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Health foods going mainstream

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BOSTON — Bruce Chutter-Cressy is a health food nut. He eats carob instead of chocolate. Brown rice instead of white. Rice cakes instead of potato chips.

He used to shop only in stores that sold organic, natural products. But lately, he's been going to a regular grocery store, where just an aisle away from processed foods he can find everything from tofu to soy milk to patchouli-scented incense.

Answering the call of consumers, mainstream supermarkets increasingly are offering a wide range of health foods, organically grown produce and even exercise equipment.

"It certainly makes my life easier," Chutter-Cressy said as he filled a bag with wheat flour in the bulk foods aisle at a Star Market in Boston. "It's also good to have this stuff here, so people can see there are options."

Over the past few years, mainstream market managers have lost a piece of their business to the increased popularity of health food.

Sales of natural products tripled from $6 billion in 1993 to $17 billion in 1998, and are expected to rise to nearly $30 billion by the end of this year, according to SPINS, a San Francisco-based research company that tracks natural product sales.

"The bottom line is profit," said Barry Janoff, senior editor at Progressive Grocer magazine, a monthly trade publication. "Supermarkets aren't doing this because they know it's better to eat healthy foods; they want a piece of it."

Along with the usual array of chips, dips and sodas, these stores also are selling an assortment of organically grown foods, aromatherapy and homeopathic remedies — even yoga mats and videos.

The new variety appeals to Alex Zosuls, a 24-year-old graduate student from Boston, who filled a shopping cart with Kraft Macaroni and Cheese but then headed to a health foods aisle.

"It's one-stop shopping," he said. "It might not all be the same (as what other stores sell), but it's fast and makes sense for me."

The annual Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Exposition in Chicago in May included an exhibit of organic and health foods for the first time.

"This is a consumer-driven trend," said Angela Sterns, director of the Organic Alliance, a St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit organization that works to increase awareness of natural foods and products. "Customers today are more educated, health-aware and motivated to take personal charge of their own health."

A desire to please the health-conscious can backfire.

Star Market, a Massachusetts chain, opened several supermarket-size health food stores called Wild Harvest about five years ago. But low sales soon forced it to close the stores and Star decided instead to incorporate the health-food markets within some of its regular stores.

On the other hand, the New York-based regional chain Wegmans can't expand its organic and natural foods aisles fast enough to meet demand, Janoff said. And outside the United States, Iceland Supermarkets, the fifth largest chain in England, converted its all-frozen-food stores to organic stores, he said.

"So far, they're all happy with the results they're seeing," Janoff said. "The mainstream consumers are coming around to these products, and the markets are doing what they have to do to retain their customers."