Indulge in Health

Fill your food aisles with delectable and nutritious treats.

Try to convince your customers that healthful food that also manages to satisfy is more than myth. It might be a difficult task.

Our processed food culture conspires to make these compatible qualities feel mutually exclusive. “However, when we move our taste buds away from high-salt, high-sugar and highly processed foods, nourishing and sustaining foods actually taste better, and ‘indulgence’ and ‘healthy’ are more aligned,” says Mary Waldner, chairman and founder of Mary’s Gone Crackers, Gridley, CA.

Indeed, many companies offer foods that qualify as gourmet-quality and irresistible, but without the accustomed guilt. In fact, they can be downright good for you.

(Good) Habit-Forming Foods
At Seattle, WA-based Theo Chocolate, the belief is that the quality of ingredients determines whether a food is healthy or unhealthy. “We also know that when quality ingredients are used, the taste is superior and you don’t need to consume as much of a treat in order to be really satisfied,” says Debra Music, vice president of sales and marketing for the company.

This translates into a commitment to organically grown ingredients that are also Fair Trade certified, as well as Non-GMO Project verified, whenever applicable. Music says that integrity is what makes a food product special, even if it is a sweet treat that might add a few extra calories to one’s diet.

Waldner contrasts the healthy with the unhealthy when it comes to the food we eat on a daily basis. “My definition of ‘healthy’ foods are those that truly nourish the body and have all their vitamins and minerals still intact,” she says. In her opinion, foods made with highly refined ingredients (and void of fiber and nutrients, regardless of what the packaging claims) are not healthy or worth eating.

But on the other hand, consumers often fail to make proper distinctions when they do get around to eating healthy. “People are often misled to believe that all fat is bad, so they feel guilty or self-indulgent when eating food with a higher fat content,” says Waldner. Similar “guilt-inducing propaganda” has surrounded calorie intake as well, she adds. “However, there are fats that are actually good for our bodies, sweeteners that don’t cause spikes in blood sugar, and other ingredients that provide nutrients and fiber that can result in an indulgent-tasting product with truly healthful benefits,” Waldner explains.

When choosing the ingredients for her homemade nutrition bar (see sidebar for more), Sarah Walker, co-founder of Good ‘n Natural Bar, Bohemia, NY, parked herself in front of the bulk bin section of her local grocery store and went to work. “Ingredient by ingredient, I picked the most nutritious seeds, nuts, dried fruits and whole grains I could find,” she says. She also knew that a binder was needed to hold all of the ingredients together, and so she grabbed a jar of almond butter, brown rice syrup and some maple syrup (nothing really tastes better, she says, than this “secret ingredient”).

Fast forward to today, and Walker says the bar hasn’t really changed much over the years. “We now use gluten-free oats because of the overwhelming demand for gluten-free products,” she says, adding that there has also been work done to improve the packaging and shelf life of the bar (the original bar was wrapped in plastic and had to be kept in a refrigerator or freezer). The sugar content has been scaled back a bit, and the protein content has been increased to meet customer demand.

Finding himself missing the familiar crunch of typical American snack foods after beginning a raw foods diet, Brad Gruno, CEO of Brad’s Raw Foods, Pipersville, PA, began to experiment. He ended up creating dehydrated raw kale “chips” to satisfy that craving. “I think people fell in love with my chips so quickly because they were still getting that satisfying crunch that’s often associated with being indulgent—just without all of the unhealthiness and guilt,” Gruno says. He suggests grabbing a bag of Brad’s Raw Chips, citing the Hot Red Bell Pepper variety as a favorite, and pairing the chips with a fresh, homemade salsa. “All of sudden you’ve taken a very standard snack and made it incredibly healthy,” he says.

Sweets, Gruno says, are another easy way to work that indulgence factor into a food. People wouldn’t normally associate kale with sweetness, but his piña colada variety of raw leafy kale has met with a great response, he reveals. They manage to combine sweet tooth-satisfaction with nutrition. “Kale is the most nutrient-dense leafy green, and I found a way to make people want to eat it not just because it’s good for them, but because it tastes good,” Gruno says.

As they begin to describe the ins and outs of their own “ancient superfoods,” Lynn and Michael Monroe, founders of FungusAmongUs, Inc., Snohomish, WA, say it’s easy to understand why mushrooms are healthy. “Mountains of research point out their myriad of nutrients and healing properties,” they say. Part of what makes mushrooms indulgent is their sheer variety, from exotic truffles to the common button mushroom, and the fact that these varieties are so different in flavor, texture and use.

Many mushrooms are interchangeable in a given recipe, which can make for exciting results in the final dish. “In fact, mushrooms are one of the only foods that can make a simple dish feel rich, complex and…indulgent,” say the Monroes.

Finished products range from simple dried mushrooms, to items where mushrooms are the main ingredient, like seasonings, rubs, soup mixes and Italian truffle products. “These products have been developed specifically to ‘pair’ flavors. We take pride in our recipes,” say the Monroes. They give the example of a truffle mustard that can be used just like in any other mustard—with burgers, salmon, cheese, etc. Mushroom mélange seasoning and marinades, they say, can be used with meat, fish, poultry, pasta or even in dips.

Music speaks to her company’s experience with chocolate, but the focus on quality ingredients extends to all healthy indulgences. “The quality of the cocoa beans we use in our chocolate, and the beautiful organic dairy and sugar we use make our products shine when it comes to flavor and freshness,” she says.

A philosophy that focuses on healthy ingredients was integral in the development of the product line at Waldner’s company. 100% certified organic and non-GMO ingredients, and whole, real foods lead to cookie products that are both sweet and nutritious. Rather than use unhealthy, processed fats, coconut oil and non-hydrogenated palm oil are included. Omega-3 rich chia seeds and coconut palm sugar, which Waldner describes as a whole-food sweetener low on the glycemic index, were used to ramp up the nutrition.

Likewise, crackers and pretzels from Waldner’s company are made with organic whole grains and seeds like brown rice, quinoa, flax seeds, sesame seeds, millet, amaranth and chia seeds. Paired with the right dips or spreads, they can be quite the treat, she explains, saying, “One of my favorite combinations is melting organic dark chocolate and spreading it on our crackers or dipping the pretzels into it. In my opinion, this is a zero guilt indulgence that is both good for your body and deeply satisfying.”

She also suggests organic almond butter to go along with these crackers, topped with a slice of banana or strawberry. Or, dip them in a bowl of healthy guacamole filled with fresh ingredients. For dessert, she suggests fresh almond milk alongside the cookie products, or using the cookies as the bookends in a coconut milk ice cream sandwich.

Almonds sit at the center of the healthy and indulgent world presented by Maya Erwin, group marketing manager of Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento, CA. When customers want to try something sweet while still behaving themselves in terms of diet, she suggests their oven-roasted almonds. “Grab a handful every day to help with your weight management, lower your risk of heart disease and get your vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from a protein-packed, fiber-rich food source,” Erwin says. Flavor ingredients include cinnamon, chocolate, mint and toffee. The association of almonds with reduced heart disease risk comes directly from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration qualified health claim, which says that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts can reduce heart disease risk as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.

With flavors that include ingredients like sea salt, sour cream and chives, and made from whole grain brown rice and almonds, Erwin notes her company’s baked nut chips contain no gluten or wheat, and less fat and fewer calories than potato chips. Each production run, she says, is sampled and tested to ensure that gluten levels do not exceed 20 PPM. Erwin provides a serving suggestion: “Pair Nut Chips with any of your favorite healthy dips, like guacamole or salsa.”

Walker believes that the ingredient selection process can reliably be based upon what nature brings to the table. This focus allowed her to create a bar that was nutritious and satisfying. Walnuts, for instance, are high in omega-3s, and their fat content  is also satiating. Almond butter as a binder is another example. Selecting it as an ingredient makes brown rice syrup less necessary, thus reducing sugar content while increasing the amount of proteins and beneficial fats.

Her initial work with the bar was more focused on ingredients than nutritionals like fat, protein and carbohydrate content. “My belief is that if you focus on eating wholesome real foods, the nutritionals will work themselves out,” says Walker.

Poised for Success
The people who sell the products have talked about how they resolve the contradictions between healthy and indulgent, but the question remains of how to catch consumer attention and get them on board. Regarding the cost of healthy, gourmet-style products, Waldner acknowledges that whole, real food usually costs more than empty, refined ingredients. “Right now our government subsidizes industrial crops, so smaller farmers, usually those growing organic crops, start out at a disadvantage. As we support organic agriculture, prices will become more balanced, and until then, consumer education is key,” she says.

Music elaborates by saying that everything we do, buy and eat comes at some cost, though sometimes they are hidden. Supply chains may remain largely invisible to consumers, she explains, but they are caring and thinking about where their food comes from in larger numbers, including what the implications are for the planet and the growers involved. “Retailers can and should encourage their customers to gravitate toward responsibly sourced products that tell their story!” Music says.

How can one go about this? “We believe one of the easiest ways to educate consumers is to demo the products. A taste is worth a thousand words,” say the Monroes. “Also, we offer recipe cards as a point-of-purchase feature. These recipes give the health-conscious consumer a way to understand that mushrooms are versatile, and can be used in new recipes or in the consumer’s favorite dishes.” The value of nutritional powerhouses like mushrooms, they say, makes them well worth their cost.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Gruno argues, does not imply that one must give up sweets and snack foods. “I think it’s important for shoppers and consumers to be aware that it’s not all or nothing,” he says. He thinks people may relate to his story, of a formerly overweight and unhealthy, regular guy, who found the motivation to turn things around. The answer lay in fighting the cravings for the bad stuff, while not completely depriving himself. He created a product that could satisfy his cravings while fitting into his new lifestyle.

The handmade products his company offers, on top of including two bunches of kale in each box, offer ingredients like cashews, red bell peppers and sunflower seeds. “I like to let people know that if they were to make my products on their own, it would actually cost them more!” Gruno says. Most people, he goes on to wonder, don’t mind spending a few extra dollars for a shirt that looks good on them, so why should things be any different with food? WF

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, February 2013