A Not-So-Smart Balance for Your Portfolio

If you think the organic-food movement is just a foodie fad, think again. Organic sales have been growing at a steady 18% clip per year for more than a decade.

Along the way, Michael Pollan's books have become mainstays on the New York Times best-sellers list. And as the public has gotten educated about where its food comes from, the landscape of the industry has undergone a marked transformation.

It was with surprise, then, that after reading Pollan's In Defense of Food I found myself thinking that companies such as Smart Balance (Nasdaq: SMBL  ) , which manufactures "heart healthy" products, or Herbalife (NYSE: HLF  ) , which makes nutritional supplements, could actually be in the crosshairs of this movement.

But first, the usual suspects
I'll get back to Smart Balance and Herbalife in a minute, but first I want to make clear how influential this food movement can be. Remember all those "Supersize It" commercials we saw McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) running back in the 1990s? They disappeared shortly after the release of Morgan Spurlock's documentary Supersize Me, which showed just how unhealthy the chain's food was when Spurlock attempted to eat nothing but McDonald's for a month.

It's no coincidence that shortly after the documentary, McDonald's started offering healthier-sounding alternatives, like fruit and yogurt parfaits and its Real Life Choices program.

Similarly, Yum! Brands' (NYSE: YUM  ) Taco Bell was recently in the spotlight over health claims regarding the content of its beef. And though the company won in court, it took a serious hit in the court of public opinion.

It hasn't just been the fast-food chains to take hits, either. In 2009, Pollan contributed to the documentary Food, Inc., which showed how agribusiness conglomerates such as Monsanto (NYSE: MON  ) and Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM  ) have fueled the epidemic of obesity and heart problems in the United States and abroad.

What should we eat?
Pollan's book doesn't mince words: The near-obsessive focus on nutrients in American society is actually leading us to poorer health.

In 1977, George McGovern's Senate nutrition committee was forced to avoid telling people to eat less red meat and dairy products. The dairy and meat producers from McGovern's home state of South Dakota wouldn't have it. Instead, the committee told people to avoid the nutrients from dairy and red meat that were unhealthy, without actually mentioning red meat or dairy.

With that move, Pollan argues, we began to view food as simply a means by which certain nutrients were delivered to our bodies. And though, in a sense, that's true, the oversimplification of the process has led to a gross misunderstanding of what we're eating.

Whole foods vs. processed foods
Pollan calls the method behind this misinformation "nutritionism" and says that "one of the most troubling features of nutritionism ... [is that] any qualitative distinction between whole foods and processed foods is apt to disappear."

If you sit back and think about it for a second, this is cause for alarm. We humans have been on Earth for literally millions of years, and for 99% of that time, we've been perfectly healthy eating whatever the earth provides for us. Otherwise, we wouldn't still be around.

It is only recently that our bodies, which are evolutionarily designed to eat whole foods, have been inundated with processed foods. Clearly, something has to give, and based on recent statistics, that "something" is our health.

So what's the point?
Which brings us back to Smart Balance, Herbalife, and others that are trying to engineer healthy supplements. Though their intentions seem well placed, the packaging of different vitamins and minerals in forms that nature doesn't naturally provide just adds to the list of processed foods being marketed at us.

Smart Balance's best-selling products are its buttery spreads, which come in varieties that have calcium, flax oil, Omega3 fatty acids, and extra virgin olive oil infused in them. Herbalife offers weight-management, energy-enhancing and heart-healthy supplements. And though both of these types of products intuitively seem good for us, we're slowly learning otherwise.

For example, Jaakko Mursu, the lead author of a study recently published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, said his team's findings "add to a growing collection of research showing that people who take dietary supplements are getting few health benefits in return."

And before dismissing the thoughts of Pollan, Mursu, and others, remember this: Customers of companies like Smart Balance and Herbalife are a health-conscious and educated bunch. Though the winds of nutritionism tend to shift every few years, the difference between whole and processed foods isn't going anywhere soon. As this realization trickles back down to customers, consumption patterns will change.

That's why I plan on benefitting from the organic-food movement the only way I can see how: by putting my money into Whole Foods (Nasdaq: WFM  ) . Though the company offers varieties of Smart Balance products (for shame!) in its stores, Whole Foods' focus on local, organic food aligns it with the only thing that's remained a constant in the food movement for the past 20 years: the benefits of eating what the earth naturally provides.

If you'd like some more food for thought about health care and consumer goods stocks, I suggest checking out our newest special free report: "The Shocking Can't Miss Truth About Your Retirement." The report will detail how an investment in certain funds, ETFs, and health-care and consumer-goods stocks can help you maximize the money you have ready for retirement. The report is yours today, absolutely free!

Fool contributor Brian Stoffel owns shares of Whole Foods. You can follow him on Twitter, where he goes by @TMFStoffel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market and Yum! Brands. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Yum! Brands, Whole Foods Market, and McDonald's and creating a synthetic long position in Monsanto. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 14, 2011, at 6:01 PM, jsmunson wrote:

    I unfortunately recall the 1970s when the world with many less mouths to feed than today was going to run out of food unless population growth was restricted. Well today we have enough food to feed many more people. The Monsantos and others have developed the seeds etc needed to feed the expanding population. If we all eat organic only, there will be a lot people who do not get to eat.

  • Report this Comment On November 14, 2011, at 6:47 PM, TMFCheesehead wrote:

    @jsmunson-

    That's a fair argument, but it goes both ways. The world's population will always grow to be in balance with the food supply. It's been shown to be the case in the lab (with animals and food supplies), but for obvious reasons, its a question of chicken and egg that can't be answered with an ethical test in the real world.

    Brian Stoffel

  • Report this Comment On November 14, 2011, at 8:22 PM, Offthekolas wrote:

    From what I can gather, this article's argument is not to invest in Smart Balance because you believe people will, eventually, want organic, heart healthy butters and spreads...which dont exist. You state that we are slowly learning that the products provided by both Smart Balance and Herbalife are not as good for us as we thought. You then substantiate that claim with a quote about Herbalife, but you dont say exactly what is "wrong" wih Smart Balance's products other than they are not organic. Also, when did Whole Foods ever claim that they only sell organic, non-processed items? It seems to me that Smart Balance doesnt even belong in this article other than for you to dump on their products with no real evidence except conjecture that people will eventually want organic, non-processes butters and spreads, which again, don't exist. Show me an organic, heart healhy, non-processed butter on the market today, and I will stand corrected. Until then, this seems like a sloppy article which shouldnt have mentioned Smart Balance in the first place as it doesnt really relate to your thesis, which from what I can gather, is that you want people to invest in Whole Foods (even though they sell Smart Balance!! The nerve of them!) p.s I dont work for the company and honestly, the only detractor from SMBL is the poorly performing stock since they announced most recent earninga.

  • Report this Comment On November 14, 2011, at 10:17 PM, TMFCheesehead wrote:

    @offthekolas-

    Two things-

    1) I think that the book calls into question any health benefits people think they might get from these spreads-which may make them question why they are paying up for it in the first place.

    2) I have shown in the past that though WFM doesn't solely offer organic foods, they have one of the largest selections, and have the cheapest selection as well.

    Brian Stoffel

  • Report this Comment On November 15, 2011, at 4:42 PM, theleisureclass wrote:

    It's a culture shift, not a fad. It's already in place. If you don't get it - you don't get it.

    To user jsmunson, you're wrong about two things.

    1) Monsanto's seeds. The productivity increase happened before recent GM seed. Recent yield increases came from traditional non-GM hybrids but MOSTLY from advanced production methods such as precision farming (uses GPS, instantaneous data and high-tech computer systems). This is a technological revolution and you can't credit the seed companies with the yield increases - thank the microchip, the cellphone, the internet, and the satellites.

    GM seed actually makes itself obsolete within five years due to pest and herbicide resistance. It's also more expensive and Monsanto has huge current and future legal bills protecting it's patents and defending the suppression of information on deleterious effects of the GM crops. It's simply not a good business model when you look at all costs over time.

    Stick with traditional hybridization.

    2) Organic production systems focus on localized adaptations and require the adoption of regional best practices adapted to climate and soils. This production system by its design is self-improving. It is the best way to grow food and fiber in all regions, but especially marginal areas. It's scaleable and yields are higher overall and as a ROA, ROI and RTL.

  • Report this Comment On November 15, 2011, at 4:45 PM, theleisureclass wrote:

    Offthekolas - I agree that the article is sloppy and doesn't have a point. The idea is in there somewhere, but it's poorly executed.

    The logic just doesn't work out. People buy SmartBalance stuff - including their new GLUTINO line. They also buy other stuff. We are talking about food here, not pill popping nutritional supplements from GNC.

  • Report this Comment On November 15, 2011, at 5:19 PM, section14 wrote:

    I too am puzzled by the pairing of Herbalife and Smart Balance. They are really polar opposites. My FIL was a big Herbalife user of their weight loss products in the 80s. When I looked into it, the products were just overpriced diuretics and laxatives. Forbes magazine did a devastating expose of the business around that time. I haven't paid serious attention to the company since.

    Smart Balance, on the other hand, is based on research done at Brandeis University to the effect that Omega 3 fatty acids can significantly reduce triglycerides, which in turn reduce LDL ("bad" cholesterol), which in turn lowers the all important ratio between total & bad cholesterol. On the advice of my doctor, I have taken fish oil supplements (high in Omega 3) for over a decade and my triglycerides went from 103 to 61 in six months, a major improvement. The degree to which Smart Balance adds Omega 3 to the diet is only a positive benefit. It is not the "snake oil" you are implying.

    As for investments, I wouldn't touch Herbalife with a ten foot pole. On the other hand, I bought 1000 shares of SMBL in November of last year for 3.63. As of market close today it is at 5.53 (it has been over 6 lately), a 53.47% gain in a year. I only wish I had bought 10,000 shares.

    Finally, I want to make the observation that people who write books (and articles) flogging a point of view tend to make their point of view sound more dramatic than it actually is. That's called salesmanship, and I don't want to put it down as much as to say it is human nature. I take most of these opinions with a grain of salt as I hope most people do.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 9:45 PM, harrypy wrote:

    This is a very lame article on many levels. Most glaring to me is the statement “We humans have been on Earth for literally millions of years, and for 99% of that time, we've been perfectly healthy eating whatever the earth provides for us.” First, homo sapien humans have been around only a couple hundred thousand years. Second, until the last few thousand years, human life expectancy was around 30 years, so “perfectly healthy” was not the norm.

    Also, omega 3’s, which most SB products have, have been shown to be heart healthy, however they’re ingested. Plus millions of people MUST avoid gluten, it’s a real condition.

    This article slams SB with no basis in fact, only very lame suppositions.

  • Report this Comment On November 16, 2011, at 11:15 PM, TMFCheesehead wrote:

    @harrypy-

    If you throw out infant mortality, the average life expectancy for humans amongst indigenous peoples (or pre-agricultural revolution peoples) is far, far higher than 30 years.

    Brian Stoffel

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