Just because it says "organic," is junk food any better for us?
In the mid-1980s, Robert Ehrlich, a Wall Street commodities trader, got into a different type of market. A food lover, Ehrlich often lingered in supermarket aisles and watched shoppers as they deliberated over what to buy. One day, while surveying a wall of snacks made by the giants of the processed food industry, he had a eureka moment. The idea came to him in a puff.
A cheese puff.
At the time, Wise’s Cheese Doodles reigned supreme. Dusted in a salty fluorescent orange powder, they looked as awful as they tasted, in Ehrlich’s opinion. The label said it all. “There wasn’t any real cheese in them,” he recalled recently, sounding flabbergasted still. “And most of the ingredients you couldn’t even pronounce.”
Ehrlich decided he could do better by making cheese puffs that contained real cheese and ingredients that everyone could recognize. Cheekily named “Pirate’s Booty,” the bags flew off the shelves. Today, they are sold in 90 percent of supermarkets across the country, just one in a line of many natural snacks made by his company, Robert’s American Gourmet. With sales of more than $50 million last year, Ehrlich said, business is booming.
Move over ordinary potato chips. Enter high-end chips, hand-cooked and seasoned with spices like ginger, jalapeno pepper and paprika. Riding the growing interest in healthier eating, so-called natural and organic companies have given junk food a makeover by using less salt, better oils and in some instances, unexpected flavors. Consumers are scarfing them down, many under the mistaken assumption that they will have less to atone for afterward.
“I’d rather eliminate the guilt as much as possible,” said Jenny Parsinen, a 29-year-old dressed in yoga pants who was recently contemplating the snack choices at a Whole Foods store in New York.
Since its birth in the early to mid-1980s, the natural and organic snack industry has exploded. Sales of organic snacks reached $677 million last year, double the amount sold in 2001. But that still represents only 2 percent of the overall snack market, leading forecasters to predict huge growth in coming years.
The industry giants have taken notice. Frito Lay, the $10 billion unit of PepsiCo that is the industry’s biggest player, switched this year to sunflower oil in their Lays and Ruffles potato chips. More recently, in addition to offering organic versions of their signature brands, Frito Lay rolled out a line of snacks made from fruits and vegetables. “In terms of health and wellness, our goal is to provide options,” said Aurora Gonzales, a company spokeswoman.
Making a natural snack is more expensive than making an artificial one, especially for smaller niche brands. But what the pioneering natural snack companies recognized early was that consumers are willing to pay a premium to assuage their guilt.
“They cost more, but they’re worth it,” said Jim Green, the spokesman for Kettle Foods, the maker of Kettle Chips, the leading potato chip in the natural and organic foods category. “We don’t want to compete at the lowest price.”
Health experts would prefer that consumers save their money. “A slightly better junk food is still a junk food,” Marion Nestle, a nutritionist and author of the book “What to Eat,” wrote in an e-mail interview. “It still has calories.”
At a time of mounting concern over obesity, nutritionists like Nestle find it difficult to dispel the widely held notion that merely substituting natural ingredients for artificial ones removes all harm.
“They’re not fattening,” claimed 28-year-old Lori Hahn, who loaded her shopping basket with several bags of Pirate’s Booty at a Whole Foods snack aisle in New York.
Gayle Greenhow, another Whole Foods shopper, seemed less sure. “I thought they were low in fat and sodium,” she said hesitantly. Examining the label, the 40-year-old changed her mind. “No. Not low fat, just low in sodium.”
Pirate’s Booty is in fact neither, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s criteria for low-fat and low-sodium foods. But that hasn’t stopped Weight Watchers from recommending the snack on its Website, listing Pirate Booty’s as one of the 16 foods their dieters “can’t live without.”
In general, the calories in natural and organic food snacks tend to be only slightly less or about the same as in traditional junk food. Indeed, many of the natural snack makers do not run away from the fact that their products can be fattening. “They’re fried in oil,” explained Green, the Kettle Foods spokesman, referring to his company’s potato chips. “There’s only so much you can do about calories.” Pirate’s Booty snacks, which are not fried, used to be advertised as low-fat until the Good Housekeeping Institute in 2002 revealed tests that showed that the snacks contained more than three times what the label stated. Ehrlich attributed the problem to a manufacturing glitch aggravated by a rush to fill unexpected demand. After the discovery, the company immediately removed the low-fat label.
The controversy showed Jeremy Selwyn, who reviews chips and other snacks on his Website, taquitos.net, that while natural snacks make many people “feel good,” they also “may not be what you think.”
“Everyone is trying to be natural these days,” he added. “But what does that mean? No one wants to be artificial.”
For Selwyn, junk food is what it is, and its merits should lie in taste, not nutrition. For people who fret about the health effects, he had some simple but practical advice: “Don’t eat too much of it. Get some exercise.”