The announcement earlier this month that General Mills will acquire Annie’s1, one of the largest independent natural/organic food brands, is a bellwether that consumer demand for healthier options has finally reached the tipping point. With the natural products category poised to exceed $226 billion by 2018 (representing more than a third of all U.S. retail grocery sales) and growing by almost 9% YOY2, traditional CPG manufacturers and retailers are carving out significant room in their brand portfolios and on store shelves for products that represent the ideal balance of taste, nutrition and corporate/social responsibility that modern shoppers seek.
Nowhere is this paradigm shift more evident than on the show floor of Natural Products Expo East – the East Coast’s largest event for the natural products industry, which took place September 17-20th at the Baltimore Convention Center. This year’s show, the largest in its 29-year history, brought together 23,000 attendees and nearly 1,300 exhibitors spanning food, beverage, pet, home and personal care products. Smith Brothers attended Expo East (and sister show Expo West in March) to continue to gain insight into product and consumer behavior trends in this ever-growing segment of the CPG vertical (and one in which many of our current clients play).
While there was an overwhelming number of companies and products to explore in just a few short days (and we felt like we just scratched the surface), the following three macro product trends caught our attention – and we believe will continue to impact the broader CPG space:
This dietary trend is rapidly moving beyond the bread and pasta staples to more innovative applications — snack foods, frozen meals, baking mixes, and more — and even mainstream brands are offering at least one GF alternative SKU in their line-up. That’s no surprise, when you consider that gluten-free product sales topped $10 billion last year3. And for those products that have always been naturally gluten-free (such as yogurt, fruit and vegetable-based products), brands in these categories are also realizing a dramatic boost in sales — simply by adding the GF certification to their packaging.
While only 1% or less of the U.S. population actually has celiac disease (which inhibits the body from properly digesting gluten), 30% of Americans are actively trying to remove gluten from their diets — and seeking out gluten-free food options across all retail channels4. For many consumers, making the choice to eat gluten-free is simply an evolution of the low-carb trend that was popularized in recent years by the South Beach and Paleo diets.
If you are curious about gluten-free eating, but anxious about sacrificing taste and consistency in the common foods you enjoy, the good news is that GF food R&D has come a long way —especially in the past couple of years. Some GF brands and products we tried at Expo East that are a dead ringer for the “real thing”: TruRoots, Ancient Harvest, Feel Good Foods, Food for Life, Banza, Glutino and Udi’s Gluten Free.
Healthy Snacking Options Expand
While not a new trend per se, we saw more healthy snacking options than ever before at Expo East — even more, it seemed, than were promoted at Expo West six months ago. As one research presentation5 we attended revealed, consumers believe that an easy trick for eating healthy is “knowing your vice — then finding a better version of it.”
Consumers seeking out these trade-ups now have a plethora of options available to them at retail. Traditional indulgence snack foods like chips, pretzels, popcorn, cookies and more are all getting healthier (organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, allergen-free, sprouted) makeovers — complete with simpler and fewer ingredients.
Some brands that impressed us with their healthy ingredient profiles (and deceptively delicious tastes): Simply 7 Snacks, Way Better Snacks, Angie’s BoomChickaPop, Sexy Pop, Beanitos, Late July Organic, HalfPops and Nature’s Bakery.
On-the-Go Fruits & Veggies
“Fruit” and “Veggie” – to some people, these may as well be 4-letter words. Between the hassle of prepping fresh produce (at or away from home) and the traditionally bland, over-processed taste of canned and packed varieties, it can be a major struggle to get enough of these essential foods in your daily diet. Fortunately, loads of brands (both veteran and newcomer) are finding convenient ways to make getting your daily dose of goodness a snap — or even an indulgent reward.
Some brands we saw at Expo East that are making fruits and veggies fun again: The Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops — flash-frozen, real fruit treats available in 13 tantalizing flavor combinations like pineapple-cilantro, cucumber-lemon-mint and mango-habanero (so good, I ate three in a row!); and Suja Juice, which produces 30 innovative, cold-pressured fruit and veggie juice blends — with some varieties including the juice from up to three pounds of fruits and veggies per bottle — available in three distinct product lines tailored to fit the price-point of consumers across all retail channels ($3.99-8.99 SRP for a 16 oz. bottle).
More Options Than Ever – But Taste Still Wins Out
As Expo East demonstrated, there is, now more than ever, an incredible amount of innovation and growth happening in the natural products space — all driven by increased consumer demand for healthy, nutritious, safe and condition-specific food and beverage options. And as we reported from Expo West, consumers are also demanding that CPG companies be much more transparent about their ingredients and sourcing practices. Research reveals that more than 60% of U.S. consumers are seeking out non-GMO food products, and 84% want food companies to disclose GMO ingredients on product labels and packaging6.
With the healthy trend here to stay, and large packaged-food companies like General Mills trying to ride the wave of the natural products movement (and turn the tide on sluggish sales of core products like cereal), consumers have more options than ever before, across all types of retailers. Consequently, they are pretty confused about which products are best. CPG companies (large and small) need to focus on educating shoppers about the quality, safety and nutritional value of their natural product offerings with clear, concise messaging — and all without creating “certification fatigue.”
But natural brands must also keep taste top-of-mind. We heard this comment in several presentations, and experienced it on the show floor in sampling. It doesn’t matter these days how healthy your product is, or how many certifications it has if people won’t eat it! If it isn’t incredibly delicious, consumers won’t give you a second shot (or switch away from their old standbys, for good). There are simply too many high quality, great-tasting natural products on the market today to get away with poor execution.
The implication for CPG manufacturers? Brands that are new to this space need to make sure they have their product R&D completely dialed in before they enter the market if they are to have any hope of being picked up by what have become incredibly selective retailers, catering to the whims of incredibly savvy consumers.