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12 Natural and Organic Brands Owned By Big Food

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A significant (and growing) number of shoppers have spurned traditional food and drink brands in favor of “better” choices. Instead of Tropicana and Tostitos, they’re reaching for Naked Juice and Garden of Eatin’ all-natural chips. Instead of Ball Park franks, they’re opting for Applegate Farms nitrite- and nitrate-free hot dogs. These alternatives cost more but people are willing to pay, in large part because they see these brands as being smaller, healthier, more responsible choices.

What many don’t realize, though, is that a lot of these “niche” companies are owned and operated by the very corporations many shoppers are trying to avoid. Healthy, environmentally aware brands have seen huge sales growth in recent years, and big names like Coca-Cola, General Mills and Perdue all want a piece of the action. Their ownership of once-independent brands isn’t a secret—but it isn't actively promoted either.

The natural question, of course, is whether or not this actually matters. Is the integrity of a smaller brand really compromised when it is bought by a big company? On the one hand, a Coca-Cola or a Campbell’s can increase the availability of natural and organic options. On the other hand, as experts like Philip Howard at Michigan State University have noted, big companies tend to tinker with formulas to make them easier to mass-produce. And then there’s the issue of a parent company reflecting negatively on its subsidiaries, as when General Mills, Kellogg’s and others funded opposition efforts to California’s GMO labeling proposition at the same time that some of their “natural” brands were promoting the non-use of GM ingredients.

As we ponder the answer to this and other related questions (such as: why doesn’t the “natural” label mean anything?), here are some natural and organic brands that have gone big in recent years.

1. ANNIE’S HOMEGROWN

The brand best known for boxes of mac and cheese with the cute little bunny on them sold to General Mills for $820 million in 2014. Since then, Annie’s has branched out into additional product categories, including cereal, which it had struggled to develop as an independent entity. John Foraker, founder and president of Annie’s, says the company hasn’t had to compromise its values or ingredients under the new ownership. But consumers, and even some employees, are skeptical.

2. HONEST TEA

Founded in 1997 by a Yale business school grad and one of his professors, Honest Tea has surged over the past several years to become one of the leading bottled tea companies in America. That’s due in large part to a big investment from soda giant Coca-Cola. In 2008, the company bought a 40 percent stake in Honest Tea, and then completed the acquisition three years later. The sale brought some accusations of “greenwashing,” but Honest Tea founder Seth Goldman has adamantly fought the idea that “big” equals “bad” in the organic world.

3. APPLEGATE FARMS

Last summer, the natural and organic meat company—makers of preservative- and antibiotic-free deli meats, hot dogs and sausages—sold to Hormel, maker of that most unnatural of meat products: Spam. The $775 million deal incensed some customers, who regularly take to the company’s Facebook page to vent their frustrations. In response, Applegate says it operates independent from Hormel, and that its acquisition came with safeguards to maintain its focus on clean ingredients and animal welfare.

4. NAKED JUICE

In 2006, the fruit juice company known for catchy flavors like “Blue Machine” and “Mighty Mango” sold to PepsiCo for a reported $450 million price tag. Pepsi filed the acquisition under its “better-for-you” brand portfolio, but recent years have seen Naked Juice come under fire for its high sugar content and “natural” labeling. In 2013, Pepsi settled a class action lawsuit brought by consumers who contested the label’s “100% Juice” and “All Natural” claims, among others. Pepsi paid out $9 million and agreed to stop printing “All Natural” on its Naked Juice bottles.

5. KASHI

The Kellogg Company bought this pioneering natural foods brand back in 2000, well before these sorts of acquisitions were trendy. The payoff came through several years of sustained growth as Kashi rode the wave of demand for natural and organic products. But Kellogg’s faltered as competition increased, and in 2012 Kashi faced major criticism over what consumers saw as its abuse of the “natural” label. Follow that with Kellogg’s financial contributions to defeat California’s mandatory GMO-labeling law—and this after Kashi promised to remove GMOs from its products—and the company has found itself backpedaling of late.

6. FOOD SHOULD TASTE GOOD

Founded in 2006, the plainly named snack company hit a sweet spot with uniquely flavored chips like olive, sweet potato and chocolate. This success didn’t go unnoticed by General Mills, who bought FSTG in 2012. Since then, General Mills has increased its distribution to major supermarkets, club and convenience stores. Along with brands like Larabar and Cascadian Farm (yep, they’re in there too), General Mills projects its “better for you brands” could top $1 billion in sales by 2020.

7. EARTHBOUND FARMS

The country’s largest grower of organic greens began as a 2.5-acre raspberry farm in Carmel, Calif. Since then, it has grown to include more than 50,000 acres and become what food-ag guru Michael Pollan called “industrial organic farming at its best.” Two years ago, Earthbound sold to WhiteWave Foods, formerly a subsidiary of dairy giant Dean Foods, for $600 million. The acquisition brings expansion opportunities, but organic advocacy groups are worried about WhiteWave’s integrity under CEO Gregg Engles, who oversaw Dean Foods during sourcing controversies involving its Horizon and Silk brands.

8. BEAR NAKED

Two high school friends from Connecticut built up this granola company the old-fashioned way: through local sales and word-of-mouth. In 2007, Kellogg’s-owned Kashi bought them out for a cool $60 million. In the ensuing years, the brand has expanded to include energy bars, snack bars and trail mixes.

9. STONYFIELD FARM

In 2001, France’s Group Danone (now known as Danone), whose brands include Dannon and Evian, bought a 40 percent stake in organic yogurt company Stonyfield, and completed the acquisition two years later. Stonyfield founder and CEO Gary Hirshberg had actively sought an investor, and the buyout came with demands that his company stay independent. In the ensuing years Stonyfield, now the country’s leading organic yogurt company, has gotten some flack for its sugar content, but Hirshberg has remained a very public advocate of the company’s “big with a purpose” ethos.

10. BOLTHOUSE FARMS

Started in 1915 as a commercial farm in western Michigan, Bolthouse grew to prominence selling fresh carrots, including a ready-to-eat packaged variety that became incredibly popular in the ‘90s. In 2005, private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners bought Bolthouse, then in 2012 sold the company to the Campbell Soup Company for $1.55 billion. Over the past few years, Bolthouse has expanded its lineup of fruit beverages and moved into categories like salad dressing.

11. COLEMAN NATURAL

The nation’s largest producer of organic chicken sold to Perdue back in 2011. This raised some eyebrows in industry and advocacy circles, especially considering Perdue’s checkered past with animal welfare. But Perdue, along with its main competitor, Tyson, has seen growing demand for natural, humanely raised meat. Last year, both companies agreed to severely limit or cut out the use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics on chickens. Perdue also purchased Niman Ranch, which has strict standards for animal welfare. Advocacy groups are keeping a close watch, meanwhile, and caution that the organic standard, despite its high price, is the only true, federally regulated guarantee for “better” meat.

12. GREEN & BLACK’S

In 2005, the organic chocolate company sold to UK-based Cadbury. Five years later, Cadbury was bought by Kraft, which then funneled many of its global snack brands, including Green & Black’s, into a spin-off company it called Mondelez. Confused yet? Welcome to the global packaged foods economy. In the U.S., Mondelez is best known for brands like Triscuit, Chips Ahoy!, Tang and Sour Patch Kids—all of which may seem at odds with the gourmet, ethical-sourcing image Green & Black’s has cultivated. Mondelez seems to realize this, too, and doesn’t even list the chocolate company under its portfolio of brands. The company’s founder, meanwhile, wishes he’d never sold Green & Black’s in the first place.

For a full look at who owns who in the natural and organic food industry, check out this graphic from Philip Howard of Michigan State University.

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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
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“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
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Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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Design
The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
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Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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