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03/19/2015

Cool Insights on the Hottest Fresh Produce Trend

By Jennifer Strailey

Several recent studies indicate that U.S. consumers aren’t only savoring salad greens with greater frequency, but also with a more adventurous palate. The trend spells new opportunities for supermarkets that provide the freshness, variety, color and recipe ideas that shoppers seek from this category.

According to Mintel’s “U.S. Fruit and Vegetables” report from October 2014, the U.S. fruit and vegetable category increased from $89 billion to an estimated $105 billion between 2009 and 2014, and is expected to reach $126 billion by 2019. Chicago-based Mintel further found that consumers continue to gravitate to fresh food, and that sales are driven primarily by consumer perceptions that fruits and vegetables are good sources of nutrients.

What’s exciting for purveyors of salad greens is that among all fruits and vegetables, lettuce was the most purchased item, with 83 percent of respondents indicating that they had purchased lettuce in the past month. Mintel also notes that fresh-cut salads account for $5 billion in sales, but are forecasted to grow more quickly than any other segment between 2014 and 2019.

While consumers love their lettuce, they also report eating a wider variety of fruits and vegetables than ever before.

This appetite for greater variety was also indicated in “The Lettuce Revolution, 2013,” a study from Chicago-based Technomic and commissioned by Mann Packing Co. Inc. According to the study, foodservice operators are moving away from romaine lettuce and experimenting with a wider selection of salad green varieties.

According to the study, some 83 percent of restaurant consumers say that the type of salad green is an important factor in their decision to order a salad at a restaurant. What’s more, they crave a variety of flavors and textures, as well as a blend of colors.

More than half (59 percent) of consumers say that a darker color of salad greens is more appealing, while 70 percent think that different lettuce types — curly, leafy, robust —enhance a salad’s appeal.

To meet the demand, Salinas, Calif.-based Mann has introduced distinctive lettuces such as Mann’s Arcadian Harvest Classic, Mann’s Arcadian Harvest Emerald and Mann’s Arcadian Harvest Ruby Blend.

The data are consistent with Mintel’s findings. The market research firm’s report notes that some 18 percent of respondents say they wish they could find more unique varieties of fruit and vegetables where they shop. Supermarkets that stock more unusual salad greens and also give consumers ideas of how to use them may capture the greatest sales, as 17 percent of consumers say they would buy more types of vegetables if they knew how to prepare them.

Beyond the Salad Bowl

Samantha Cabaluna, VP of marketing and communications for Earthbound Farm, in San Juan Bautista, Calif., has been tracking the trend in greens as an ingredient for some time now.

“Greens aren’t just for salads anymore: Smoothies, juices, soups, sautés, casseroles — almost any type of recipe or dish — can be made with greens,” she asserts. “And now that convenient, pre-washed and ready-to-use greens are available in so many flavors, it’s simple to add nutrient-dense and delicious greens to your culinary repertoire.”

She notes that 34 percent of greens are used for dishes other than salads. Furthermore, these “greens” have never included so many colors.

“Today, consumers are so much more adventurous about the kinds of greens they’ll buy and serve,” she observes. “It wasn’t so long ago that spring mix was pretty exotic, and now it’s really an everyday mix. Consumers are looking for more flavor and more versatility.”

Braga Fresh Family Farms, in Soledad, Calif., which recently debuted its Josie’s Organics line of salad greens, broccoli, cauliflower and more, has designed an entire campaign around the idea of using greens and other vegetables in a complete way.

“Juicing is hot,” notes Rod Braga, “and it’s placing greater demand on retailers and suppliers like Josie’s Organics.”

With an eye on keeping demand high, Josie’s Organics promotes whole-vegetable cooking as a cornerstone of the brand and its commitment to sustainability.

“Through whole-vegetable cooking, we extend sustainability from our family farm to family dinner tables around the country,” says Braga. “In working with our food and lifestyle expert, Chadwick Boyd, we have a suite of recipes that shows consumers how to use all parts of vegetables in cooking, like broccoli leaves, stalks and florets, which minimizes waste and respects our food.”

While research supports that shoppers are more receptive to different greens and vegetables than ever before, supermarkets and suppliers alike can give them the nudge they need to try something new with recipe recommendations online and in-store, cooking demos, and sampling.

“Many consumers wonder, ‘What’s for dinner?’ or ‘What can I make?’ when they shop,” notes Braga. “With Josie’s Organics, we embrace whole-vegetable cooking and are beginning to provide a sustainability-driven brand experience from point of choice, all the way through our website, promotions, social media outreach and advertising.”

Millennials Drive Diversity

Appealing to Millennial shoppers with a greater selection of flavorful and more exotic greens will become increasingly important. According to Mintel’s recent fruit and vegetable report, Millennials are more likely to buy a variety of vegetable types than any other demographic.

“Millennials are a key driver for sales, because they are now the largest population group in the U.S. and, as well, tend to be leading consumer trends in fresh, healthy foods,” notes Mintel.

Braga sees the emergence of a variety of greens, including Asian greens like mizuna, gaining traction. “Popular in local farmers’ markets, retailers see an opportunity to offer these greens to their customers and extend or enhance their current offerings,” he says.

Meanwhile, baby kale and arugula continue to resonate with Millennials and older shoppers alike.

Old World and Heirloom

As in other fruit and vegetable categories, heirloom and Old World greens are increasingly hot topics. “The discussion around Old World greens is beginning to build,” says Braga. “We expect that this conversation will continue and will eventually lead to new greens that haven’t been grown for the consumer in years.”

Church Bros., of Salinas, has been growing heirloom red spinach since 2010. The variety has a soft texture and mild earthy flavor, with the nutritional benefits of green spinach, according to the grower, which also offers a 50/50 blend of red and green spinach. Church Bros. is promoting its use beyond salads, suggesting it as an ingredient in wraps, sides and main courses as a way to bring color and energy to the plate.