this world."

New, New, New! For retailers looking for some new items to add to their grocery aisles, here are the latest offerings from companies interviewed for this article:

  • Arico Cassava Chips launched several new flavors of cassava chips in 2008.
  • New from Boulevards are three certified organic and kosher hot chocolate mixes: Instant Sweet-Dark, Dairy-Free Sweet-Dark and Sugar-Free/Dairy-Free.
  • B & R Classics began distributing Joseph Banks Cassava Chips (four flavors) in 2008 and the company will introduce other natural vegetable chips in 2009.
  • Bridge Brands Chocolate (formerly The San Francisco Chocolate Factory) is expanding its Got Milk? Chocolate line and will be introducing Got Milk? Chocolate Smoores; Got Milk? Cocoa; and Got Milk? Chocolate Cookies. The company's Got Milk? Chocolate Straws will be available in single packs as well as three packs.
  • Earth's Sweet Pleasures launched an organic Rich Rainforest Dark Fudge Bar (2.5 oz) and is considering adding new flavors like Espresso Dark, Intense Dark, Hazelnut and Mint Chip. If there is enough demand, it may develop a 100% vegan recipe.
  • In 2008, Endangered Species Chocolate launched a line of five three-oz organic chocolate bars, including three Organic Health bars intended to enhance the health benefits of dark chocolate. In 2009, Endangered Species Chocolate is launching pouches of bite-sized treats in five flavors (plain milk chocolate, 72% dark chocolate, 88% dark chocolate, dark chocolate with cranberries and almonds, dark chocolate with mint).  
  • ramuanThe newest offering from Frey Vineyards is its Late Harvest Zinfandel 2007 (a rich, indulgent dessert wine). Also available is the company's new port style wine called Dessertage 2002.
  • Green & Black's extended its range of 3.5-oz bars with new flavors like milk chocolate with crunchy toffee and a new dark bar with 85% cocoa solids. For 2009, the company has announced it will offer Green & Black's Peanut Bar (with roasted peanuts and a hint of sea salt).
  • The Kitchen Table Bakers will update its logo and packaging on its all-parmesan crisps this year and will soon offer a "mini" package in a standup pouch.
  • In 2008, Lucini Italia launched an organic, 36-month aged Parmigiano Reggiano as well as a line of infused extra-virgin olive (lemon, garlic, basil and chili) and artisan vinegars (savory fig and dark cherry balsamicos and pinot noir red wine vinegar). This year, the company will offer gourmet Lucini Artisan Vinaigrette Dressings (Fig & Walnut Savory Balsamic, Cherry Balsamic & Rosemary, Roasted Hazelnut & Extra Virgin, Tuscan Balsamic & Extra Virgin, Bold Parmesan & Garlic, and Delicate Cucumber & Shallot).
  • In 2008, Pacari launched a line of single-origin chocolate bars made from cacao grown in Ecuador, a line of raw chocolate bars, and a line of chocolate-covered specialty items (guava, banana, espresso beans, golden berries and cacao nibs). In 2009, Pacari will expand its regional bar line as well as offer gift boxes of its chocolate. WF

    1. Cleveland Clinic, Heart and Vascular Institute, "Heart-Health Benefits of Chocolate Unveiled,", accessed December 15, 2008.
    2. M.S. Hamed et al., "Dark Chocolate Effect on Platelet Activity, C-Reactive Protein and Lipid Profile: A Pilot Study," South Med J. 101 (12), 1203–1208 (2008).
    3. Catholic University, "Dark Chocolate: Half A Bar Per Week May Keep Heart Attack Risk At Bay," press release, Sept. 24, 2008.
    4. R. di Giuseppe et al., "Regular Consumption of Dark Chocolate Is Associated with Low Serum Concentrations of C-reactive Protein in a Healthy Italian Population," J. Nutr. 138 (10), 1939–1945 (2008).
    5. University of Copenhagen, "Dark Chocolate Is More Filling Than Milk Chocolate And Lessens Cravings," press release, Dec. 10, 2008.
    6. M. Macht and J. Mueller, "Immediate Effects of Chocolate on Experimentally Induced Mood States," Appetite, 49 (3), 667–674 (2007).
    7. C. Chao et al., "Alcoholic Beverage Intake and Risk of Lung Cancer: The California Men's Health Study," Cancer Epidemiol. Biomarkers Prev. 17 (10), 2692–2699 (2008).
    8. E. Nurk et al., "Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men and Women Is Associated with Better Cognitive Test Performance," J. Nutr. Dec. 3, 2008 [epub].

merchandising tipsSeal the Deal: Merchandising Tips
You may want to consider beefing up your gourmet section, even if slow sales have you worried. If you're dubious, consider market data from a recent report from Packaged Facts. The firm found that though sales growth declined 50% in 2008 (all channels) compared with 2007, premium chocolate sales (includes natural and organic) grew 9% (1).
The reason why may be that shoppers want to "feel like they're indulging without making a huge investment," says Wayne Zink, CEO of Endangered Species Chocolate Co., Indianapolis, IN.

Norman F Barnes, chairman of B & R Classics, Huntington, NY, agrees, noting, "As people cut back overall they still need treats/indulgence so gourmet becomes a way to do this inexpensively for a few dollars per unit."

Though consumers will splurge a little even in tough economic times, it may be a challenge to sell premium products to customers looking to cut back. Here are some tips for how to entice customers to take home a gourmet product or two:

  • Remind customers that they get more for their dollar with premium product. Says Reonne Haslett, co-owner of Earth's Sweet Pleasures, Nevada City, CA, "Dark chocolate fudge is so satisfying, a small amount goes a long way."
  • Highlighting how gourmet companies give back to the community may encourage support and product sales. For example, Endangered Species Chocolate created a rewards program for 2009 called It's Time for HOPE that includes buy one, get one coupons. Money raised (10% of net profits) will go to supporting species, habitat and humanity. "That is key to our brand and consumers feel good knowing that their indulgence is helping the planet," says Zink.
  • Caroline Frey of Frey Vineyards, Redwood Valley, CA, suggests some creative cross merchandising. "Market gourmet items as ‘A cheap holiday to Italy' and have a shelf with wine, gourmet pasta, pestos and sauces, cheeses and olive oil. Encourage customers to indulge in the experiences (dining) of travel without the cost of a plane ticket. They could ‘Visit Morocco' and have a shelf of dates, gourmet free-range lamb meat, spicy snacks and candied nuts."
  • Don't forget about sampling. "At Green & Black's we ask people to judge us by the taste and quality of our chocolate rather than just our commitment to ethical trading," suggests Mark Palmer, global brand director.
  • Teach consumers that there are no shortcuts with gourmet foods. "The reason certain foods are inexpensive is due to the ingredients. The Yin-Yang, night-and-day, always co-exists, and we can't have it both ways," says Angela Ichwan, CEO and co-founder of Arico Natural Foods, Beaverton, OR. "Retailers should continue to educate consumers about how to understand ingredient listings and how to interpret health claims on product packaging. In doing so, consumers will continue to make better-informed choices."

1. Packaged Facts, Premium Chocolate in the U.S.: Mass, Gourmet, Prestige and Super Premium, 4th Edition, (Market Research, New York, NY), 2008.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, Feb 09