BALTIMORE — When you're tasked with trying all the "crazy new products" at Natural Products Expo East, which was last week, it can be overwhelming. There were more than 9,000 booths of food and beverage innovation — 9,106 to be exact. So I did what any good journalist would do. I came hungry, started at the top floor and worked my way down.
Quickly the idea of "crazy" transformed into trendy. I'd like to say that eating Exo's whole roasted spicy taco crickets with a swig of pickle juice sports drink from the Pickle Juice Company is out there, but in today's food world, those are simply some of the hottest new foods. There's cricket flour for the avid baker and Sriracha cricket chips for the snacker. Fresh dill pickle juice is a popular ingredient for usually sweet treats like ice cream, slushies and marshmallows.
The thing is, the food world itself is "crazy" nowadays because innovation is the only way even the biggest companies can sustain — and more importantly, grow. There's a reason why in just the last eight months, brands like Kraft Heinz, PepsiCo and Tyson have partnered with or established food incubators.
So what innovations did I consume?
The power (and usually protein) is in the puff
If you grow it, it can puff. Samples of airy snacks lined aisle after aisle. There were Taali's popped water lily seeds, Snacklin's puffed veggie crisps, I Heart Keenwah's quinoa puffs, Crunch-a-mame’s edamame snack, Hippeas' chickpeas, Hopapops' popped lotus seeds, Sun Tropic's mochi rice bites, 24 Mantra's Indian-flavored organic grain snacks and 4505 chicharrones for the meat eater. The list could go on — and it did.
The sheer number of puffed snacks comes as no surprise. A report by IRI cited by Snack Food found that puffed and extruded snacks saw growth of 4.45% in dollar sales in the 52 weeks ending April 16, 2017, and the market is expected to reach $31 billion by 2019.
So why puffs? In "Salt Sugar Fat," food scientist Steven Witherly talked to author Michael Moss about how puffed snacks melt in your mouth. "It's called vanishing caloric density," Witherly said. "If something melts down quickly, the brain thinks that there's no calories in it … you can just keep eating it forever."
That perhaps may be the scientific reason for the popularity at Expo East, but according to numerous companies, the common refrain was, "Why not?" The ability to pop so many foods lets companies play with different flavor profiles — beyond traditional cheese to include international tastes such as Thai curry or tikka masala — on numerous nutrient-rich foods like legumes and ancient grains.
Puffs also typically meet consumer desire for a crunchy but better-for-you snack when they're made with little or no oil. An added benefit for many of the munchies? Protein. A lot of products packed a protein punch — 8 grams, 12 grams, 22 grams — with each little puff bag, which was highlighted on the front of most packaging.
Ayurvedic herbs add flavor and function
Move over, kale. Take a seat, ginseng. Ayurvedic herbs are in.
Sarah Schmansky, vice president of growth and strategy at Nielsen, spoke about the herbs during an ingredients trends panel at the conference.
"Turmeric is known. Moringa is new. Ashwagandha is foreign," she said. Moringa and ashwagandha are only now reaching certain consumers interested in the ingredients' purported health benefits. Both are touted for helping reduce inflammation and lowering cholesterol, in addition to other positive assets.
Despite being a relatively new player, moringa is seeing a surge. Schmansky cited data from New Hope Network showing that the herb, which tastes similar to matcha, saw a 460% jump in new products at Expo West between 2014 to 2017.
"Moringa is showing signs of an ingredient prodigy, [possibly] dethroning kale as the super green," she said.
According to the Expo East product list, nearly 100 products showcased were made with moringa, including Vegan Rob's moringa puffs (again!), Lotus Food's pad Thai rice noodles, Kuli Kuli's energy bars and smoothie mix, and numerous teas with the herb. Kale, on the other hand, is not leaving its superfood spot without a fight, with more than 300 items using the leafy green at the event.
Ashwagandha, like moringa, was a popular ingredient in many beverages, including REBBL's Ashwagandha Spicy Chai and 3 Roots Mango (includes ashwagandha, ginger and turmeric), as well as many of Holy Kombucha's drinks. For REBBL, pairing ashwaganda with mango provided a sweet balance to the more bitter flavor of the herb.
A 'race for alternative sweetener innovation'
At the Lakanto booth, Greg Hall, vice president of inside sales, was busy behind the counter cooking up brownies and waffles. Attendees also wandered by for a taste of its various chocolate bars. All the treats used the company's monk fruit sweetener, a natural alternative to sugar that is pulled from the fruit.
"Monk fruit is 2.5 to three times more expensive than stevia," Hall said, discussing the difficulty to extract it. Monk fruit, unlike stevia, doesn't have the distinct flavor profile that turns off some consumers, he said. That wider appeal is something Lakanto is banking on as it seeks its share of the sweetener market, which grows more competitive as sugar continues to get vilified.
"The race for alternative sweetener innovation is on," Eric Pierce, vice president of business insights at New Hope Network, said at the conference's ingredients trend seminar. The battle in Baltimore also included coconut sugar, xylitol, agave and, of course, stevia.
Monk fruit, though, has potential to break out if companies are willing to invest in the supply chain, said Pierce. The fruit, which is native to a small part of southern China and northern Thailand, is difficult to grow, requiring a long germination period and very specific conditions. It also doesn't store well fresh — but extracting the very small portion of the fruit that is made into sweetener is difficult and the fruit is expensive to export. Those issues have likely kept it from expanding faster into the mainstream.
In addition to Lakanto, Health Garden had its own version of the sweetener. Companies including In the Raw and Whole Earth Sweetener Company offered blends of monk fruit with stevia — a combo likely created to decrease costs. The ingredient made its way to at least one drink: a monk fruit sparkling soda from Talking Rain Beverage Company.
A special cut of the meat market
At their Expo East booth, husband and wife pair Roger Gerber and Beth Allison Kaplan, owners of Blackwing Quality Meats, showcased their exotic items, including wild boar, ostrich and elk. "We've been doing this for 21 years. We started the ostrich industry back in 1989," said Gerber.
While Blackwing has been able to capitalize on exotic meats for more than two decades, the trend has steadily increased during the past several years as consumers become more adventurous. A 2017 report by GlobalData shows that millennials especially like to try new flavors and foods. In particular, exotic meats are seeing sales rise, with a growth of 37.6%, according to Nielsen report from 2015. The booths in Baltimore had elk, bison and boar, among others.
In addition to the type of game, meat companies are finding uses for the whole animal to help reduce food waste and create unique products that appeal to a new and experimental generation. At Blackwing, Kaplan said, "from tongue to tail, every muscle is used."
Union brand has its own take on exotic meat with its Whole Earth Bites, showcasing not only the meat protein but also plants and grains. One product uses grassfed bison, hemp seed, eggs and blueberries.
Several jerky products also used different meat varieties, including Patagonia Provisions Buffalo Jerky and Pearson Ranch Elk Beef Added Jerky.
There's a plant-based version of everything
For the non-meat eater, this show was for you.
Want a teriyaki jackfruit bowl? A little smoked pulled jackfruit with your taco? The Jackfruit Company has it. Do you miss the taste of chicken pot pie, but not the animal that comes with it? Alpha Foods offers at least five different flavors to choose from, including Chick'n Pesto and Beefy Cheddar. At Wunder Nuggets' stand, there was a vegan Minty Lentil version that uses plant-based protein to try to give it the texture and taste of chicken.
In the jerky arena, mushrooms were a popular meat substitute. Pan’s Mushroom Jerky replicated the mouthfeel of the chewy beef snacks, and came in a variety of flavors from Zesty Thai to Applewood BBQ. There was also Savory Wild Portobello Jerky and Shrooms Honey Chipotle.
Yogurt, cheese and milk companies packed ice buckets full of their plant-based dairy-free alternatives as well. Lavva sampled its nutty but creamy-tasting yogurts made from ingredients like pili nut and coconut water. Origin Almond also handed out tastes of its cold-pressed almond milk and juices.
The slew of exhibitors showing off their latest plant-based dairy and meat alternatives was expected. According to Bloomberg, citing data from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association, sales of plant-based foods jumped 20% in the past year to more than $3.3 billion. The plant-based meat segment specifically jumped 24% from 6% the year before. In comparison, during that same period, sales of animal meat sales grew about 2%.
Drinking up the honorable mention
With all the food that was eaten, I had to wash it down with something.
However, water is no longer just water. There were high alkaline, bitter, fruity, protein-loaded and functional beverages hydrating every Expo East goer. Some tried to look and taste like water, but offered high pH levels touting potential benefits to neutralize a person's stomach acid.
Others like Caskai, promoted health through ingredients like the "coffee cherry" — a new superfood — or the high levels of electrolytes, minerals and antioxidants in Halo Sport.
Ciara McDevitt, global brand director at Halo Sport, a maker of sports drinks, said, "We would never say we’re better than water. That’s like saying we’re greater than God, but sometimes your body wants more."