Anaheim, Calif. -- Natural Products Expo West, the SXSW of the healthy products industry, takes over the town every year for the first week of March. What started 39 years ago as a meeting of fringe New-Agers and hippies has grown into a mainstream gathering. Last week’s event attracted roughly 90,000 retailers, brand owners, scientists, healthcare professionals and investors.
What happens at Expo West is important because it represents the leading edge of food trends. More than 700 brands made their debut at the show -- many of them women-or family-owned enterprises with a dream. Some, like Impossible Foods, whose “bloody” plant-based burgers are now served at White Castle, albeit covered in salty cheese and onions, used the occasion to demonstrate that good-for-you can taste good, too.
“Natural and organic is now nearly a $220 billion industry with consumer sales expanding by more than 6% a year because consumers trust the brands bringing products to the marketplace that support the health of people and the planet,” said Carlotta Mast, senior vice president, content and market leader at Boulder, Col.-based New Hope Network, which runs the show.
While the Birkenstocks are still out there and the age of attendees ranges from newborn to the 90s, the industry is wrestling with the dilemma of how to satisfy growing demand from millennials while sustaining the purity of the supply chain.
Mind you, not all products are necessarily “healthy,” and “snackification” abounded. I tasted many chips and ice creams touting their protein power and infused with probiotics, turmeric and other reportedly good-for-you ingredients.
Sugar is out and sustainable packaging is in. Healthy fats are back. Large print labeling, a trend first set by RXBAR, is on the rise, giving consumers a way to see what the product is about without having to read or scan the ingredients label, which had better be in plain English — the shorter the better. Remember to address the food tribes of keto, paleo, Whole30, vegan.
In a panel on expanding the plant-based market, Melissa Cash, head of global marketing, strategy and innovation for plant-based protein and natural brands at Kellogg, said it’s important to appeal to human nature, even if that’s to satisfy the urge to pig out.
“Vegan tends to [connote] kale,” she said. “Make it more like an industrial bag of nuggets. This level of indulgence doesn’t have to stop. It’s an invitation in. They have to want to come back again and again.”
Kellogg’s 40-year-old Morningstar Farms brand portfolio will be completely vegan by 2021, Cash said, and from an impact standpoint this takes 300 million eggs out of the system.
Vegan racecar driver Leilani Munter uses her NASCAR platform to raise awareness that vegan eating can taste good for an audience not associated with that behavior. At NASCAR racing events, where there are “no real healthy food choices,” Munter staged an event with vegan body builders to counter perception that only meat is manly and served Impossible Burger Sliders with Follow Your Heart Cheese and Miyoko’s Vegan Butter. Of the 30,000 or so who came to the tent, 9% were already vegan, 11% vegetarian and 80% meat and dairy eaters. Taste (at 30%) was the leading concern of the non-plant-food eaters followed by cost (at 10%).
Nielsen data for 2018 showed U.S. retail sales of plant-based products grew 17% to more than $3.7 billion for the 52-week period ending Aug. 11. Plant-based meat sales grew by 23%.
“It’s a systemic change,” said Caroline Bushnell, associate director of corporate engagement for The Good Food Institute. “This is not a fad. Lead with taste.”