In the past, editor Dan Malovany would gag if he knew a product were vegan, but advances in ingredient technology have made healthy (Ack!) foods more palatable to him.

Ignorance Is Bliss

Vegan. Gluten-free. Go ahead and pick your all-too-trendy natural foods fad. They’re hot buttons for some consumers, but not for me.

If you tell me that a new product is “vegan,” I probably won’t try it. If you inform me a new snack is “gluten-free,” I may nibble on it a bit, then go ack-ack-ack as I desperately search for the nearest waste basket.

That’s because products that taste oh-so-healthy aren’t fit for human consumption. Maybe for birds, squirrels or an unsuspecting pig.

Oh yeah, I may be going a bit over the top, but don’t blame me. Throughout the years, I’ve been conditioned to gag on products that claim to be better for you. Maybe it’s just the kid in me. I like yummy cookies.

Healthy ones? Ack, ack, ack! It’s purely Pavlovian.

Thanks to Joe Semder, president of Fantasy Cookie in Sylmar, Calif., there may be hope for me due to advances in ingredient technology that are making the next generation of healthy (Ack!) products palatable for even someone like me.

A 29-year veteran of the baking industry, Semder believes more Americans are buying healthy (Ack!) products because they actually taste better.

“The key is it can’t taste too far off the norm of the way traditional mainstream cookies taste,” he says.
Semder has been making healthy (Ack!) cookies in the mid-1980s and acknowledges that the products back then were, well, ack, ack, ack!

“When we started, [eating] health food cookies was almost like grazing in an open field,” he notes. “They were horrible because there was no demand for products to taste good. People just wanted healthy. They were made with whole wheat flour and fruit juice. They were pretty rugged products.”

During the last quarter century, Semder recalls, the industry has made “remarkable” strides. Now, there’s whole grain flour with a soft texture like the regular stuff, and new sweeteners don’t have the aftertaste of rusty nails.

“It’s almost night and day, which could be the reason why people are buying it now,” he says. “It could be that 25 years ago, it wasn’t edible. You had the diehard health freaks who wanted healthy, and they would buy it. As the years progressed and America was getting better products, they didn’t mind buying healthier products as well.”
In the natural food channel, the approach has been to bundle a whole basket of attributes ranging from all-natural, organic and trans fat-free to non-dairy, Kosher, gluten-free and vegan claims to attract the broadest cross section of consumers.

With healthy products tasting better than before, the new strategy is to downplay nutritional benefits, especially when you’re producing an indulgent and kid-friendly product like cookies and snack crackers.

That’s what James Sego did with the line ofEco-Planetorganic cookies and snacks, which are co-packed by Fantasy Cookie. Leveraging an environmental marketing campaign against organic products, the snacks are touted as the best “in” the world and “for” the world. Vegan, which was listed prominently on the packaging, has been relegated with other health claims in tiny print on the back.

“Vegan is certainly a niche area, but we wanted to save vegan, but we didn’t want to scream it on the front [of the package]. We wanted it to be more mainstream,” explains Sego, president and owner of Eco-Heaven LLC, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based firm that markets and sells Eco-Planet products and Heaven Scent Natural Foods.

The emphasis now, Sego says, is on creating great-tasting products for the whole family.

In the end, eating a healthy treat shouldn’t be a punishment. There’s no crime in having it. Kids shouldn’t be begging, “Mommy, mommy, don’t make me eat it.” Save the chalk for the blackboard.

“We’re always on the leading edge of hunting down ingredients because that’s where the progress has been made in the health food industry,” Semder says. “As the ingredients taste more mainstream, we’re right on top of it all to develop new products.”

Besides, he adds, “if it has something good in it and it doesn’t taste like it’s in there, what the heck? Let’s buy it.”

Yes, ignorance is bliss. Now that’s a healthy perspective that doesn’t make me gag.

Dan Malovany, editor

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