“Lesser evil foods and beverages are the biggest piece of the healthy foods pie,” according to a recent study by Nutrition Business Journal (NBJ). The study defines Healthy foods as lesser evil, functional and natural and organic. So-called lesser evil foods are those which are modified to remove or reduce an unwanted ingredient -- such as trans fats, MSG, sodium, fat or calories -- for health or nutrition purposes,.
Healthy food and beverage retail sales in 2007 totaled $129 Billion, or 22 percent of all retail food sales. The category is growing 8.3 percent annually and approaching 100 percent of household penetration. Breaking it down, lesser evil sales were $65 billion (4.6 percent growth), functional sales were $34 billion (up 9.4 percent), and natural & organic sales hit $30 billion (up 15.7 percent).
Kelley Devane, a partner for Eat, Drink Marketing, a marketing consulting group based northwest of Boston, Mass., decided to delve deeper into these statistics. “NBJ created a ‘lesser evil’ category about 10 years ago to describe conventional foods that are modified to more healthy, but still are not natural,” she says. (It includes skim, 1% and 2% milk, diet colas, pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, anything trans fat free and lower sugar.)
“If all manufacturers have to do to join the Healthy bandwagon is to change an ingredient or make a “reduced” claim, why is this a slow growth category?,” she asked Patrick Rea, publisher of NBJ. His response was, "real growth in a category can occur when an ingredient becomes unpopular, such as carbohydrates or trans fats." Since the category spans so many health issues, from diabetes to people sensitive to MSG, there is not a well-defined consumer group for marketers to target.
She believes lesser evil foods and beverages represent an interesting opportunity for innovative retailers and manufacturers. They can be a “consumer gateway” into natural and organic foods. Retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods, have the power to help eliminate “bad” ingredients in their private label products. And food company product developers can source healthier ingredients, which gives them a competitive edge.
It would appear that fear and hope drive consumers to healthy foods, but that fear is the stronger motivator. And it means consumers are more motivated to avoid "bad" ingredients than to consume "good" ingredients.