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As you recover from the traditional American Thanksgiving stuff-a-thon, you may find yourself vowing to eat nothing but salad and brown rice for the rest of the year.

Americans may have become more health-conscious in recent decades, embracing vitamin-enhanced water and declaring war on trans fats. But we still scarf down artery-busting amounts of cheeseburgers and deep-dish pizza. Anyone in the food-sales business these days can feel caught in the middle: should you appeal to consumers' better natures, or offer indulgent culinary escapism -- preferably chocolate-flavored?

A number of major food companies, including




General Mills

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, have learned that it pays to position their products as healthful or natural. The key is to make claims you can back up.

SPINS, a market research and consulting firm for the natural-products industry, recently released a study that showed sales of natural and organic products in conventional retailers (i.e. not health-food stores) grew 12% over the past year.

What makes a product "natural"? SPINS CEO Tony Olson explains:

"Authenticity extends beyond whether a product is free of artificial flavors and ingredients and moves into the realm of overall health and wellness, social and environmental sustainability, nutritional benefits and other leading factors. A brand or retailer's ability to resonate with a consumer on this level is a strong indicator of success in the conventional food, drug and mass channels."

According to SPINS, organic products have seen steady growth, especially when priced competitively with conventional items.

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, for example, originally developed its O Organics line as a store brand. But it was so successful that the company is now selling it in other grocery stores and overseas markets.

Even if your products aren't organic, they can still be marketed to nutrition-conscious shoppers, through specific labeling and consumer education.

Take Kraft. A few years ago, the company was in the front lines of the debate over childhood obesity, thanks to its lineup of sugar- and fat-laden treats. As part of an overall reassessment of its product mix, the company began a "Sensible Solution" labeling program, highlighting foods with lower calorie counts and higher fiber content. Sensible Solution products now account for about one-third of the company's total retail sales in the U.S., including a very successful line of 100-calorie packs of crackers and cookies.

General Mills recently announced a similar labeling program, Smart Choices, which will debut in 2009. Health is a core message throughout the company's corporate communications, from research that eating breakfast cereal makes girls healthier to the recent announcement that all Progresso soups were being reformulated so they would be free of added MSG. The company has also invested in wellness-related brands, buying the Larabar line of energy bars. Small Planet Foods, the organic-brand division of General Mills, showed a double-digit increase in sales in the first quarter of the 2009 fiscal year.

That's not to say that going all-natural means automatic profits. With food costs on the rise this year, shoppers have been looking for discounts, and many organic brands have felt the pinch.

Former stock-market high flyer

Whole Foods


has been hit by the slowdown in consumer spending; in its recently-released financial results, the company admitted same-store sales in the fourth quarter decreased slightly from the same time frame last year. To battle the perception that its stores are overpriced, the company has tapped "value gurus" to steer shoppers toward the best deals.

Customers may not be willing to pay more for good food, but if you can keep your products priced competitively, a healthy eating tie-in can set you apart from the competition. Except on Thanksgiving Day, when calories don't count.

Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook, and writes for the Wall Street Journal, Chicago, and other national magazines.