Thursday, April 30, 2009

Raw Alfalfa Sprouts Linked to Salmonella

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that consumers not eat raw alfalfa sprouts, including sprout blends containing alfalfa sprouts, until further notice because the product has been linked to Salmonella serotype Saintpaul contamination. Other types of sprouts have not been implicated at this time.

The investigation indicates that the problem may be linked to contamination of seeds for alfalfa sprouts. Because suspect lots of seeds may be sold around the country and may account for a large proportion of the alfalfa seeds currently being used by sprout growers, and cases of illness are spread across multiple states, FDA and CDC issued the general advisory.

Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota Utah and West Virginia have reported 31 cases of illness with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Saintpaul to CDC. Most of those who became ill reported eating raw alfalfa sprouts. Some reported eating raw sprouts at restaurants; others reported purchasing the raw sprouts at the retail level.

The illnesses began in mid-March. Cases are still being reported, and possible cases are in various stages of laboratory testing, so illnesses may appear in other states. No deaths have been reported.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

National Pork Board Responds to Swine Flu Outbreak

In response to the recent swine flu outbreak, the National Pork Board issued a statement reassuring the public that pork is safe, and will continue to be safe, to consume.

"Swine influenza viruses are not spread by food. You cannot get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products. Eating properly handled and cooked pork products is safe," the statement read.

The CDC and other health organizations continue to caution that the virus is contagious and is spreading from humans to humans. The CDC has not found any evidence to indicate that any of the illnesses resulted from contact with pigs. The National Pork Board is encouraging pork producers to maintain strict biosecurity procedures on their farms.

"We share the concern of the global health community regarding the spread of this disease," said Steve Weaver, a California pork producer and president of the National Pork Board. "To ensure the good health of our animals and for all those who provide care for the animals, we are urging pork producers to be vigilant in taking measures to prevent the spread of this disease."

* Sources: National Pork Board: Statement from the National Pork Board on Swine Influenza

Restaurants still taking economic hit

For specialty wholesale bakers serving the restaurant industry, the outlook remains uncertain for their customers. The National Restaurant Association (NRA), Washington, D.C., reports continued slow activity among the nation’s restaurants with an index report that stood below 100 for the 16th consecutive month. The association’s Restaurant Performance Index (RPI)–a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry–stood at 97.5 in February, up 0.1 percent from its January level.

“Although the index registered its second consecutive monthly gain, each of the RPI’s eight indicators stood below 100 in February, which signifies continued contraction,” said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president, research and information services for the association. “A majority of restaurant operators reported negative same-store sales and customer traffic levels in February, and their outlook for sales growth in the months ahead remains uncertain.”

Survey taken monthly

The Restaurant Performance Index is based on the responses to the National Restaurant Association’s Restaurant Industry Tracking Survey, which is fielded monthly among restaurant operators nationwide on a variety of indicators including sales, traffic, labor and capital expenditures. The RPI is constructed so that the health of the restaurant industry is measured in relation to a steady-state level of 100. Index values above 100 indicate that key industry indicators are in a period of expansion, while index values below 100 represent a period of contraction for key industry indicators.

Restaurant operators also reported negative results in both same-store sales and customer traffic levels. Fifty-six percent of operators reported a same-store sales decline in February, up slightly from the 55 percent who reported negative sales in January. Fifty-nine percent of operators reported a traffic decline in February, unchanged from January.

Restaurant operators are slightly more optimistic about the direction of the economy, though pessimists still outnumber optimists. Twenty-two percent of operators expect economic conditions to improve in six months, up from 18 percent who reported similarly last month and the highest level in six months. However, 36 percent of operators said they expect economic conditions to worsen in six months, up from 34 percent who reported similarly last month.

While the RPI is released on the last business day of each month, more detailed data and analysis can be found on Restaurant TrendMapper, the Association's subscription-based Web site that provides detailed analysis of restaurant industry trends.

A chart of the February 2009 RPI is available on the Association's Web site.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Palm Oil Not a Healthy Substitute for Trans Fats

A new Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-supported study suggests that palm oil is not a good substitute for trans fats by the food industry.

The clinical trial was designed to compare—on heart disease risk—the effect of four different oils as they are commonly consumed.

Fifteen adults volunteered for the study. Their levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol were moderately high at 130 milligrams per deciliter of blood or above, and all were aged 50 or older. They each consumed each of four 35-day experimental diets. The fats tested were partially hydrogenated soybean oil (moderately high in trans fat), palm oil (high in saturated fat), canola oil (high in monounsaturated fat), and soybean oil (high in polyunsaturated fat).

The findings suggest that consuming either of the diets enriched with equivalent high amounts of palm oil or partially hydrogenated soybean oil would result in similar unfavorable levels of LDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B. That's when compared to consuming either of the diets enriched with canola and soybean oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, respectively.

• Agricultural Research Service: Palm Oil Not a Healthy Substitute for Trans Fats

Monday, April 27, 2009

Nutrition Experts Propose New Class of Low-Sugar Beverages to Reduce Role of Sugary Drink Consumption In Obesity and Diabetes Epidemics

Strong evidence developed at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and elsewhere shows that sugary drinks are an important contributor to the epidemic rise of obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States. Faced with these growing public health threats, experts from the Department of Nutrition at HSPH believe beverage manufacturers, government, schools, worksites and homes must take action to help Americans choose healthier drinks. They propose that manufacturers create a class of reduced-calorie beverages that have no more than 1 gram of sugar per ounce-about 70 percent less sugar than a typical soft drink-and that are free of non-caloric sweeteners. They also propose that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require beverage manufacturers to put calorie information for the entire bottle-not just for a single serving-on the front of drink labels. The aim is to re-educate the American palate to a lower expectation of sweetness, as well as to give consumers clear information to help them make healthier choices.

"The scientific evidence is now clear; soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages are important contributors to obesity in children and adults," said Walter Willett, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at HSPH. "Healthier beverage options would allow individuals to make better choices."

The Nutrition Source (, a website maintained by the Department of Nutrition at HSPH, has created new content to provide consumers with information that can help them choose healthier drinks, including a chart that lists the sugar content of a variety of popular sodas, fruit drinks, sports/energy drinks, and sweetened waters. The site also provides specific recommendations for how key societal sectors can make changes that will help Americans choose healthier drinks. (See links to the new "Choosing Healthy Drinks" section of The Nutrition Source website below.)

Americans consume sugary beverages in staggering amounts. On a typical day, four out of five children and two out of three adults drink sugar-sweetened beverages. Teen boys drink more than a quart of sugary drinks, on average, every day. A 12-ounce can of soda or juice typically has 10-12 teaspoons of sugar and 150 or more calories; the popular 20-ounce bottle size now prevalent on store shelves and in vending machines carries nearly 17 teaspoons of sugar and 250 calories. According to research at HSPH and elsewhere, sugared beverages are the leading source of added sugar in the diet of young Americans. If a person drank one can of a sugary beverage every day for a year and didn't cut back on calories elsewhere, the result could be a weight gain of up to 15 pounds.

Consuming sugary drinks may have other harmful health outcomes: The latest research from HSPH published in the April issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed the health of 90,000 women over two decades and found that women who drank more than two servings of sugary beverages each day had a nearly 40 percent higher risk of heart disease than women who rarely drank sugary beverages.
By choosing healthier beverages, individuals can reduce risks to their health. Water is the best option, but Willett and his colleagues understand that people will not be able to kick their sugar-drink habit overnight. Therefore, they believe that Americans need to lower their sugar expectations.

"We need to retrain American tastes away from super-sweet drinks," said Lilian Cheung, lecturer in the Department of Nutrition and editorial director of The Nutrition Source website. "If we can shift the present American norm back to a lower expectation of sweetness, people will adjust their palates, particularly the younger population."

To do this will require concerted action from the following:
Beverage manufacturers: Create reduced-calorie beverages with no more than 1 gram of sugar per ounce and that are free of non-caloric sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose or stevia. That's about 3 teaspoons per 12 ounces and about 50 calories. Manufacturers should also offer smaller (8-ounce) bottles of sugary drinks.
Individuals: Choose beverages with few or no calories; water is best. Call manufacturers' customer service numbers and ask them to make sugar-reduced drinks.
Food shoppers: Purchase less juice and cross the soda off your home shopping list. Skip the "fruit drinks" too, since these are basically flavored sugar water.
Schools and workplaces: Offer several healthy beverage choices and smaller serving sizes. Also make sure water is freely available.


The FDA should require companies to list the number of calories per bottle or can-not per serving-on the front of beverage containers.
For a complete list of recommendations, see "Time to Focus on Healthier Drinks"
For more information:
• Choosing Healthy Drinks:
• Sugary Drinks or Diet Drinks: What's the Best Choice?
• How Sweet Is It? (charts that include the sugar and calorie content of a wide variety of beverages):

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Organic apples beat conventionals on antioxidants

Organically produced apples have a 15 per cent higher antioxidant capacity than conventionally produced apples, says a new study from Germany.

Findings published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry add to the on-going debate over whether organically grown produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. A report published in March 2008 by the Organic Center at America’s Organic Trade Association argued that organic produce is 25 per cent more nutritious than conventional foodstuffs.

However, these claims were countered by Joseph Rosen, emeritus professor at Rutgers University and scientific advisor to the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) who said the data was selective, and that, when recalculated, the data used in the original report showed that conventional products are actually 2 per cent more nutritious than organic varieties.

“In the present study the organically produced apples displayed a higher phytochemical concentration and a higher antioxidant capacity than conventionally produced apples,” wrote the researchers, led by Bernhard Watzl from the Federal Research Institute of Nutrition and Food in Karlsruhe.

“However, it remains unclear whether these minor differences caused by the production method are of nutritional relevance.”

Study details

Watzl and his co-workers compared the polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity of Golden Delicious apples grown under organic and conventional conditions over a three year period (2004-2006).

According to their findings, in 2005 and 2006 the antioxidant capacity was 15 per cent higher in the organic fruit than the conventionally produced fruits. Organic apples grown in 2005 also had a higher polyphenol concentration, said the researchers.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Curcumin May Prevent Obesity

Findings from a study at Tufts University suggests dietary curcumin may have a potential benefit in preventing obesity (J Nutr. 2009;139(5):919-25). Angiogenesis is necessary for the growth of adipose tissue. Dietary polyphenols may suppress growth of adipose tissue through their antiangiogenic activity and by modulating adipocyte metabolism. Researchers investigated the effect of curcumin, the major polyphenol in turmeric spice, on angiogenesis, adipogenesis, differentiation, apoptosis and gene expression involved in lipid and energy metabolism in 3T3-L1 adipocyte in cell culture systems and on body weight gain and adiposity in mice fed a high-fat diet (22 percent) supplemented with 500 mg of curcumin/kg diet for 12 weeks. Curcumin (5–20 µmol/L) suppressed 3T3-L1 differentiation, caused apoptosis and inhibited adipokine-induced angiogenesis of human umbilical vein endothelial cells. Supplementing the high-fat diet of mice with curcumin did not affect food intake but reduced body weight gain, adiposity and microvessel density in adipose tissue, which coincided with reduced expression of vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and its receptor VEGFR-2. Curcumin increased 5'AMP-activated protein kinase phosphorylation, reduced glycerol-3-phosphate acyl transferase-1 and increased carnitine palmitoyltransferase-1 expression, which led to increased oxidation and decreased fatty acid esterification. The in vivo effect of curcumin on the expression of these enzymes was also confirmed by real-time RT-PCR in subcutaneous adipose tissue. In addition, curcumin significantly lowered serum cholesterol and expression of PPAR-gamma and CCAAT/enhancer binding protein alpha, 2 key transcription factors in adipogenesis and lipogenesis. The curcumin suppression of angiogenesis in adipose tissue together with its effect on lipid metabolism in adipocytes may contribute to lower body fat and body weight gain.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

McDonald's specialty coffee plan in hands of former defense engineer

Don Thompson, who oversaw redesign of double cheeseburger, works with franchisees on drink blitz

Don Thompson is a man of science, an electrical engineer who once designed radar jamming systems, but recently, his biggest problem was a simple piece of cheese.

McDonald's most popular U.S. sandwich, its $1 double cheeseburger, was barely profitable for its franchisees. And as head of McDonald's U.S. operations, it was Thompson's job to find a solution that wouldn't alienate cash-strapped consumers.

The answer: Raise the double cheeseburger's price to $1.19, but also launch a new double cheeseburger, with less cheese, for $1.

The great cheeseburger compromise appears to have worked, and it's exactly the type of innovation that has kept Oak Brook-based McDonald's Corp. on a roll, despite an ugly economy, analysts said. McDonald's first-quarter earnings are due out this week, and they're expected to be solid again.

Now, the 46-year-old Thompson has an even bigger challenge: Successfully completing the rollout of one of the fast-food giant's biggest—and riskiest—U.S. product launches, the McCafe specialty coffee offensive.

"This is a big deal and all eyes are on McDonald's," said Steve West, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus. "If it fails, it will be an embarrassment and will fall right at [Thompson's] feet. It's not his idea, but it is his to execute. He could live or die by that sword."

Thompson notes that the coffee blitz is only a part, albeit a big one, of McDonald's U.S. strategy. But one thing is certain: When Thompson graduated from college in 1984, he couldn't envision he would one day be figuring ways to peddle caramel cappuccino.

Growing up in Indianapolis, he had been attracted to engineering. "In eighth grade, my math and science was always pretty good," he said. So Thompson signed up for a summer engineering program at Purdue University aimed at lower-income students. He got hooked.

Eventually he would earn a degree in electrical engineering from Purdue, and then land a job in the Chicago-area office of defense contractor Northrop Corp. It was a homecoming of sorts.

Thompson had lived on Chicago's near North Side until 6th grade, when his revered grandmother, who raised him, moved to Indianapolis. "As my grandmother would tell it, 'We moved so you would not succumb to certain influences,' " he said. The neighborhood was getting rougher. "I guess she had some concerns I might be a knucklehead."

Fighter jets to food At Northrop, Thompson designed radar jamming systems for fighter planes. One day in 1990, he got an unsolicited call from a recruiter for a job involving robotics. Thompson was intrigued—until he realized the pitch came from McDonald's, not defense contractor McDonnell Douglas.

"Imagine now, someone calling me up, six years after being in the defense industry, saying, 'Would you like to come and work for a hamburger company?' My comment back was, 'Maybe you've got the wrong guy.' "

But after chatting with a McDonald's engineer who once worked for Bell Labs, a citadel of engineering excellence, Thompson accepted a job that year. After a few years in McDonald's engineering department, he switched to restaurant operations, then steadily worked his way up the management ranks.

In August 2006, Thompson was named president of McDonald's USA, which makes up 34 percent of revenues, a little less than Europe, but still is the greatest source of operating earnings, at 48 percent.

Since taking over, U.S. operations—like the overseas units—have been riding a wave of prosperity. And Thompson has played a key role in sustaining the momentum, McDonald's watchers say.

"I think he's a really solid leader and the results speak for themselves," said Larry Miller, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.

The economy, which is prompting some people to trade down from higher-end restaurants, also poses challenges for McDonald's. Restaurant companies are in the midst of a "value war," Miller said, trying to reel in recession-battered customers with low-price deals, from $5 foot-longs at Subway to 89-cent nachos at Taco Bell.

In the midst of this fight, McDonald's found itself under intense pressure from franchisees to raise the price of the double cheeseburger, the anchor of its dollar menu. Franchisees, who run about 85 percent of the firm's roughly 14,000 U.S. restaurants, were increasingly having trouble making money on it as ingredient costs spiked.

The conundrum, said Thompson: "It's a very tough economy and customers are looking for value, so the last thing you want to do is raise a price." The solution, one hotly debated by franchisees and company executives, was to offset a price hike on the classic double cheese by creating the McDouble, a $1 double burger with one fewer slice of cheese.

"It was a huge decision," Thompson said. But analysts and company executives all say it's been a success since implemented in December: McDonald's hasn't lost customers or cheeseburger sales.

Jim Skinner, the company's chief executive, said Thompson did a bang-up job on the cheeseburger project, which involved a lot of collaboration with franchisees.

"Don has done a great job holding the course on value," Skinner said.

While McDonald's appears to be winning, or at least holding its own, in the value wars, analysts say, another battle—over coffee—is brewing.

In late 2006, McDonald's began regionally rolling out a beverage offensive that initially featured specialty coffees, such as lattes, and will eventually include smoothies and bottled beverages. It's an expensive proposition for franchisees, with investments of up to $100,000 per restaurant, though the company will foot up to 40 percent of the bill.

Specialty coffee is now available in more than 9,500, or almost 70 percent, of McDonald's U.S. outlets, Thompson said. And a company document obtained by the Tribune indicates that a national ad campaign for the product will be launched in the first half of May.

The ad launch is important because it puts the company's formidable marketing muscle behind specialty coffee. And McDonald's appears to be expecting great things.

In the key market of Southern California, McDonald's anticipates that immediately after the national ad burst, sales will more than double and perhaps triple in some areas, according to a McDonald's document obtained by the Tribune.

Fretting at franchisesThe coffee blitz has caused angst among some franchisees, according to several surveys, which covered more than 200 McDonald's outlets, by restaurant industry analyst Mark Kalinowski. Some franchisees fear it will be an expensive flop, and more recently they have worried about diverting precious ad spending to specialty coffee.

"It takes away marketing dollars from other products that have a greater marketing appeal," said one anonymous franchisee in a Kalinowski survey published last week.

Another franchisee said McDonald's is diving headlong into fancy coffee just as Starbucks Corp. has shown how a crumbling economy can hurt sales of the product.

But a McDonald's spokeswoman said ads for specialty coffee aren't a diversion and won't compromise the overall advertising strategy.

And Thompson said the coffee blitz's timing is spot on, precisely because of the economy. "We are able to do this at a value proposition that others are not able to do," he said. Analysts say McDonald's can undercut Starbucks on price and serve up a product with enough quality to woo some Starbucks patrons.

As for jitters over coffee, Thompson said "that what I am hearing [from franchisees] is that it is going well." He added "there will always be concerns, but that's what makes us better as McDonald's."

Franchisee relations are critical for McDonald's, and Thompson gets high marks from Don Armstrong, head of the national association that represents McDonald's owner-operators. "Don's been a great partner," he said. "He has a great rapport with the franchisees."

Thompson said he spends at least 70 percent of his time meeting with franchisee organizations or individual franchisees, crisscrossing the country. Even when he's on personal time with his wife and two children, now 12 and 15, he often stops at McDonald's outlets just to check up on things.

"I love doing that, going out incognito, whether that's in jeans and a jacket or on the way back from church," he said. "If things are going great, I want to stay there and talk with the restaurant manager. If it's not so good, I might try to get back there and help out." He has been known to enlist his family too.

His wife, Liz, a fellow engineer whom he met at Purdue, recalls one understaffed McDonald's suffering from a messy Play Place. She picked up a broom, while her son got to work with a wet rag.

Customers looked astonished. "Here is this family that came in to eat and they're cleaning the play room," she said.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Why Pizza Giants Want Customers to Click, Not Call, for Delivery

Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Others Hope to Boost Online Orders to 50%

The major pizza chains now do 20% to 30% of their business online, but they want that figure to climb a lot higher, to 50%. Getting there will take some doing, but the journey offers lessons for other marketers also seeking to build their business online: Know your customers, make it easy and offer incentives.

There are good reasons for pizza purveyors to move buyers to web ordering. Online customers spend more and are more satisfied, and serving them is more efficient for each individual store. People who order online are also more likely to jump on the promotions that marketers use to drive interest in new products. Bob Kraut, VP-marketing at Pizza Hut, which expects to do $1 billion in online sales by the end of 2012 -- a whopping tenfold increase from the May 2007 level of $100 million -- said the online pizza buyer is more recession-proof than most.

"We're seeing very healthy increases year over year with our web business," he said. "I think that's because the customer is a little higher income and has a greater connectedness to this form of ordering and tends to not be affected by the economic conditions as maybe other customers." Pizza Hut has also begun to compete more with casual dining by offering pasta dinners with breadsticks that serve four for $15.

Rob Weisberg, Domino's VP-multimedia marketing, said the average online buyer spends $2 more than one who orders by phone or in person. Domino's does about 75 online orders a second, and Mr. Weisberg said the chain now has fewer employees answering the phone and more of them making pizzas. He declined to give the percentage of sales from online.

Papa John's, which spurred its two much-larger competitors to action in the online arena several years ago, did not respond to requests for comment.

Suited to online sales
Sam Sebastian, director of local and B-to-B markets at Google, who works frequently with Domino's, Pizza Hut and Papa John's, said delivery pizza may just be better suited to online sales. All three chains have exploited that advantage by shifting spending to banner ads and search engine optimization from traditional media faster than their fast-food counterparts.

Mr. Kraut said a key for Pizza Hut has been trying to make its website "slippery" instead of "sticky." That means it is constantly looking for ways to help consumers place their orders more quickly.

Domino's, home of the pizza tracker, is working on that too. Mr. Weisberg said the company recognizes the first-time order as a barrier to entry because consumers have to take the time to input their addresses and credit-card information, set a password, and build their pizza. But the next time they log in and want to place the same order, it can be done in 15 seconds.

"There's more of a barrier to exit," he said. For that reason, Mr. Weisberg said, Domino's has cookies built into its site that recognize first-time users and offer special discounts. The Pizza Hut site does too.

Taking tie-ins
Pizza Hut and Papa John's are also attempting to drive online sales through entertainment tie-ins that have traditionally been the bread and butter of burger joints. Papa John's is partnering with "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," and Pizza Hut with "Terminator Salvation," starring Christian Bale. Pizza Hut will offer five minutes of exclusive content from director McG beginning in May. It's sure to please the fanboys.

Mr. Kraut said the event presents an opportunity to deepen relationships with current customers and attract new ones to the site. It doesn't hurt that the comic-book and video-game crowds also tend to be a younger, more tech-savvy bunch.

"We're engaging them on a level of popular and social currency of the movie while also getting people to opt in and buy Pizza Hut," Mr. Kraut said. "And we're generating customers that haven't visited before."

Pizza Hut has done similar promotions with eMusic and Rockstar Games.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Americans' self-reported spending in restaurants, stores and online averaged $59 per day during March

Although Gallup's Consumer Mood Index declined by 4% and its Monitor of Consumer Spending was off by 27% in March compared to a year ago, the rate of decline moderated significantly from January and February.

Upper-income Americans' score on the Consumer Mood Index in March was 27% worse than last year; still, average daily spending among this group declined by only 3%. Both figures represent a dramatic improvement in the rate of decline compared to January and February.

Overall, consumer daily spending -- including that among upper-income consumers -- appears to be stabilizing, but at the lowest levels of the past 15 months, when Gallup began daily tracking of these trends.

Consumers Less Gloomy in March

The overall Consumer Mood Index (which is based on a combination of current economic conditions and economic outlook measures), now at -98, improved by 15% from February to March, and has essentially returned to its level of a year ago (-94). The mood among upper-income consumers (those with annual incomes of $90,000 or more) also improved by 15% in March, to -100. This places upper-income consumers about on par with consumers as a whole, but is considerably worse than the -79 of March 2008. Still, the year-to-year decline among upper-income consumers has narrowed considerably from its January and February levels.

Most of the improvement in this measure has come from an improved outlook: in March, 23% of Americans said economic conditions were getting better -- up from only 16% in February and more than twice the 10% of March 2008. In sharp contrast, 59% of consumers rate current economic conditions as "poor," essentially the same as the 61% of February and much worse than the 39% of a year ago.

The pattern is similar for upper-income Americans: their outlook has improved (22% now say economic conditions are getting better, vs. 13% in February and 12% in March 2008), while their pessimism about the current economy continues (56% rate current conditions as "poor," the same as in February and nearly twice the 30% of March 2008).

Year-to-Year Spending Down Overall, Stable Among Upper-Income Group

Americans' self-reported spending in stores, restaurants, gas stations, and online averaged $59 per day during March -- a new 15-month low, down slightly from $64 during both January and February but also down 27% from $81 in March 2008. Daily spending among upper-income consumers averaged $107 during March -- also a new low. Spending patterns among the upper-income group differ from overall consumer spending patterns, in that the short-term decline in March was larger (down 12% from $121 in February) but the long-term decline was smaller (down 3% from the $110 daily average of a year ago). Of course, this smaller year-to-year decline was at least in part the result of a sharp decline in year-ago comparables. Essentially, spending, excluding big-ticket items, appears to be stabilizing, but at its lowest levels of the past 15 months.


Gallup's attitudinal economic data suggest that while the overall consumer mood improved dramatically in March, the best that can be said for overall daily consumer spending is that the rate of decline relative to a year ago has moderated substantially and may be stabilizing at a 15-month low. Although all the fallout from the plummeting economy of the past six months has not been fully realized, a stabilization of consumer spending would suggest the downturn in the economy is bottoming out.

In this regard, upper-income consumer spending is particularly important. Given their comparatively high levels of discretionary income, these consumers have a disproportionately strong impact on overall spending. Further, they are the key to recovery for many upscale retailers and other businesses that serve the affluent market.

The fact that consumer spending, particularly among upper-income Americans, is merely stabilizing and not increasing may be disappointing to some, given the recent sharp improvements in consumer mood and the surge of the stock market. But it is far better than the virtual free-fall in consumer spending of January and February that took place after a dismal holiday period. And the closing of the year-to-year consumer spending gap provides hope for spending improvement even if the gap is only maintained in the months ahead.

Still, this recession is different from those of the past, and the March improvement in consumer mood is built more on hope than on an assessment of the current economic reality. It remains possible that increasing unemployment rates and the need for consumers and businesses to rebuild their balance sheets will end up producing another leg down for the U.S. economy. That is the danger consumers and management need to consider on a contingency planning basis.

Survey Methods

Gallup's Consumer Mood Index and Monitor of Consumer Spending are based on aggregated interviews with a nationally representative sample of more than 12,000 adults, aged 18 and older, each month, as part of Gallup Poll Daily tracking. For results based on these samples, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Capsaicin, Green Tea May Decrease Appetite

Bioactive ingredients, such as capsaicin and green tea, may be helpful in reducing energy intake and might support weight loss periods by relatively sustaining satiety and suppressing hunger, according to a study published in Clinical Nutrition (2009; DOI:10.1016/j.clnu.2009.01.010). A total of 27 subjects were randomized to three weeks of negative and three weeks of positive energy balance during which capsaicin, green tea, CH-19 sweet pepper, capsaicin + green tea or placebo was ingested on 10 separate test days while the effects on appetite, energy intake, body weight and heart rate were assessed.

CH-19 sweet pepper and a combination of capsaicin and green tea reduced energy intake during positive energy balance. Capsaicin and green tea suppressed hunger and increased satiety more during negative than during positive energy balance. Researchers concluded bioactive ingredients had energy intake reducing effects when used in combinations and in positive energy balance. Energy balance did not affect possible treatment induced energy intake, but did affect appetite by supporting negative energy balance.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Older consumers are more likely to assess packaging and choose environment-friendly products and are willing to pay more for products

A consumer’s age profile can influence whether they base their purchasing decisions on the eco-friendliness of packaging, according to a new US survey.

The branding and marketing company, the Sage Group, said that it conducted a web-based research study and delivered it to nearly 800 multiple-generation US consumers via an email or a Facebook link.

The participants were broken down into Millennials (17-25 years), GenXers (26-40 years), Boomers (41-55 years) and Matures (56+ years), explained the firm.

Question type

The Sage Group said that it took care to use commonly understood terms, and added that the survey did not, for example, refer to ‘sustainable packaging,’ as it claims that 89 per cent of consumers do not know what it means.

According to the US marketing and branding company, the participants instead were asking questions ranging from, ‘What makes a company or brand environmentally friendly?’ to ‘How does that friendliness affect purchasing decisions?’

The results showed that GenXers and Matures in particular assess a package and choose products with an eye to environmental friendliness, and will pay a bit more for products that score high on the eco scale, with one response from a mature participant being: “I believe in environmentally oriented anything.”

Price guides younger group

In contrast, said the Sage Group, the Millennials acknowledge the impact of product packaging, but do not take that observation to the purchasing level. They view themselves as poor, so price is their primary purchasing consideration.

When it comes to being environmentally responsible, the marketing group said that the survey indicated that consumers of all ages regard recycling as the key component of good environmental practices.

The responses illustrated that most Millennials surveyed will recycle when it is convenient (56.8 per cent) but most GenXers (69.6 per cent), Boomers (67.6 per cent) and Matures (89.7 per cent) said they always recycle.

Brand change

When participants were asked if sustainable packaging would encourage them to switch to a different soft drink product, the Millennials showed little inclination to switch brands for the greater good, unless the eco-friendly alternative were lower-priced.

The outcome of the survey also demonstrates that the other three generations were also reluctant to change, but were open to reviewing product eco information to guide their decision-making.

The Sage Group added that the responses to this question underscored the importance of education in helping consumers make the right decisions for the right reasons, with more awareness needed on the subtleties surrounding the 3Rs of reduce, recycle and reuse.

Common factors

Some of the findings show all four generations concurring, with all the age groups viewing ‘over-packaging’ as environmentally destructive and all generations recognizing greenwashing when they see it – each age group said that authenticity and transparency are essential to them, according to the report.

The marketing company also said its survey highlights the fact that all generations of consumers are unaware of sustainability nuances of the various types of packaging materials from plastic to glass and to them sustainable packaging is recyclable packaging.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Formulating Whole-Grain Snacks

America is a nation of snackers whose citizens consistently fall short of consuming their recommended allowance of whole grains. We do so to our detriment, though, as nutrition and public-health experts have been telling us for years that diets rich in whole grains are linked to reduced risk for stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease; improved weight management; reduced risk for asthma, inflammatory disease and colorectal cancer; healthier blood pressure levels; and stronger carotid arteries. And that’s just for starters.

So, how do we head our whole-grain consumption in the right direction? By turning our snacking habit into the bridge that closes our growing grain gap. Whole-grain snacks offer manufacturers opportunities for revamping longstanding formulas—and introducing new ones—to capitalize on grains’ high-profile health benefits. Making those revamps more practicable is a slew of wholegrain ingredients that are models of technological innovation.

The grain gap

You won’t hear Cynthia Harriman making excuses about not getting enough whole grains. As director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council, Boston, she appreciates firsthand their widely documented health benefits. Yet she is clear-eyed about how far we still have to go to meet even minimum recommended intake levels. In its 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, USDA called on adults to derive at least half their grains from whole sources. Beyond that, USDA set an intake floor for those ages 9 and above at three or more servings of whole grains per day. One serving equals about 16 grams of whole-grain ingredients, or—translated to foods—a slice of whole-wheat bread, a half-cup of brown rice, or a cup of whole-grain breakfast cereal.

How are we measuring up? “There’s good news and bad news,” according to Harriman. Working with the NPD Group, Port Washington, NY, the Whole Grains Council found that, although intake stayed flat from 1998 to 2005, since 2005—and the release of the most-recent Dietary Guidelines—consumption has risen 20%. “The bad news is that we’re still averaging under a serving a day.”

This, Harriman thinks, “is where snacks can play an important role.” After all, if you want people to consume more of something, you should deliver it in a food they already eat a lot of—like snacks.

“People today are in such a hurry-up mode that they don’t take time to sit down and eat a healthful meal,” says Randal Robinson, director of sales, southwest, 21st Century Grain Processing, Kansas City, MO. “If they can grab a snack with more whole grains, in their minds they are doing the next-best thing.”

From naughty to nice?

Providing whole grains via snacks has its detractors. “There are some in the nutrition community who cry foul if we start looking at making cookies and sweet baked goods better for you,” says Rhonda Witwer, senior business development manager, nutrition, National Starch Food Innovation, Bridgewater, NJ. “But people like to eat those foods. So we need to have increased nutrient density and increased whole-grain fortification wherever we can get it.”

Putting this belief into practice could pay profound public-health dividends. “The addition of whole grains to the diet needs to be as broad as possible,” says Bill Bonner, senior vice president, R&D/technical sales, 21st Century Grain Processing. “Snacks are only a logical inclusion as long as all health-related criteria—fats or oils, sugars, sodium, etc.—are in balance.”

A tricky transformation

A balance is not always easy to achieve. Whole grains have been bit players in commercial food processing, in part, because they present a constellation of production and marketing challenges. Whole grains, quite simply, are different from their refined counterparts, and those differences can translate into unfamiliar manufacturing behaviors and unenthusiastic consumer acceptance.

“Anytime you change a formula, obviously, there are moving parts,” says Kyle Marinkovich, marketing manager, bakery category & Horizon Milling, Cargill Health & Food Technologies, Minneapolis.

From a processing standpoint, the bran and its fiber throw a wrench into things. Fiber is notoriously thirsty, with a nearlimitless capacity to suck up formulation water. “When you put whole grains and whole-grain flours in doughs, the doughs tend to get what we call ‘bucky,’ because the fiber continues to absorb water,” says Witwer. “And so you mix and mix and you think you’re doing OK, and then 10 minutes later, the fibers are still absorbing water and you end up with dry dough.” The solution is to increase the dough’s moisture content and plan for longer hydration and bake times, to absorb all that extra water and drive it off in the oven. Whole grains can also hamper a baked good’s rise, making lower-profile snacks like crackers, chips and sheeted bars better candidates for inclusion than lofty cakes and breads. Some attribute the volume deficit to insufficient gluten in the whole-grain flour and, indeed, some alternative grains, like rice, quinoa and corn, are virtually gluten-free. But the real culprit, at least in the case of wholewheat flour (which is actually fairly high in gluten), is the knife-like action of the bran.

Bran’s rough edges “cut through the gluten strands and make it difficult for something with high whole-grain content to rise,” Harriman explains. Helpful counterstrategies include gentler and shorter mix times—not always an option when you have to mix in all that added water to accommodate the fiber in the dough. There, adding ingredients like vital wheat gluten, dough conditioners and dough strengtheners can help set dough structure and bolster finished-product volume.

Similar volume issues plague whole-grain expanded and extruded snacks—and for similar reasons. Products puff best when their formulas are maximized for starch; fiber, fat and protein, by contrast, merely weigh down expansion. The presence of the fibrous bran, the germ’s lipids, and high levels of protein in whole-grain flours, crowd out starch and yield a compact, densely textured expanded piece.

As a solution, Bonner suggests using whole-grain brown rice flour, which, because of its chemical composition, “is a practical base in these types of products.” Without as much fat, fiber or protein as other whole-grain flours, it permits a more vigorous puff. “It is often the primary ingredient, followed by lower levels of other whole grains,” in expanded whole-grain snacks. Another trick for boosting expansion is to add starches from wheat, tapioca or rice “at some lower level—20% to 30%—and balancing the final consumer product to above 51% whole grains,” he says.

Whole grains get stealthy

Assuming you overcome the technical difficulties, there remains the question of how well your snack’s new whole-grain sensory profile will fly. Whole grains’ darker color, coarser texture and more-pronounced flavor don’t always jibe with consumers’ expectations for light and fluffy buns, cookies, crisps and other goodies.

Within the past decade, that’s begun to change as white whole-wheat flours that look, taste and feel like refined flour, but have all the nutrition of whole grain, have entered the market.

The first to appear, in 2004, was from ConAgra Mills, Omaha, NE. By applying a patented milling technology to a proprietary strain of wheat with a lighter-colored bran coat than traditional red wheat, the company was able to develop a lighter-colored flour with a finer particle size closer to that of refined flours. Because it still contains the native proportions of wheat bran, germ and endosperm, it’s a 100% whole-wheat flour with 12 grams of fiber per 100 grams of flour—more than four times that of refined.

Cargill, through its Horizon Milling affiliate, has tossed its white whole-wheat hat into the ring with a proprietary white whole-wheat flour made from a specially chosen strain of white spring wheat subjected to what Marinkovich describes as “advanced milling technology.” The resulting fine-grained, bake-friendly flour contains all the components of the whole grain.

Improved baking performance is a particular boon. “We’re continuously bake-testing and selecting for key characteristics: volume, color, texture,” Marinkovich says. “One of the things we have found in our bake-testing is that, relative to other whole wheats, with our ingredient you get better volumes, and you need to add less vital wheat gluten. You get a lot more mixing and process tolerance. And then you get a finished product that has the attributes consumers prefer—mild taste, soft texture, light color.”

Another new grain-based ingredient is isolated wheat aleurone, the layer of the bran that “sits on the edge of the endosperm,” Marinkovich explains. It’s isolated because “that’s where you concentrate a lot of the ‘goodness,’ so to speak, of whole grains,” he continues. “It’s high in fiber and vitamins and minerals. Isolating that layer allows us to deliver concentrated whole-grain nutrition.”

Isolated wheat aleurone is not a whole grain itself, but the product contains 45% dietary fiber and high concentrations of vitamins B6 and E, as well as potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc, and antioxidants like tocopherols and tocotrienals.

“It has got a neutral color, a very fine texture and a neutral taste,” Marinkovich says. “So, you can put it into products to deliver that nutrition, and still have an appealing sensory performance.”

Flax, although not a grain, per se, is becoming popular in whole-grain mixes. A key reason is nutrition. “The way we have explored some of the health benefits of flax, we’ve explored them almost as if it were a whole grain,” says Kelley C. Fitzpatrick, M.Sc., nutrition consultant, NutriTech Consulting, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Flax first gained favor as a vegetarian source of alpha linolenic acid, or ALA, but, she says, “we’ve gone beyond the omega-3s and we’re looking at the lignins, the antioxidants, as well as the fiber component. As a nutritionist, I prefer to promote flax as the whole milled seed, because it’s a nice package. The components themselves work much more effectively when in synergy.” The whole seed is more stable, too. Proper milling can preserve that stability while also producing versatile snack ingredients.

Corn flour redux

While most of the ingredient buzz has centered on white whole-wheat flour, other grains haven’t been neglected. One type of whole-grain corn flour, for instance, is especially amenable to snack formulation and processing. “We start with whole-grain corn kernels, we send them through a dry-mill, and every element of the grain is still there in the same ratio as in the whole grain,” Witwer explains.

What sets the product apart from traditional whole-grain corn flours is the high amylose content of the proprietary hybrid of corn used to make it. “There are textural and processing applications that come out of the high amylose content,” Witwer says. “Because of that, we end up adding extrusion and lightness and volume to whole-grain snacks that traditional whole-grain flours and other whole grains don’t. And it all comes back to the chemical composition of the high-amylose corn.”

The product is also rich in RS2 resistant starch fiber. At about 30%, the flour’s fiber level “is significantly higher than most other whole grains on the market,” Witwer says. “And, when it tests, it tests as insoluble fiber. It behaves like insoluble fiber.” The exception is its behavior with respect to water absorption. She says the product affects required water levels and mix times “not nearly as much” as other whole-grain flours, “because its fiber content is mostly resistant starch, which has a very similar water-holding capacity to flour—not like cellulose, which has a very high waterholding capacity. It doesn’t continue to absorb water like other insoluble fibers.”

The product performs and expands well in the extruder, too, although at the expense of its fiber content. Because RS2 derives its digestion resistance from the natural conformation of its starch granules, the change those granules undergo during extrusion can alter their resistance. “You take the starch through an extrusion process and you gelatinize it,” Witwer says. “And, in that gelatinization process, you break up the structure by which it maintains its fiber.” She notes that, even if manufacturers extrude out all the resistant-starch fiber, “they’ve still got all the whole-grain components naturally present in the corn.”

From flaky to crunchy

Functional whole-grain flours have made it easier to develop mainstream snacks and goodies, but they’re not manufacturers’ only options for adding whole grains to snacks. The whole grains themselves, as well as flakes, extruded pieces and clusters made with them, “have the multiple textures and appearance to add interest to these products, are grain-based, and thus form a basis for whole-grain addition,” Bonner says.

Individual and multigrain mixes can put a product’s whole-grain content right where consumers can see it. And, by coating these clusters and mixes with sweeteners and other flavor systems, they add a twist to the flavor, too. “It could be a sweet cinnamon. It could be a savory cheese. And those can bring sensational flavor development,” Bonner says.

When choosing an individual flake, or the multiple components of a cluster, product appearance and texture will determine thickness, size and grain mix. “There are different flake thicknesses depending on the appearance, the product you want to manufacture and the application,” Bonner says. “You’ll use a whole flake, no matter what grain it is, in a granola bar application, or in a baked bar application. You’ll use what we call a quick flake or a cut flake—a thinner and smaller flake—in clusters, because that’s providing you surface area to hold those clusters together.”

You could even include grain flakes within the matrix of a baked or sheeted cracker dough. In most applications, though, the flake appears as a topical sprinkled on the surface of a chip or cracker. “It’s really about the appearance,” Bonner says. “And that’s where you might use some of the smaller flakes so they do not fall or roll off.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Soy Cools Menopause Side Effects

A new study published in Nutrition & Metabolism reveals that dietary supplementation with soy aglycons of isoflavone has been found to lower cholesterol, increase the antioxidative properties of the liver and prevent degeneration of the vaginal lining in rats.

Robin Chiou led a team of researchers from National Chiayi University, Taiwan, who studied the effects of the dietary supplement on a group of female rats that had undergone ovary removal. Researchers hope that dietary soy supplementation may provide an alternative to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which has been linked to the development of uterus and breast cancers.


Tokyo topped Food & Wine magazine's fourth annual list of top cities to go for cutting-edge cuisine

‘It’s where chefs are going for innovation,’ Food & Wine editor explains

Tokyo is the hottest city for food lovers for a second consecutive year because of its abundance of innovative restaurants and superb ingredients, according to a U.S. food magazine.

Barcelona came in second, followed by Copenhagen, London and New York in Food & Wine Magazine's fourth annual list of top cities to go for cutting-edge cuisine and vibrant food scenes.

"Tokyo is the best food city hands down," Jen Murphy, the magazine's travel editor, said. "That's where chefs are going for innovations. There's also a history of food traditions. They are so far ahead of us."

All the top cities on the list offer "fantastic food at all price points," Murphy added.

In a surprise move, Paris with its abundance of Michelin-star restaurants fell off the list after placing second last year.

While this was not a slam against French cuisine, which remains top-notch, Murphy explained, "Right now, there's no new excitement to the food scene there."

The global dining scene, meanwhile, has been adversely affected by the economic downturn. For example, Moscow was in contention for a spot on the magazine's list this year, but it dropped out of the running as the Russian economy soured, according to Murphy.

While diners may be eating out less, chefs around the world are still creating dishes with unusual ingredients.

"There will always be die-hard foodies who will fly to Copenhagen to taste them," Murphy said.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Asparagus, strawberries on track for Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day favorites asparagus and strawberries should be available in promotable supplies, with strong demand and movement expected, grower-shippers and industry officials said.

Washington asparagus shippers expect to kick off their deals a little later than expected this season, said Alan Schreiber, administrator of the Washington Asparagus Commission, Eltopia.

But it shouldn’t be late enough to prevent retailers from selling high-quality Empire State asparagus on ad for Mother’s Day, which falls on May 10, Schreiber said.

“Normally we expect some harvest to start by the end of this week,” Schreiber said April 7. “But by May we should be right in the peak of the season. There should be plenty of asparagus for Mother’s Day. I’m sure there will be some promotions going on.”

Growers who market their asparagus through Yakima, Wash.-based Rasmussen Marketing Inc. will likely begin shipping about April 15, said Kim Nordberg, saleswoman.

“The quality’s fabulous, and there should be good supplies, assuming it doesn’t freeze,” Nordberg said.

Some asparagus will still be shipping from California in early May, but for the most part Washington should have the domestic deal to itself, Schreiber said.

Schreiber was optimistic that current market conditions — strong but not too strong — would prevail through Mother’s Day.

“Volumes out of California are down, so supply is in line with demand,” he said. “The price is pretty good, but it’s not too high. It’s counterproductive to see $50 asparagus. That invites the Peruvians and Mexicans in.”

On April 7, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $38.75-40.75 for 28-pound pyramid cartons and crates of asparagus from California, up from $30.50-32.50 last year at the same time.

Washington acreage is down slightly this year, but, barring any unforeseen weather events, production could be similar to last year, when poor weather reduced some yields, Schreiber said.


Holiday strawberry movement is expected to be brisk for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., Watsonville, Calif., with plenty of promotable supplies expected, said Gloria Chillon, marketing director.

“We will have very good supplies coming from Southern California, Santa Maria and Watsonville,” she said. “Everyone loves Mother’s Day celebrations, and we’re anticipating strong demand this year.”

Driscoll’s is pushing its retailers to promote larger packages — including 2- and 4-pounders — as well as the company’s long-stem strawberries, Chillon said.

Watsonville-based California Giant Inc. also expected brisk movement of ample volumes of high-quality strawberries from all three California growing regions, said Cindy Jewell, the company’s marketing director.

“It’s definitely peak season,” Jewell said. “The biggest challenge is getting retailers to promote in between Easter and Mother’s Day.”

Jewell was optimistic retailers would do just that, carrying the momentum built up for Easter into Mother’s Day.

On April 7, the USDA reported prices of $11.90-12.90 for flats of 12 1-pint baskets of medium and large California strawberries, up from $7.90-8.90 last year at the same time.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Annual consumption of homegrown fruits and vegetables declined

America’s first family will soon plant a vegetable garden at the White House to promote homegrown fruits and vegetables. According to The NPD Group, a leading market research company, annual eatings per American of homegrown fruits and vegetables have declined from 95 in 1984 to 28 in 2008.

“It's possible that the White House vegetable garden will renew the public's interest in homegrown fruits and vegetables,” says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst at NPD and author of Eating Patterns in America. "There had been a steady decline in the consumption of homegrown produce, but it's leveled off the last few years."

According to Balzer, married couples, ages 65 to 75, eat the most homegrown fruits and vegetables out of any household group. Next is the 75 and older age group, followed by affluent empty nesters and then dual-income with no children.

“It appears that most gardeners do not have the distractions of raising a family, and have time on their hands,” he says. “They have the luxury of time to tend to all the tilling, planting, and weeding.”

By lifestage, % who are more or less likely to consume homegrown
fruits and vegetables


+ More Likely

Married active seniors, 65 and up

+70 %

75 and up


Affluent empty nesters


Dual Income with No Kids


Low/middle income empty nesters


Low/middle income traditional families



- Less Likely

Affluent traditional families

-7 %

Single active seniors


Working parents


Single parents


Low/middle income singles


Affluent singles


Source: The NPD Group/National Eating Trends®

“How will the White House garden grow?,” says Balzer. “If it’s a typical American garden, it will grow with tomatoes, onions, green beans, cucumbers, and peppers, the most frequently consumed homegrown vegetables ─ and lots of hard work.”