By: Michael Bollinger & Tom Kirby

Expo west

Whole Foods’ Co-CEO, Walter Robb kicked-off a panel discussion on Saturday at Expo West with this fitting comment, “Welcome to the National Food Industry show, not the Natural Food Industry show”, to emphasize that natural is no longer a segment of the retail food business. Rather, it is the driving force in U. S. food and beverage manufacturing. 3000 exhibits and 70,000 attendees are pretty good evidence that Walter Robb knows of what he speaks. Joining Robb on the panel was John Foraker, President of Annie’s Homegrown, an early (1989) and wildly successful entrant into the natural foods industry. Indicative of the natural food industry becoming the mainstream, was Annie’s acquisition by General Mills in 2014. Walter Robb credited John Foraker’s performance by stating that Annie’s is “7% of General Mills’ revenue and 50% of its growth”.

Expo West is a fabulously vibrant marketplace of manufacturers looking for retail distribution, retailers looking for traffic and basket building new products and big food looking for high-growth acquisitions to offset their slow growth volume brands.

Like any industry show, capitalism reins, with every attendee looking for business opportunities. But the natural food industry has the added advantage of a purpose beyond money that adds emotional connectivity and energy to the industry’s growth. The best of the brands at the show are driven by the opportunity to make us healthier, reduce our impact on the planet and provide transparency to consumers about the sources of their food. Money is an essential tool toward achieving the scale necessary to make better food accessible and affordable to all.

So within that unchanging uber context, we have identified some trends we’re seeing at this year’s show that are unique and different from years past.

#1: Displacing Soda


The crescendo of evidence that sugary soft drinks are public enemy #1 when it comes to the development of obesity and diabetes, particularly among children, is finally changing consumer behavior.  It is generally accepted that water will pass soda in sales sometime in 2017. Even Coke embraced the trend with their TV spot in last month’s Super Bowl featuring Coke Mini and the tagline, “Sometimes, you just want a little”. Here are a few of the beverages we see stepping up to replace soda:

  • The press voted Suja’s Organic Crushed Raspberry Probiotic Water the best new product at the show. At 10 calories and one gram of sugar or less, this line of enhanced waters delivers subtle but refreshing taste and 2 billion CFUs of vegan probiotics for immunity and digestive benefits. If you’ve reached for a Suja cold pressed juice and snatched your hand back when seeing the $8/bottle retail price, the $3.00/bottle for this enhanced water might make you a fan.
  • Good for Suja for such a strong entrance into enhanced water. Especially because the competition in cold pressed juices is heating up. Bolthouse Farms has entered the cold pressed juice category and will press Suja, Evolution Fresh and Blueprint with its 1915 brand. These fruit and veg mixes revive you almost before you drink them. Don’t you feel better just reading the label – Coconut Water/Pineapple/Mango/Avocado/Lemon or Apple/Romaine/Cucumber/ Spinach/Kale/Lemon?
  • If you’re over coconut water, you might want to try Drink Maple, the filtered but otherwise unadulterated water that a maple tree has drunk from the ground. It’s the same sap that is boiled down to create maple syrup, but in its raw state, is very refreshing water with just a mild hint of maple sweetness. Much less sweet than coconut water (and half its sugar).

#2: Beets are Popping Up Everywhere


Beets were a noticeably more popular veggie and flavor profile this year with many brands offering products to make it easier to add more of this nutrient-rich food into consumers’ diets.

  • Love Beets expanded on their ready-to-eat offering to include their new line of bars that combined beets (of course) with apple, blueberry or cherry with other ingredients like sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Their new line of single-serve beet juices joined a number of brands showcasing new beet juices, including Lakewood.
  • An interesting product was the performance supplement, BeetElite a beet-based powder to be mixed with water before workouts. It’s billed as a  “nitrate shot,” to improve exercise endurance.
  • Launching at ExpoWest was the addition of Crunchies new freeze dried beets to their line of freeze dried fruits. The product claims the nutrients and antioxidants in beets are preserved via the freeze-drying process without need for any additional additives. The shelf stable product brings beets into the better-for-you snacking aisle.

#3: Beyond Jerky Meat Snacks


Epic Provisions’ out-of-the-box introduction of animal-based protein bars in 2013 is a great standard for the risk and rewards of a highly differentiated brand. Epic was rewarded quickly by retailers with big demand for their brand and by the market, with their acquisition by Annie’s/General Mills early in 2016. It takes a lot of belief and courage to launch a bison, fruit and nut bar. And now Epic is extending their meat-based brand into bites, bits, oils and broth.

The inclusion of meat in snack bars also opens up a powerful alternative to the traditional protein bar. Wilde Snacks own bars offer 10g of protein in a variety of savory options with both a mix of humanely raised beef or foul mixed with various fruits, spices and ancient grains.  SKUs included Turkey Cranberry and Sweet Thai Basil.

Finally, as an alternative jerky/protein-delivery snack, we saw Dick Steven’s Trail Mixes. Billed as a snack for outdoor adventures, these combine standard trail mix fare of dried fruits and nuts with dried jerky pieces.  The intention being a trail mix that provides the usual nutrition, but with the addition of protein for sustained energy.

#4: Savory What Once Was Sweet


While consumers may be interested in sticking with a sweeter/fruitier taste profile in the morning, many are increasingly interested in a savory profile granola snack bar in the afternoon.  Check out Mediterra’s beautiful packaging (a critical marketing lever that Epic got right from the start) on its differentiated savory bars. Another brand exploring adding savory elements to quinoa-based bars is Ancient Harvest with Garden Vegetable, Roasted Jalapeno and Garlic & Herb SKUs.

We were also excited to see chef Dan Barber’s Blue Hill booth, featuring their line of new savory yogurts. Billed as savory, but still sweet, these hearty yogurts feature flavors like butternut squash, parsnip, and yes… beet.

#5: Quinoa Moves Out of the Ingredient Aisle


As the better-for-you movement embraces ancient grains, quinoa penetration continues to grow in the US.., and shelf space in the ingredient and pasta aisles has been getting increasingly competitive, especially from private label entries. In an effort to move beyond these aisles, and further capitalize on growing consumer acceptance, many products exhibited at ExpoWest looked to take quinoa into new product forms, like the above Ancient Harvest bars.

  • Other brands we saw included I Heart Keenwah’s delicious chocolate-covered quinoa puffs. The blend of dark chocolate and Himalayan pink salt moves the ancient grain into indulgent treat territory.
  • Paul’s Finest brand moved beyond their lines of quinoa seeds, flakes and flour by showcasing their new bars products, including Nuts & Dark Chocolate and Coconut and Pineapple. Also launched were their innovative single-serve, ready-to-eat meals – simply mix the cup of quinoa with the included veggies, microwave and eat. We could see these being a hit around our office.
  • Finally, we saw quinoa take a big step out of the center store and into the perimeter with Suzie’s Quinoa Milk. Offered in three varieties, the vegan, gluten-free product offers a new alternative to soy, almond, coconut and even oat-based dairy-free beverages.

The energy at Expo West is palpable. It stems from entrepreneurs risking everything for something in which they believe deeply and into which they have poured their hearts and souls. Hopefully, some of those entrepreneurs had the opportunity to catch the most inspiring segment of the whole show early Saturday morning, when adventurer Erik Weihenmayer shared his story. Weihenmayer, who co-founded No Barriers USA, which helps those with special challenges to live active and purposeful lives, lost his sight at the age of 13. But that didn’t stop him from being the first blind person to summit Everest in 2001 or to kayak the 277 miles of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a kayak. His No Barriers organization’s motto is one every current or aspiring natural food entrepreneur can embrace – What’s Within You Is Stronger Than What’s In Your Way!

As the Natural Food Industry assumes the mantle of the National Food Industry, one can only hope it doesn’t lose the underdog’s passion for overcoming adversity and reaching for the impossible.

Smith Brothers
Smith Brothers

Tinker. Meddle. Find what works – this time! While most agencies stand behind a single, definitive approach to developing work, we reject the notion of process as a static thing. We consider a deep understanding of the client’s business, their consumer and especially their category to be fundamental to our process. Non-negotiable. But getting to the best work is seldom a straight shot – a linear path. And it shouldn’t be. When you kick off every project by asking, “What are the category conventions and how can we break them?” you have to be open to a fresh approach.