‘Takeaways’ and impressions from the Natural Products Expo

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October 3, 2013

Returning home from the first-ever Food Identity Theft/Citizens for Health exhibit at the Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore (“East” being added so as to not confuse it with the even bigger event held annually in southern California), I carted back more samples of snacks, drinks and other food items then could comfortably fit into an oversized wheelie cart.

At this year’s event, there were over 1,200 exhibitors (and twenty times that number of attendees), all hoping that retailers would carry/order their product, and offering a taste or sample to anyone who lingered more than a millisecond at a booth. Citizens for Health and Food Identity Theft were there mainly to tell everyone about next year’s “Read Your Labels Day,” (April 11, 2014) and the Citizens for Health petition to properly label high fructose corn syrup, which scores of people learned about and signed at the event. (If you haven’t yet read about this petition, you can download it here, and sign it here).

“Natural”? Maybe, maybe not

Although the event has always been called the “Natural” Products Expo, the moniker this year somehow seemed a bit debatable, perhaps because of the number of recent consumer lawsuits over just what the term “natural” means in processed foods and beverages. The Food and Drug Administration has been quite upfront in saying that “natural” is “difficult” to define, and that the agency “…has not developed a definition for the use of the term natural…” But food and beverage manufacturers have, sort of, and they paste the term on a amazing array of products, some quite “natural” ingredient-wise, and many decidedly not so.

All the exhibitors at the show touted their products as “natural” whether the items deserved the definition or not. But as any reader of this blog should know by now, what’s “natural” is frequently just ‘in the eye’ of the manufacturer, and the only real way to know what you’re buying is to read the ingredient label; not the nutrition facts label, not the ad copy on the package or the media advertising. The ingredient list is where the information is at.

That said, here are some ‘takeaways’ from the expo:

The good:

  • Organic has gone totally mainstream, with just about every conceivable product available in an organic variety.
  • Verified and labeled NO GMO ingredients and products should be flooding the marketplace soon, if this year’s Expo is any indication.
  • Source-verification is another area in which manufacturers are bowing to consumer demand.
  • While the huge amount of snack foods presented at the show seems to indicate we are a nation of munchers who no longer have the time or patience for “real” food, many of these snacks were downright good and passed muster on the ingredient label read (see “the finds” for two favorites).
  • Coconut – both the oil and meat – is becoming very popular, which is fine by me. I saw more coconut oil brands represented than I could ever have imagined, erroneously thinking I was part of a small group of consumers who love the oil, both taste and nutrition wise.
  • I couldn’t find a single product that contained high fructose corn syrup!

The bad:

  • The actual ingredients of many products were not easily available to check out. Heck, if I was presenting a food at the Natural Products Expo, I would make its ingredients the first thing people would see. One brand of sweetener called NatVia, which is made in Australia, is described as being “100 percent natural made from natural sources.” But nothing on the packaging I was given has any hint as to what those “natural sources” might be, leaving me to guess whether the small green leaf could indicate it contains stevia.
  • Corn-derived ingredients: while many companies made a big point of steering clear of anything from corn (including several grass-fed animal products such as Maple Hill Creamery), numerous others are utilizing a variety of non-organic corn ingredients, with the most common being the sweetener erythritol, typically the top ingredient in the overwhelming array of stevia and monk fruit-containing products.
  • Many companies that are using soy-derived ingredients, such as soy protein concentrate, could not tell me if the soy they are using was processed using hexane or not. A big disappointment was Food for Life baking company (that makes a favorite bread of mine), which has extended its product line to include a vegan version of chicken nuggets and patties containing both soy protein concentrate and isolate (both labeled non-GMO). While it’s bad enough that these ingredients are a source of free glutamic acid, the fact that no company representative present had any knowledge of the hexane issue was something I found rather disturbing.

The ‘finds’:

  • Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free Pie Crust: This new pie-crust mix offers an easy way to make homemade pies with good ingredients in a tasty crust regardless of whether you’re on a gluten-free diet or not.
  • Beanfields Chips: In the sea of snacks at Expo, it was good to find a tasty chip made from simple, Non-GMO Project Verified ingredients that are farmed (and made) in the U.S. from a family-owned company. My favorite was the simple Bean & Rice sea salt chip made from only five ingredients, including the salt.
  • Neat vegetarian “meat”: Neat is among a number of new companies shunning soy in meat substitutes and making use of garbanzo beans and nuts instead. This product contains five ingredients, the top three being pecans, garbanzo beans and organic corn meal. You mix the package with water and eggs (or an egg replacement), and brown “just like ground beef” in a skillet. (Taste test coming).
  • Functional Formularies Whole Foods Meal Replacement: In June I did a blog about the Ensure line of products that contain some pretty awful ingredients. The Functional Formularies Meal Replacement appears to address my concerns about those ingredients, filling the need for a liquid “meal” formula without the addition of brain-damaging excitotoxins, such as are found in Ensure. The product also has an interesting story behind its evolution that you can read at the company web site.
  • BRAD’S Raw Foods Kale Snacks: While I love most vegetables, I must say kale was never top on my list, but BRAD’S Raw Foods has managed to make a kale snack that just about anyone will enjoy. My favorite is the Pina Kale-ada, that is made from organic kale, organic pineapple, organic bananas, organic raw, unsweetened coconut, organic lemon juice and Himalayan sea salt. The company says that the product is gluten-free, vegan, organic and non GMO, and that it is dehydrated “at or below” 115 degrees, which it claims preserves the enzymes and nutrients. The only drawback is the price of $7.99 for a 2.5 ounce container online, however once you’ve tried it, that may not be likely to stop you from buying more.

As for the expo itself, it should be interesting to see whether it would tighten its criteria for participating products should the term “natural” ever be given a stricter definition as to what it means.