Among the more than 1,100 brands on the trade show floor at this year’s Natural Products Expo East in Philadelphia from Sept. 28 through Oct. 1 were hundreds of novel product offerings — many of which capitalize on growing trends in the wellness and functional food space — that their founders hope will find an audience. These products ranged from plant-based dairy alternatives to re-imaginings of staple food items featuring unique ingredients.
Some of the products on the floor were new, while some have been around for a few years. In an industry with an expanding number of options for consumers to choose from, natural and organic brands are aiming to stand out from the pack based on their taste, health benefits and functionality.
Here are five brands that caught our attention:
A hot cup of fig?
Andy Whitehead loves coffee, but the feeling isn’t mutual. He can only drink so much before the acidity and caffeine become too overwhelming. While the former tech entrepreneur hasn’t touched the beverage in years, it doesn’t feel that way because of his recent discovery.
After reading a magazine article about how figs were used to stretch coffee rations during World War II, he bought some at Costco and started grinding and roasting them at home to see what would happen.
“I was literally blown away with how close it was to coffee,” Whitehead said.
The revelation led Whitehead and his wife Marianne to start FigBrew, which makes a coffee-like beverage from figs, a year and a half ago. The Alabama-based company sells its beverage in pods and grounds. It uses a brewing process similar to coffee and has a nearly identical taste, smell, appearance and mouthfeel, Whitehead said. It also contains antioxidants, vitamins and minerals not even present in coffee, he said.
“It's more of a flavor experience kind of thing. You don't get the caffeine spike and then a crash, but because of the health properties, you get all-day energy so it's more sustainable. And it's more healthy. And it’s right in the wheelhouse of a coffee connoisseur,” Whitehead said.
FigBrew, which sells its products in about 50 grocery stores, offers its grounds in flavors like pumpkin spice, cacao, beetroot, chai and, of course, coffee for “the addict who can’t quite give it up.”
Food for the future
For Tyler Steeves, his inspiration for plant-based products like carrot bacon, beet jerky and onion cracklings comes from an unexpected place: outer space.
“If we're ever going to go to space and live there, we're not going to be able to bring pigs to Mars. So how do we make plants taste better now?” Steeves said. “Our total mission in life is to create amazing vegan snacks with really kind of pedestrian things.”
Steeves founded the Plant Bacon Corporation in 2019 with this mission in mind. His objective is to take the natural characteristics of the plant and then enhance them with flavor. His nutrient-dense carrot bacon, for example, includes the vegetable — but adds ingredients including olive oil, spices, maple syrup, onion and garlic powder.
In addition to its bacon, jerky and cracklings, the company plans to launch a chewy line in the future with products including boneless watermelon ham and mango steak.
Steeves is careful to note Plant Bacon is not trying to replace any of the meat products in the marketplace. He wants his products to be close, but not exactly the same.
“There's a place for meat, that's fine,” he said. “The idea is how do you take that occasion and have a replacement. This does it without trying too hard to be so exactly the same.”
How do you pronounce that?
The word acai may be hard to pronounce, but that hasn’t scared a San Diego company from putting the berry into an increasing number of foods.
Acai Roots has incorporated the fruit found in Central and South America into bars, juices, kombuchas and other offerings that are especially popular among younger Americans, including teenagers and college students looking to eat healthier.
“We’ve grown year after year after year, and right now the popularity for acai is growing so much,” said Melissa Bailey, senior manager of sales at Acai Roots.
The acai berry, a reddish-purple fruit that looks like a grape, has shown in studies to have more antioxidants than blueberries. While people eat acai berries to address various health conditions, WebMD noted, they have not shown to have health benefits that are different from similar types of fruits.
Acai Roots, which was started by two individuals from Brazil in 2005, imports frozen acai puree from Brazil that goes into many of its products. Its bars use a freeze-dried version.
Acai Roots is looking to expand, with the company planning to launch a frozen offering for children.
“There’s not a whole lot of competition” with other companies in acai, Bailey said. “I see it continuously growing, especially with the younger crowd really into it.”
Alcohol-free wine taps adaptogens
While some consumers choosing to eschew alcohol may just want to have another bubbly alternative, others may want a drink that has more definitive functionality. Three Spirit believes it can capitalize on the latter.
The brand launched in 2019 in London, and soon appeared on the menu of over 50 U.K. restaurants. Co-founder Dash Lillley said the brand makes its products with world-class bartenders, and conducts blind taste tests with alcohol consumers to hone the taste profile.
“People drink alcohol for both the flavor and the way it makes them feel, it’s not just one or the other,” Lilley said. “We wanted to make non-alcoholic drinks that could make you feel something.”
In its portfolio, the brand currently has three spirits, hence the name. They are Livener, a pick-me-up; Social Elixir, a stress reliever that one can drink throughout the night; and Nightcap, for the end of the night. The latter is its bestseller, and Three Spirit claims it can help people relax or fall asleep because of its lemon balm and hops.
Adaptogens are a trendy ingredient in the wellness space because of their health benefits, including enhanced immunity and relaxation. Three Spirit’s drinks contain two: ashwaghanda and lion’s mane mushroom.
“A lot of people are trying to reduce their alcohol consumption and also improve their sleep. Nightcap is a sweet spot of helping people do both,” Lilley said. “It helps people avoid the last one or two drinks of the night which can often be a step too far.”
Chickpeas supercharge milk alternative
In the last five years, chickpeas have made a significant mark in the food space, appearing in an array of products as consumers look for more protein in their daily lives. YoFiit believes its product could make the legume a staple of coffee shops.
The Canadian company said its chickpea milk, containing 10 grams of protein per serving, offers a more functional alternative to other plant-based dairy options. By comparison, oat milk contains 3 grams of protein per serving, while almond milk only contains 1 gram.
YoFiit’s main milk product also contains flaxseed, and has 1 gram of omega-3s, which can reduce cardiovascular disease risk. Co-founder Marie Amazan cited recent SPINS data, which showed sales of almond milk slowing down while those of oat and pea milk continue to grow.
”What that tells me is that there’s a shift in terms of taste: People liking oat milk for the sweetness and pea milk for the nutrition,” Amazan said. “We taste good and we have high protein, so we’re gonna fit into both trends.”
YoFiit aims to launch its product in the U.S. in early 2023, and hopes to expand its portfolio into creamers and yogurts. The brand was a participant in PepsiCo’s accelerator program in 2018.
On top of the health attributes of chickpeas, YoFiit is also pitching the ingredient as a more sustainable alternative to nut milk.
“Chickpeas only require 20 percent of the water that nuts do,” Amazan said. “The change we’re trying to make is not just for plant-based consumers, but for the planet.”