News highlights, market trends, and original data analysis related to the U.S. retail food & beverage industry … by Jay Nargundkar

Trendspotting at Natural Products Expo East 2014

Among the handful of trade shows and conferences significant to the food industry, one of the most well-known is the Natural Products Expo, a bi-annual event featuring hundreds of natural, organic, and health-oriented brands. The larger of the two events each year is Expo West, held out in Anaheim in the spring, while Expo East in Baltimore was held just last month. This year’s Expo East featured over 1,300 exhibitors (across food/bev, supplements, and personal care products) and more than 23,000 attendees — manufacturers, retailers, distributors, ingredient suppliers, even opportunistic venture capitalists — for the 3.5 day event.

While the event does include some exhibitors pushing dubious supplements, and at least one featured speaker bragged about his anti-vaccination parenting, for the most part the Expo is a fascinating window into emerging trends in the food and beverage industry. The crowd at these events is on the leading edge of many health-and-wellness trends and is often ahead of the mainstream on products, ingredients, and flavors that eventually prove to be broadly popular. The exhibitors, although they include representatives from several large companies and their brands, are dominated by the ranks of small or regional businesses, mom-and-pops, and start-ups.

Walking the floors of the show, it was easy to notice several common themes. The biggest was the prevalence of gluten-free products, across dozens of food categories, and the prominent designation of the “gluten-free” label on any sort of product. In some of these cases, where said product was not likely to have ever contained gluten, it seemed as if the claim was made just to capture an ambiguous but perceived health benefit. Other big themes were vegan products and the prevalence of non-GMO ingredient labeling. That latter point was often cited as a point of contention with big food companies, many of whom have lobbied against labeling laws that would require the presence of GMO ingredients to be specifically called out.

Product and ingredient wise, there was a number of things that stood out: chia and coconut being used across many different kinds of food and drinks, yogurt-makers trying to push the next exotic “Greek”-like hit, better-tasting savory snacks utilizing ancient grains or lentils, cold-brew coffees, cold-pressed juices, sprouted or fermented grains, nut or seed butters, and tea drinks.

With regards to the latter, one of Expo East’s three “Best of East” winners was Little Me Tea, a kids beverage that blends herbal tea with fruits and vegetables. (Another “Best of” winner was for a frozen tea popsicle product.) Heavily-buzzed about Hampton Creek Foods was also a “Best of” winner; the tech-savvy maker of a vegan mayonnaise (“Just Mayo”) and cookie dough was beloved by show attendees. Another that stood out was Ardenne Farm, maker of gluten-free baking mixes, who scooped up a “New Product Showcase” award for their delicious fudge brownies.

While some of the products on display at Expo East were a bit far out, and others unlikely to ever catch on, there were plenty of nutritious, delicious, and/or innovative items there to leave anyone gasping. In a way, walking the floor at the Natural Products Expo is a lot like taking a glimpse through a time machine of what grocery store shelves will look like five years from now!


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