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“In a world where nothing can be hidden, you’d better have nothing to hide.”

EXPOThis quote from Cargill CEO Greg Page could have been the tagline for the 2014 Natural Products Expo West – the world’s largest natural and organic products tradeshow, which took place March 6-9th at the Anaheim Convention Center with more than 67,000 attendees and 2,600 exhibitors.

The overarching themes of transparency, authenticity and shared values permeated the educational seminars and show floor discussions. And the rise of social media as the #1 platform for consumers to easily research, review and provide feedback directly to brands was a clear driver for much of the product innovation (and reformulation) that was touted by exhibitors.

Luckily for the brands exhibiting at Expo West, the majority had nothing to hide – and everything to be excited about. With total U.S. population remaining flat and median household income in decline, the projection that the Natural Products category will grow to $226 billion in sales by 2018 – at a rate of more than 8.6% annually – is astounding, compared to only 1% growth across all CPG.1

The following are five of the clearest macro trends and best new product applications that the Smith Bros. team spotted during our Expo West experience. While it was impossible for us to visit every booth, we did manage to get around – tasting and sipping our way through some of the best new natural and organic food and beverage products, coming soon to a store near you!

Ancient Goes Modern

Epic SeedIt’s no surprise that the ancient grains trend is continuing to build momentum – everyone from toddlers to grandmothers are eating quinoa on a regular basis at this point. But we noticed some newcomers to the “ancient wisdom” category – maca, goji and yacon, to name a few.

But the ancient superstar of Expo West was, without a doubt, chia – a diminutive little seed that packs a big nutritional punch, with more omega-3 than a serving of salmon, the protein equivalent of three eggs, and more fiber than an apple (thanks to The Epic Seed for the handy infographic!). Some of our favorite applications were chia seed drinks and gels from Mamma Chia, Chia + Greek Yogurt combo cups from The Epic Seed, and Chia Pod “pudding” cups from The Chia Co.

Craft Beverages – Water Takes a Cue from Beer

HintWith health issues like diabetes on the rise and parents becoming more concerned about their children consuming sugary (or, possibly worse, artificially sweetened) beverages, there appears to be a definite trend toward using fruit skins, fruit oils, and whole fruit elements to flavor both still and sparkling waters as a healthy alternative to sodas and juices. Kara Goldin, founder and CEO of Hint Water, created her product out of just these types of concerns for her own family’s health. After experimenting in her home kitchen and receiving rave reviews from family, friends and peers alike, she developed an entirely new line of natural beverages – still and sparkling, zero-calorie waters with just a “hint” of natural fruit flavor (in tantalizing, tropical combinations like mango-grapefruit, honeydew-hibiscus and strawberry-kiwi).

Other interesting “essence” beverages we tried (and went back for more) included Dry Soda Co. – an all natural, less sweet soda with just four ingredients, in flavors like juniper, cucumber, blood orange and pear; La Croix, a zero calorie sparkling water in 11 fruit flavors – including cherry-lime and apple-berry under the new Cúrate line; and even new flavor profiles from familiar sparkling beverage standbys San Pellegrino (pomegranate-orange and clementine) and Poland Spring (cucumber-melon).

Meatless and Loving It

Field RoastWhile many Americans still can’t imagine life without their beloved bacon and prime rib, a rapidly growing segment of the population is eschewing animal for plant-based proteins – whether dabbling on Meatless Mondays, swapping several meals per week as part of a “flexitarian” diet, or each and every day as committed vegetarians or vegans. Influential doctors, nutritionists and authors like T. Colin Campbell, Andrew Weil and Michael Pollan are helping consumers consider the benefits of reducing their meat consumption – lower body weight and cholesterol levels, reduced risk of heart disease and even some cancers. As a result, the meat substitutes category is currently up 19% YOY.2

While meat substitutes have been available to consumers for over four decades, continued innovation in this space by a multitude of brands now affords consumers with an incredibly wide range of vegetarian and vegan convenience meals. Some of our favorites sampled on the Expo West show floor included: extremely convincing “Fishless” Filets from Gardein, the fastest-growing meat alternative brand; Hilary’s Eat Well Root Veggie Burger, a delicious and nutty combination of millet, turnips, sweet potatoes and beets; Amy’s Kitchen Pizza “Italiano”, their first product to include a ground meat substitute; and the incomparable new offering from Field Roast – a hand-formed veggie burger so moist and meaty (thanks to expeller-pressed palm and safflower oils), you would never guess it’s not the real thing.

Cuckoo for Coconut

Coco Cafe

While coconut has made its mark as an ingredient in both foreign and domestic dishes for years, Expo West exhibitors offered several new takes on this tropical wonder fruit. From novel beverage applications for coconut water (Vita Coco’s Coconut Lemonade and Coco Café, a new line of coconut water-laced lattes), to coconut-based, dairy-free treats like Amy’s Kitchen Mocha Chocolate Chip Frozen Dessert and So Delicious Dairy Free Cultured Coconut Milk “yogurts,” to snack foods like Bare Crunchy Coconut Chips, brands proved that there is no wrong way to skin (or drink, press, milk, or toast) this fruit. We also learned from Thai Kitchen that canned coconut milk makes a delicious and dairy-free smoothie addition – try mixing one can of coconut milk, one bag of frozen strawberries, and ¼ cup of agave nectar in a blender until smooth. Best “milkshake” you’ve ever tasted!

Raw Foods – Way Beyond the Salad Bar 

Brads Kale

If you are anything like me, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says they are eating a raw diet is salad. Lots, and lots, of salad. And while salad does remain a meal time staple for raw foodies, the days of carrot and celery sticks as the only raw snack foods with crunch appeal is over. Expo West was a hotbed for new product launches in the raw snack space – from sprouted seeds of all varieties to raw kale, onion, tomato, zucchini, pepper and other veggie “chips” and crackers.

We learned that in order for snack foods to remain raw (and thus retain the essential nutrients that are lost in the traditional baking and frying processes), they must be dehydrated under 115 degrees. For seeds to be considered “sprouted”, they must be first soaked in water for 8 hours before being dried and dehydrated. If you are considering a raw cleanse or injection of raw foods into your diet, be sure to check out the wide array of delectable (dare I say, indulgent?) raw snack options from brands like Brad’s Raw Foods, Go Raw and Just Pure Foods.

Natural Product Trends – Broader Implications

While we certainly enjoyed sampling the delicious items from these and many other stellar brands, our main focus in attending the Expo West conference was to understand the broader implications of the incredible growth of the natural products segment for all CPG brands – and the consumer behaviors and mindset that are driving it.

CPG Consumer

It is important for brands to understand that consumers’ unparalleled, 24/7 access to information and technology has led to an ultra-informed target audience. Those that consume natural products are 89% more likely than their peers to research products before buying them, 77% more likely to buy products from companies that share their values, 50% more likely to comment online, and two times more likely to share.While convenience and price remain important factors for consideration, the natural products shopper journey has become more about values and lifestyle – these curious consumers are willing to spend more time learning about new products, and to pay more for quality ingredients and value beyond price.

Instead of obscuring product nutrition or ingredient details, manufacturing and CSR policies or brand values, all CPG companies should be trying to find ways to make this information readily available to their consumers – and include them in meaningful discussions around new products, innovations and processes. While no company or brand can possibly please all comers, being as transparent and authentic as possible – in your packaging, ad messaging and brand voice in social media interactions – will earn you credibility and respect among this ever-growing consumer segment that not only expects, but demands it.

Sources:

1. Natural Marketing Institute/NielsenThe State of Health & Wellness in America (2014)
2. Natural Marketing Institute/NielsenThe State of Health & Wellness in America (2014)
3. Amazon Advertising“Choicefuls” Segmentation Profile
Nora DiNuzzo
Nora DiNuzzo
Director Of Business Development

Nora leads business development efforts for SBA, introducing the agency to prospective clients and partners through outreach and engagement. She began her career in client service, but quickly realized that new business was the most exciting place to flex her strategic, creative and organizational management skills. With over a decade of experience, Nora has contributed to hundreds of pitches – and has stayed in at least one very strange hotel along the way. She holds a B.A. in Communication & Rhetoric from the University of Pittsburgh.