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Want proof natural and organic foods are catching on in America? Look in the produce cases of Wal-Mart Super Centers. The world's largest low-cost provider of food basics has acknowledged a customer desire for more healthful foods. Even sustainability champion Environmental Defense is impressed enough to build an office next door to Wal-Mart's headquarters in order to work more closely with the retail giant.
 
No doubt, such interest in the sale of more healthful foods is an eyebrow raiser, but don't fire your regular produce provider just yet. Though growing more popular, experts say, organic and natural foods remain a mystery to the general populace. People hear those terms and correctly assume they describe foods that are better for
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you. But few know exactly why they are, and even fewer still are willing to buy them when they see the higher price — even at Wal-Mart.
 
Believe it or not, the good foods movement is creeping into pizza. Four-unit Hot Lips Pizza in Portland, Ore., has long supported nearby farmers who produce a growing amount of the company's food inventory. Owners David Yudkin and Jeana Edelman said Portlanders are highly educated about fit foods and aren't afraid to ask tough questions about Hot Lips' ingredients.
 
"We've found that the concern among our customers is how fresh it can be, how unadulterated it is, how close to the source we get our food," said Yudkin. Labels like "organic" and "natural" aren't meaningless, but he said his customers expect more. "Rather than say it's a natural product, we try to identify where it came from. People are looking for a way to trust our product, and knowing that it comes from local farms builds that trust."
 
Panera Bread has built a reputation on serving wholesome, fresh food. Recently it turned to Niman Ranch, an Oakland, Calif., producer of antibiotic and hormone-free beef, lamb and pork. Merril Gilbert, director of foodservice at Niman, said increasing customer demand tells her that people have a growing appreciation for such foods because "they believe they're healthier."
 
When Panera called, she said Niman was eager to partner with them. "They really understand that something that tastes great starts with using the best ingredients. They are passionate about that and dedicated to it."
 
Burke Corp., a producer of fully cooked meat products, including pizza toppings, manufactures the Panera product for Niman. Though marketing director Liz Hertz said Panera is the company's first customer for its hormone- and antibiotic-free NatraTaste line, she's convinced it won't be the last.
 
"We see this trend as something more enduring than a trend like low-carb foods," Hertz said. "There's much more to this; many choose those foods because they believe they're healthier and they're produced in a more environmentally friendly way. It's a lifestyle choice."
 
Were a pizza operator to add such foods to his inventory, how would he let his customer know about the change? Edleman admitted that it's not easy.
 
"You can't say, 'I want to reach that customer, so I'm going to make changes and use all the politically correct language,'" Edleman said. "The more successful route for us has been to create that experience in everything we do in Hot Lips' culture. The food's a big part of it, but there's much more involved."

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