Back before kale, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts came to be coined as ‘Super Greens,’ and before the ANDI scale carried the force that it is known for today, there was San Miguel Produce. Early on in my career after I had started AndNowUKnow, Jan Berk, COO of San Miguel Produce, pulled me aside and offered a few insights into a category that would come to be known, and widely harnessed across the culinary and health and wellness landscapes, as Super Greens. Years later, I watched this category explode at foodservice and retail, and with consumers and chefs alike. Now you can buy a t-shirt from Whole Foods with thick, green font exclaiming ‘Kale.’ How far we have come, and how much I appreciate the woman who saw the trend before it was one. Jan joins us to discuss the Super Greens surge and the evolving architecture of the category."
- Robert Lambert CEO and Founder of ANUK and The Snack Magazine
San Miguel Produce was founded in 1975, with its beginnings in staple commodity California produce items like celery, broccoli and lettuce. In 1990, the company began to shift its focus to the dark leafy greens commodities, offering a direct store delivery bunch greens program to Southern California retailers like Ralphs, Vons, Stater Bros., and Albertsons. We went on to launch Cut ‘N Clean Greens in 1995, the original fresh-cut packaged dark leafy greens, and by 1999, as consumer buying behaviors began to transform, our team shifted 100 percent of our focus to specialty greens. Staying ahead of the greens curve, our Cut ‘N Clean Greens line launched the first full line of organic specialty greens in 2007, when greens were rapidly transitioning from trending niche to mainstream demand.
Though I officially joined San Miguel Produce in 2001, I’d been involved behind the scenes with the marketing team and lending my support since the early 1990’s. Prior to joining San Miguel Produce, my other career was in newspaper/marketing. I have always loved the fresh produce business, often having said the newspaper business is much like fresh produce in that both have a short shelf-life; nobody wants old news or old produce. In 2000 the L.A. Times was sold and I started moving more into produce, joining my husband and Co-Founder Roy Nishimori at San Miguel Produce full-time in 2001.
But where did this surprising trend start? What does ‘bitter’ have to do with their power, and how did the category evolve dark leafy greens to Super Greens?
For decades, spinach was the king of the dark leafy greens, though the category historically has had a place among many cultural cuisines. Take bok choy in Asian cooking, chards and escarole for Europeans, and collards and mustards in Southern comfort, for example. These flavor profiles tended to grow out of only regional or cultural preferences and didn’t mark national or international mainstream trends. In fact, it wasn’t until the early 90’s, when kale suddenly became a recognizable choice for garnishes, that I really saw the door begin to open for the greens category. And San Miguel Produce was, quite literally, right on the cover.
In 1991, San Miguel’s kale fields were featured in the L.A. Times article titled ‘Kale Replaces Parsley as the Garnish of Choice.’ This was what I would call the first real boost for kale, although it wasn’t until about 2006 to 2007 that the initial shift for the consumption of kale itself began.
As I said previously, spinach had been the king of the dark leafy greens for years. But when there was a recall due to e-coli for the category, consumers needed to find a replacement. That year, kale enjoyed a notable 79 percent increase.
The trend climbed slowly after this initial jump, only about 15 percent year-on-year, until 2010 when America made health its number one focus.
Suddenly, nutrient density became the popular focus for nutritionists and dietitians, with the new trend of plant-based diets emerging. Seeing the need for a new scale to match this trend, Dr. Joel Fuhrman designed one of the first scales to center around produce as the most nutrient-rich foods to eat. He introduced the Aggregate Nutrient Density Index (ANDI) Scale to promote healthy eating.
Another popular acronym Dr. Fuhrman promoted in the growth of leafy greens, in collaboration with Dr. Oz, was “G-BOMBS”: Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Berries, Seeds. These are the produce items that these doctors recommend should be eaten every day.
Together, with trendsetting retailers like Whole Foods, which Dr. Fuhrman partnered with to promote the ANDI scale, these parties contributed to boosting what I would say was once a niche into the produce mainstream. Safeway also which jumped on board early on, creating a nutrient-dense greens destination in its produce department.
To give a better understanding of how far the category has come, you have to understand that nutrient dense greens were often pushed aside as too bitter and better used as garnish or food for livestock and pets. While they are historically rich in tradition as a comfort food or isolated to specific ethnic cuisines, greens have now found their way into exciting new popular, multi-cultural food preparations.
Suddenly, dark leafy greens were becoming “Super Greens,” and the kale trend was rapidly taking center stage. We saw nutritional excellence, with weight-loss as a convenient by-product, become the new focus of consumers. The cultural niche past of dark leafy greens began to move rapidly into the Super Green mainstream, and now I expect they are less of a trend and more of a healthy lifestyle food that is here to stay.
Calorie for calorie, dark leafy greens are perhaps the most nutritious foods you can eat. But they have a naturally bitter taste that has contributed to them being overshadowed by more mild produce, like lettuce and spinach. What many don’t understand is there is a direct link between bitter and health, including plant-based phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, glucosinolates, and other compounds reported to have antioxidant, anticarcinogenic properties, and a wide spectrum of tumor-blocking activities. These compounds, known as phytochemicals or phytonutrients, hold major promise for the dietary prevention of chronic disease.
Although cancer researchers and some studies have proposed heightened bitterness could be very important, consumer and marketing studies invariably showed that taste, as opposed to perceived nutrition or health value, has historically been the key influence on food selection. And when it comes to bitter phytonutrients, I think you’ll find it’s safe to say that the general demands of good taste versus good health have always been incompatible.
But more and more new applications are being found as compliments to that “bitter” eating experience. The dark leafy greens’ bitterness naturally pairs well with stronger flavors, for example, and is easily balanced and enhanced when a little acidity like vinegar or citrus are added.
Now we know very well that compounds that make foods taste bitter, like carotenoids in spinach and flavonoids in kale, also make them good for us.
Some of the health benefits of bitter foods include helping to absorb food nutrients, curbing the appetite, boosting the metabolism, cleansing the body, anti-inflammatory benefits, fighting free radicals in the body, and stimulating immune functions.
Even with all this information on the healthful benefits of “bitter” and in dark leafy greens, there is still so little data. Even the USDA’s current information on the category is very generic, treating different varieties of one green, such as red, green, or lacinato kale, equally among the rest as far as its nutritional values.
Without this data, consumers have been asking us questions such as ‘do baby and mature leaves provide the same nutritional values?’ and ‘what is the nutritional value to the stem versus the leaf when wanting to remove the stem for food preparation?’
Though kale and other greens are ranked at the top of the nutrient density chart, it was important to answer these very important questions. So this past year, San Miguel Produce embarked on an in-depth study with third party labs and university labs to delve deeper into these nutrient questions. While the study is not 100 percent completed, so far our findings show that greens have unique and different nutrient qualities that are specific to variety. In addition, many people consuming baby versions of these greens due to their milder taste are getting nutrient value but perhaps not what they expect. Plus, they are missing that “bitter green” benefit which aid in the absorption/digestion of food nutrients.
This study will be completed in the near future, and the findings will be shared with both the industry and USDA so that they can update any databases.
The entire greens category enjoyed a significant growth of 34 percent in 2014, which indicates there is growing interest in many varieties. Depending on the study/source, however, spinach and kale both have the highest consumption volume of all greens varieties, significantly outranking all the rest by a wide margin of over 300 percent. But even with this large gap, there are numerous varieties of dark leafy greens, and even blends, that are starting to grow in new popularity.
As they continue to become more mainstream, there is no question the classic heritage and traditions of cooking greens will continue as well. They may, however, take on some new twists with young home cooks, especially the 64 percent of Gen Y’ers who tend to cook more meals at home. This young consumer group enjoys bolder flavors, chooses healthy performance foods, and tends to experiment more with ethnic cuisines.
Over time, I expect this will all lead to new, innovative products on the market. Some will succeed and some will not. But kale still has some room to grow, and there is no doubt in my mind that consumers will be looking for something new and exciting that meets both their healthy lifestyle and their evolving taste buds.