The origins of sriracha, the iconic hot sauce, are uncertain. Most accounts have it starting out as a blend of chili paste, garlic, vinegar, sugar and salt in or near the coastal town of Si Racha in Thailand decades ago.
Since then, the popular Hung Foy Foods version of the sauce in a red squeeze bottle has prompted documentaries, contests and cookbooks; its rooster-themed logo is a fixture on gift store items. It’s a hot member of a U.S. condiment market that research company Technavio estimates will be worth $25 billion by 2021.
And this year, Healthy Living Market and Cafe, a family owned grocery store based in Vermont, is removing Hung Foy sriracha from its shelves to replace it with the store believes is a healthier alternative.
Along with the active ingredients, Hung Foy sriracha reports that it contains the synthetic preservatives potassium sorbate and sodium bisulfate, and it was those ingredients that prompted Healthy Living CEO Eli Lesser-Goldsmith to remove the Hung Foy version from the shelves.
The story of Hung Foy and Healthy Living reflects how consumers, and not a regulatory agency, have influenced grocers to choose items with fewer additives in order to continue drawing in customers.
“When people think of sriracha, they think it’s a brand, but it’s a product. There are dozens of srirachas in the world,” said Lesser-Goldsmith. “We’ve gotten rid of Hung Foy because it has not-so-great ingredients, and we’ve replaced it with a couple new awesome choices.
“And they’re less expensive,” he added.
Hung Foy is a casualty of new product standards at Healthy Living, which has two stores and two more planned. Healthy Living has pledged that by next year, every food at its markets will be free of added hormones, antibiotics, artificial fats and trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, bleached or bromated flour, artificial colors, artificial flavors and artificial preservatives.
Without a national description or standard for what defines “healthy,” said Lesser-Goldsmith, the store is taking it upon itself to educate consumers with its own standards.
It’s far from the first store to do this; small coops and big competitors like Whole Foods have done the same thing.
“Our co-op, as well as many of our sister co-ops in Vermont, has strict buying criteria, including all of the restrictions that Healthy Living has lately adopted, plus a strong emphasis on local and organic products,” said Karin Mott, marketing manager at Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op. “The big difference between our buying criteria and theirs is that we’ve had ours since 1976 (with slight amendments over time, as research into food substances has become available).”
Lesser-Goldsmith said coming up with store-specific standards helps consumers figure out what to buy.
“A lot of brands have sort of dove into the pool that says natural,” said Lesser-Goldsmith. “Natural is a gray area. Some turkey bills itself as natural, but it has nitrates, and you can’t be natural if you have a carcinogenic nitrate. That’s exactly the point of this whole thing, is to help clear up some of that confusion.”
Retailers are taking up this verification in the absence of government regulation, said Nicole Dehne, certification director of Vermont Organic Farmers.
“There’s consumer demand for it,” Dehne said.
The healthy grocer community doesn’t want higher standards to come through a federal mandate, said Alan Lewis, a lobbyist for Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, a health food chain that has 90 stores in 15 states. And most food producers aren’t very keen on the idea either, he added.
“The last thing these Big Food folks want is for consumers to understand the connection between clean food and good health,” he said. “There are maybe 10 or so large chains that sell 70 percent of groceries. It is inconceivable they would submit to any oversight that restricts what’s in the food they sell.”
So instead, individual grocers are creating their own standards. Healthy Living has stores in South Burlington and Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Lesser-Goldsmith, whose mother started the chain in 1986, wouldn’t say where the two new stores going to be built.
“It’s Vermont, it’s challenging,” he said of those stores.
Competitors Whole Foods Market and City Market in Burlington didn’t return calls asking about what ingredients they restrict.
Lesser-Goldsmith said he knows from focus groups and from conversations with customers that shoppers want more transparency about what is in their food. They often start looking for natural food after a life change, such as the arrival of a baby or an illness. They’re looking for information, not just food, he said.
“You can walk into conventional stores and see the words ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ on labels but there is no law around it, no substantiation,” he said. “What we set out to do is say, ‘That’s not good enough for us anymore. We’re going to research every one of the 33,000 products in our stores, and make these brands back up their claims.’”