In March I attended the Natural Products Expo West, one of the largest trade shows for the natural products industry. Produced by New Hope Natural Media, the show had hundreds of exhibitors promoting their products — companies looking for new distribution, looking for new buyers, testing new flavors or formulations, and so on — and dozens of networking and educational events, including one about sustainable seafood for which I was a panelist. (Disclosure: New Hope paid me to be on the panel, but not to write this post or to review any of these products.)
I spent a few hours on the trade show floor, wandering around, sampling here and there, talking to the people in the booths. It was an overwhelming experience for a 'civilian' without a particular mission.
The exhibitors at the show spanned a wide range: giants like Seventh Generation and Stonyfield, export organizations for a specific country, medium companies like Bob's Red Mill (founder Bob Moore was profiled in the Washington Post in late April) and small companies like the Oakland-based Hodo Soy Beanery. The bulk of the food exhibits were ready-to-eat foods and drinks, but there was also a “Supplier Expo” section with purveyors of raw ingredients for food producers (frozen vegetables, flour, chocolate, etc.), as well as an area for nutritional supplements. Hardware, such as bottles and baby clothing, appeared here and there among the food booths.
Great tastes, improved sourcing, more compelling back stories
As I walked down the crowded aisles, I was impressed by the sense of entrepreneurship in the air – many companies at the show were run by daring, energetic people who saw a market need and took a risk to fill that need. One shining example is Love Grown Foods, a Colorado company that makes granola. They were hard to miss for anyone who was close to the Anaheim Convention Center (conference attendees and Disneyland attendees alike), as enthusiastic young staffers were handing out samples of their product – “free love” – on the surrounding streets. The company was founded a few years ago by recent college graduates Maddy P. D'Amato and Alex R. Hasulak. Hasulak had an entrepreneurial itch and wanted to start some kind of business but didn’t know what; D’Amato chose granola because of her memories of her mother’s home-made granola. For months they worked full-time jobs during the day and then baked and packaged the granola at night, slowly growing their business. These days, they have a handful of employees and getting their product onto shelves across the country.
I saw several other interesting business approaches. PeaceWorks Foods uses food and business to bring people together, mainly in the Middle East. Many companies buying directly from farmers, like the Portland-based The Tao of Tea, which buys tea and herbs (notably tulsi/holy basil) directly from farmers in the developing world, thus improving the farmers’ profit margins. Several chocolate makers also buy direct from the cacao growers, as I’ll explain further below.
I tasted plenty of great products while wandering the show floor, savory and sweet, solid and liquid. New to me was the line of fruit and nut bars from Kind – blocks of toasted nuts, flavorful fruit and other elements bound together by a sweet syrup (although new to me, they are definitely not obscure, with mentions in major magazines and on national TV programs). Also in the snack-bar category, but with a savory flavor was the soon-to-be launched gardenbar, a savory snack bar made from grains, dried vegetables and other items to provide an international flavor. For example, the Japanese savory bar had dried shiitake mushrooms, wasabi, nori and a savory soy-sauce-ish flavor binding it all together.
There was also the more daring and esoteric. For example, Sophie's Kitchen, sells "new vegan seafood " such as faux shrimp and calamari. They are made from a collection of ingredients that include konnyaku (a.k.a. devil’s tongue or Amorphophallus konjac). For some reason, their products – and a wide variety of other fake meats that I have seen elsewhere – are all made in Taiwan, probably because a strain of Buddhism that emphasizes vegetarian eating and culinary thinking that strives for realistic fake meat, as opposed to a vegetarian cuisine that goes in a completely different direction, like what you'd find in India or at upscale vegetable restaurants like Ubuntu in Napa. (And the facilities there meet high standards of cleanliness, often with HACCP in place.) House Foods was also using konnyaku in a gluten-free noodle that is sold in bags labeled shirataki or as part of reheatable prepared dishes.
A wide variety of non-alcoholic drinks were flowing – fruit juices, nutritionally enhanced drinks (e.g., antioxidant boosters), and sodas. Among the most interesting carbonated drinks were “botanical sodas” from Taylor's Tonics, a San Francisco company that uses coffee, black tea, and yerba mate in their concoctions; a bright and complex new ginger ale from Q Tonic; and Fentimans' delicious Curiosity Cola, one of their “botanically brewed” drinks. (They also have an intriguing soda made from burdock root and dandelion, but they were all out.) As someone who rarely drinks alcohol, it was great to see such creativity, new thinking, and sophistication in these drinks. If only restaurateurs would take note and start stocking their drink menus – which often include thick books of wine and cocktails – with something more than the same-old, same-old, too sweet non-alcoholic drinks.
Booths with chocolate were plentiful. The big players in the natural and premium sectors were there, of course, including Dagoba, ScharffenBerger, and Callebaut (who was sampling a pretty good stevia-sweetened chocolate). More interesting were two very small chocolate makers from Ecuador. Pacari Chocolate enhances their chocolates with ingredients from South America such as maca and a local blueberry. Kallari chocolate is grown and produced by a cooperative of 850 indigenous Kichwa families, so the bulk of the earnings from the chocolate sales go directly to the growers. The representative emphasized that the chocolate bars are made near the farms, giving them a freshness that is rare in the business. Most chocolate, she told me, is made from cacao that has been fumigated after drying, then stored for quite a while before being turned into the cocoa mass that can be made into a chocolate bar. Eastbluff Trading Company works in Venezuela with cacao farmers, paying rates above standard Fair Trade rates and sharing profits with the farmers.
Clever packaging and the sometimes paradoxical world of single-use products
Sustainable hardware was a big theme at the show, with booths for reusable bottles, clothing made from organic fabric, and the like.
One especially clever product was from a Bay Area company called Ecotensil. Their products are coated pieces of paper that can be turned into sturdy, moisture-resistant spoons with one simple fold. They are made in the U.S. and are compostable, biodegradable, and recyclable (though paper recyclers might not appreciate food wastes on their raw materials). They are designed to reduce the use of plastic (or bioplastic) spoons at tasting events or as a utensil that can be integrated into a product’s lid (the SpoonLidz). Seventh Generation was hyping new packaging of their 4X laundry detergent that holds the liquid detergent in a plastic bag with a cardboard "bottle" made from 100% recycled fiber providing external protection and support. They claim that the new system uses 66% less plastic than a typical plastic bottle of 2X detergent that provides the same number of loads.
Some of the packaging and materials creativity felt a little misplaced at first glance, however, with many suffering from what you might call the "sustainable sourcing paradox." This paradox occurs when a single-use product is manufactured far away (often in Asia) and shipped across the ocean for our use as a "sustainable" alternative. For example: VerTerra’s lovely and sturdy single-use plates that are made from fallen palm leaves. The process results in a fully compostable and non-toxic product, and the company says that they have a fair-wage labor policy for the workers that collect and produce the product. However, they are made in India and must be shipped across the ocean on smoke-belching container ships and distributed through the pollution-concentrating import network (for more about the inequities of transoceanic trade, see a 2006 piece by me at Eat Local Challenge).
Initially, this fact bothered me quite a bit, but upon further scrutiny of my own consumption habits – which include plenty of things that are designed to be single use and are transported from far away, like plastic wrap and gasoline made from imported oil – I'm softening my early opposition. Since we probably can’t completely eliminate the use of disposable plates, it’s worthwhile to try and find the best possible solutions. And something made from fallen leaves without using chemicals stacks up pretty well against the alternatives.
Down the aisle, Bambooee - the Tree Saver, was demonstrating kitchen towels made from woven bamboo that use the fast-growing bamboo as a tree alternative while also providing impressive strength, even for the towel designed for just a few uses. Although they are currently made in China, they hope to someday grow their bamboo in the U.S. and manufacture them here.
Getting our omega-3s without emptying the oceans
The omega-3 supplement sector was brimming with entrepreneurial activity, as companies showcased foods and supplements made from nuts, seeds, and algae, to name a few, offering a challenge to the established fish-oil companies (which had a major presence on the show floor).
Salba Smart Natural Products was highlighting salba seeds (Salvia hispanic L.), a relative of chia seed that they blend into their own products and sell on its own for home or commercial use (e.g., for large-scale makers of crackers, cookies, bread). The sampling containers at the Sequel Naturals booth featured the Saviseed, the nuts of the sacha inchi plant with a catchy new name. Sequel claims that the nuts have 13 times more omega 3 than wild salmon (on an ounce for ounce basis). I tried a few samples and found them to be a bit grassy and vegetal, feeling a bit more like I'm eating a dietary supplement than a food that something I’d I enjoy as a snack.
In the supplement section, Martek Biosciences was promoting their life'sDHA line (h/t to Ecocentric), a docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplement that is derived from several microalgae (including Schizochytrium species and Crypthecodinium cohnii). As I learned later, the process isn’t as easy as growing algae in a tube and putting it through a press to get the DHA, but instead involves a complicated series of steps: the algae are grown in large tanks, then the oil is obtained using various techniques, including high-pressure homogenization followed by extraction with hexane, or treatment with enzymes to break the cell walls and isopropyl alcohol to separate the water and oil emulsion (a PDF-format petition by Martek to the USDA National Organic Program has many more details on the process, via a Cornucopia Institute press release).
life’sDHA is part of many nutritional supplements and also has been added to a variety of foods, notably organic milk from Horizon, a product addition that led The Cornucopia Institute to file a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission arguing that the claims about DHA are not supported by scientific evidence and that the extract made by Martek should not be allowed in organic products. A pretty good argument can be made that life’sDHA has no place in certified organic products, but given the state of the oceans, the product seems like a great alternative to wild fish for those who want to increase their intake of DHA.
All in all, the trade show was an exhilarating and bewildering experience, giving me a glimpse of the intense entrepreneurial spirit, the creativity, and the desire to find a better way in the natural products sector.
Photo of Expo West entrance from TriathleteFood's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License. Photo of two cargo ships from Kevin's Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.