Fruit to the rescue! A healthy alternative gains traction

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After writing about the “food police” in San Francisco and the problem of obesity that continues to haunt us, I enjoyed discussing the subject with many of our peers. Though viewpoints vary, there is a general consensus that the problem of obesity is felt at the concession stand.

Shortly after my article appeared, Regal announced they were launching “100 Cal Pac” items. Other theatre chains have downsized their portions across both food and beverage. But there is another trend that can address this issue and still create smiling faces—the use of fruit!

Have you noticed the “made with real fruit juice” notice on the package of everything from bread to candy to beverages? The perceived idea is that fruit is a natural source of sweetness that is much better for you than high-fructose corn syrup. While it does appear to be much better for you—I’ll come back to this—fruit does contain lots of natural sugar that the body still must compensate for and that must be calculated in a daily regimen. But the idea that we can use more natural fruit as a way to satisfy our craving for sugar and be a little healthier than when using other types of sweets is a trend that is finding its way into products, meals and labels.

The number of products being made with fruit, out of fruit, or just with fruit juice is rising fast. Dried fruit products have become very affordable and available, as is fruit candy in many forms. Even crackers and bread products are being made with more fruit today, including processed food products, not just desserts in restaurants and cafés. The whole trend of frozen yogurt could command its own article, but the trend that accompanied the plethora of yogurt stores is the availability of a fresh fruit bar. Natural colors, natural flavors, and fruits and nuts are on the rise as a way to have a healthier snack.

But candy remains at the top of the game in the theatre concession stand, as gummies and filled gummies market themselves as containing fruit juice and give the impression they are a healthier choice than perhaps competing chocolate confections. This viewpoint seems to be shared by a large range of candy companies as the products that are now available market the perceived benefits of fruit juice. They are considered “value-added statements” and are helping candy companies be a part of the health trend.

So are kids’ meals healthy enough with the French fries and the Sprite? Trade them out for fruit slices and 100% fruit juice. McDonald’s made this a part of their menu years ago and slowly the selection by the public has increased. This trend has found its way into other quick-service restaurants and convenience stores, where you can find fruit much more easily today than ever before. (Sometimes I have enough yogurt topped with fresh fruit at the yogurt store that it almost constitutes a meal.)

The labeling trend of stating “made with real fruit juice,” or some variation of that, is widespread. It immediately gives the consumer the perception that the product is healthy. Have you ever seen a label shouting “made with high-fructose corn syrup”? There is much debate over this ingredient in general, over how it’s made, how the body processes it, and many groups have advocated removing it from as many processed foods as possible. Meanwhile, the Corn Refiners Association has petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to be able to call the ingredient “corn sugar” instead. Clearly, labeling is important and “high-fructose corn syrup” does not sound appealing, and that alone has motivated many companies to replace it if possible, no matter if it is better or worse than other processed sugar. In order to separate from the pack, success is often driven by marketing and the difference that labeling can deliver for a product.

Maybe it’s more perception than a full-scale healthy choice. I know I feel better as a parent when my children reach for a piece of fruit instead of a bag of chips. Does this translate to processed food? Do I think that candy made with real fruit juice is better for them? I’m not sure. But if it tastes good to them and there’s an outside chance that it’s slightly healthier, I’ll take it. Maybe that’s the point: Small choices here and there can and do make a difference. If fruit is perceived as coming to the rescue to provide us with comfort food, sweetness and a few less calories at the same time, that doesn’t seem like a bad thing. Considering that we could use a few wins in our war against obesity, it is a welcome positive. Showing your concession-stand consumers that you are picking up on this trend and care about their health? That’s definitely a win.

Please send comments to Anita Watts at anita@reactornet.com.