For example, the claim appears in the snack aisle on products such as meat sticks from The New Primal, in the dessert aisle on sweet treats such as Steve’s ice cream and, of course, in the yogurt category where it pops up on many competing products, including those from Maple hill Creamery, Dreaming Cow, Organic Valley and others.
But the claim isn’t just relegated to the natural channel or products targeting niche consumer groups, such as those following the paleo diet. It also shows up on restaurant menus that cater to mainstream, conventional shoppers – such as Carl’s Jr., which became the first major fast food chain to release a grass fed burger in 2015.
A closer look at the numbers reveals that products making grass-fed claims are driving sales at a pace that far exceeds those without the label. According to SPINS data, in the back half of 2014 and the first half of 2015 sales of products making grass fed claims skyrocketed 40% compared to a mere 1% increase in equivalent products that did not make the claim.
To find out what is driving consumer interest in grass fed, as well as the opportunities – and challenges – the claim presents, this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup To Nuts Podcast features Eric Snowdeal, brand manager of milk and cream at Organic Valley, which recently launched a new line of Grassmilk Yogurt as part of its already extensive line of other grassmilk products.
What does grass-fed mean to consumers?
“You do see more grass-fed claims coming in a variety of different product categories now – not just in dairy,” in part because consumers perceive it as healthier for themselves, the animals and the planet, Snowdeal said.
“There is a lot packed into the term grass-fed and 100% grass-fed, which is what we focus on. There is a basic sense from consumers that cows are eating the way nature intended,” as well as a rising awareness that not all cows are raised in a “natural” environment or eating what they would naturally, he explained. Rather, he said, many conventionally raised cows receive a diet heavy in corn, soy and other grains.
“There also are other elements, too. You know, when you ask consumers what 100% grass-fed means to them there is a sense that they are supporting the smaller farmer, there is a sense it is better for the environment and all sorts of things,” he noted.
A formal definition needed
While consumers attach many definitions to grass-fed, there is no formally regulated definition, which Snowdeal says is a major challenge in the industry.
He explained that Organic Valley follows the pasture-raised definition under the organic standard, which requires cows to be on pasture at least 120 days of the grazing season and that at least 30% of their diet comes from pastures.
“Organic Valley exceeds that, so that on average 60% of our cows’ diets comes from pasture-based foraging,” he said.
But still, most consumers likely assume that if a product claims to be grass-fed then the animal ate only grass, he said. To meet consumer demand for this, Organic Valley in 2012 launched its 100% grass-fed milk line, which is clearly labeled as such.
Not all players in the dairy industry do this, however, Snowdeal says, adding he hopes in the future manufacturers and suppliers can come together to create a voluntary standard that clearly defines grass-fed.
Consumers understand grass-fed to be more nutritious
Consumers also are looking for grass-fed claims because they perceive the product making the claim to be a higher quality and, therefore, more nutritious for them.
And to an extent they are right, Snowdeal confirmed.
“We provided samples of our regular pasture raised milk to some researchers at the University of Washington, who did a peer-review study that was published in PLOS One on the nutritional profile of organic milk,” he said. The results show that the fatty acid profile of milk is directly related to how much pasture time – and grass – cows receive, with a corresponding increase in omega-3s and decrease in omega 6s in the grass-fed milk, he said.
“Our pasture raised milk is 62% higher in omega-3s than conventional milk and we know it has a ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s that is just over two to one, and we know when you continue and go to a higher percent grass fed, that just continues along that path. For example, the omega-3 and omega-6 ratio for our grass fed milk is about one to one,” he said.
Grass fed products aren’t for everyone
Along with changing the nutrition, grass-fed dairy has a different appearance and taste – which appeals to some consumers while turning off others, Snowdeal said.
“Grass-fed milk has a unique flavor that comes from the fact it is 100% grass-fed,” and it can vary based on what the cows eat in the pasture, he said, adding that the unique flavor “is not for everybody, but those who want 100% grass-fed are very happy to [have a] clear option.”
Grass-fed milk also has a “unique color that is a little more yellow from the more beta-carotene the cows are getting,” which also can turn off some consumers and appeal to others, he said.
Despite these polarizing aspects, the grass-fed products are wildly successful – prompting Organic Valley to launch a grass-fed butter, cheddar cheese and recently yogurts – including individual servings that were introduced earlier this year.
Snowdeal says all the products are doing extremely well, and the company will continue to innovate in this area. He also expects others will follow suit and consumers will see even more grass-fed claims in the near future.
Reflecting on this evolution, he noted the response from consumers and farmers “really has been incredible…. It is an amazing connection between the consumers who want the product and the farmers who this is how they want to farm…. So, to bring those farmers together with the consumers who want this is really gratifying and neat to see.”