As her food awareness grew, Nell gradually begun using organic ingredients in her cooking. "I'm what you'd call a ‘flexitarian,'" she says. "I prefer to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, but I'm not averse to eating meat, poultry and fish from time to time. If a friend has graciously prepared a wonderful dinner, I think it's more fun to enjoy the food than to scrutinize ingredients. Food and friends make the meal." Nell also confides she's a lover of fast cars, just like her dad, and inherited his quirky sense of humor.
A little joke on "Pa"
In November 1992, Nell packed a bunch of organic foods - petite pois, sweet potatoes, breadcrumbs - from her local haunts and took them home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving. "The whole bit, down to the turkey packed in ice," she explains. "I flew home with this cornucopia in my luggage and headed straight for the kitchen to prepare, unbeknownst to my dad, an organic Thanksgiving meal.
"After dinner, I asked him how he liked his ‘organic' meal," says Nell. "He was floored." Paul Newman also was convinced enough to cover expenses for Nell and Meehan for one year to determine the feasibility of adding an organic line. In 1993, he loaned $15,000 to the entrepreneurs to get started. The planets were in harmony, and their first product - organic pretzels, a personal favorite snack of Pa - became a best seller in the natural foods market. After only one year in business, they paid back the loan.
The product line of tasty snacks now includes different varieties of cookies, popcorn and chocolate bars. "What's great about the chocolate line is that the cacao is grown in the ancient way so that no rainforests need to be destroyed," explains self-confessed chocoholic Nell. "We want to encourage this method by supporting the farmers economically."
Perking up the line in 2003 was Newman's Own Organic Fair Trade Certified coffees, roasted and distributed by Green Mountain Coffee Inc., followed by organic balsamic vinegar and olive oil. "We know how many people enjoy making their own salad dressing once in awhile - and use Pop's the rest of the time," says Nell.
Thanks to Pa approaching the president of Kraft Foods, the very popular Fig Newman's, the first fig bar with organic figs, sugar and flour but without hydrogenated oils, came into being (the name is used under license from Kraft). Two other pleasers in the cookie line, which uses palm shortening, are Alphabet Cookies and Ginger-O's, a ginger crème-filled cookie.
"People initially confused palm shortening with palm kernel oil," says Nell. "Palm kernel oil is extracted from a nut and is generally solvent-extracted and refined before use. Palm oil is extracted only from the fruit, as are olive and avocado oils, and is not refined, only filtered and deodorized. Plant derived, it has no cholesterol, and although palm shortening has more saturated fat than partially hydrogenated shortening, it contains no trans fatty acids."
Nell and Meehan branched out to Fido and Fifi next with a line of premium pet foods. "Pets have always been a part of our family life," says Nell, who grew up with dogs, cats, birds and an occasional snake. She currently has six pampered chickens, who follow her around. "We recognize that, like the food we choose for ourselves, the food we choose for our pets has a strong impact on their health, so we use the same quality ingredients and careful manufacturing process used in our human food line." The charity money generated by the sale of pet food is donated to organizations that support animal welfare. Sales are skyrocketing.
A staple for consumers and bakers, a line of 100 percent organic dried fruits with no sulfites - raisins, cranberries and pitted prunes - was added in late 2004. Last year, the company entered the largest and fastest growing segment of the market: organic fresh produce. "This is a particularly opportune time to make the move into organic salads," says Nell. "With everyone from educators to parents to doctors concerned about how and what Americans are eating, it's no wonder the packaged organic salad category grew 75 percent between 2001 and 2003."
Committed to spreading its message to younger consumers, Newman's Own Organic is one of the sponsors of "eat smart, grow strong," which includes a supermarket Spy Game that encourages kids to choose better options and eat better (see www.EatSmartGrowStrong.com).
Since an organic product is more expensive to produce, the company's growth process hasn't been without problems. Ingredients, certified organically grown by Oregon Tilth, are grown on farms that have not used artificial fertilizers or pesticides for three years or more. An independent third party also certifies the processors. Kosher certification is by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. "We are constantly dealing with trying to keep our products competitive in the market," says Meehan. "We do, though, want to give consumers a viable alternative, so we search for organic ingredients that are cost-effective."
Packaging, too, is a challenge. Consumers expect organic products to be in completely recyclable packages. "We look for materials that keep our products fresh and allow for shipping perishable product," says Meehan. "It can be a frustrating process, as this can raise the price of products the point people won't buy them."
"It's fairly obvious one can't be a perfect environmentalist," says Nell. "Perfection isn't the goal; a good life is. And a good life has a lot to do with who you are in the world, with intent as much as with the end result."
A healthy ecosystem
The chief difference between organic and conventional food is the method used to grow or make it. Nell defines the differences in her book, "The Newman's Own Organics Guide to the Good Life: Simple Measures that Benefit You and the Place You Live," (Villard 2003) written with science writer Joseph D' Agnese, and filled with practical advice on why living a more environmentally conscious life helps us all.