On Friday I attended the annual Natural Products Expo West 2011 in Anaheim. The Expo was located auspiciously down the street from Disneyland: for a long weekend, the Anaheim Convention Center was an amusement park for foodies, gourmet aficionados, and advocates for fairly traded products. The Expo was more than about food, however; a huge section of the show had booths crammed with body care products, and for a canine lover like me, the most fun section were the pet food aisles, with everything from doggie yogurt to ethically sourced kitty litter. I had more dog treat samples than chocolate samples, which more than irritated my better half but sure made Cosmo and Whiskey, my appreciative mutts, happy.
For a first time visitor, the Expo’s main hall, where all the real action occurs, is fascinating as proof of how far (enter your label here: organic, ethical, fair trade, natural) food products have come. A generation ago, many of these products were relegated to ethnic grocery stores (hummus, soy milk) or “health food stores” (tofu, goji berries). Health food stores were off the beaten path, full of products that looked as if they belonged in National Geographic magazine–bought by customers who often looked like extras broadcast on documentaries that fill Discover Channel’s lineup.
No longer. The exotic is now mainstream. Guatemalan hats, hippie skirts, and copper bracelets of yesteryear were replaced by business suits, briefcases, and Bluetooth ear pieces. The Expo’s main hall were full of men and women yakking into smart phones while pulling sleek rollaway bags, and who would look more comfortable on Wall Street than Nature’s Path.
Those products that were once were so hard to find, like soy milk and organic breakfast cereals, now are an afterthought. Veggie burgers and energy bars are so diverse in their product offerings that they almost all taste the same. Pity the entrepreneur who first came up with the idea of producing and marketing hemp milk, Greek yogurt, gluten free pancake mix, and organic gummy bears: those markets are now fragmented and competitive, at least based on the number of booths spread across the convention floor. Some companies appeared to have a unique product, like the botanical soaps from Paraguay or the vegan marshmallow purveyor. Not so for açai. The açai-flavored energy drink company was found around the corner from the açai-flavored energy drink company, which coincidentally was down the aisle from the açai-flavored energy drink company. Not letting the açai-flavored energy drink companies steal their thunder, flavored coconut water drink companies were everywhere, with mostly disappointing results. Few products are more refreshing than the water from a fresh young coconut, so why flavor it? (This Armenian-American has the same reaction to flavored hummus). The brave companies were the corn tortilla chip and beef companies, which at the Expo fit in about as well as Kraft Mac & Cheese would on Anthony Bourdain’s dinner plate.
Many of my favorite firms were pitching their products, and it was fun watching the masses try their products. Gypsy Tea had one of the busiest booths, as its radiant owner, Zhena Muzky, effortlessly poured prospective customers cups of refreshing fair trade blends; Maine Root, supplier of the best blueberry soda around, had more than every right to boast about its sweet new line of lemonades; and Angell Candy Bars blew away the other chocolate companies with their retro chocolate concoctions that would make our parents and grandparents beam.
The lessons of the Expo are how far once “alternative” foods have come and how more consumers are conscious about what goes into the lunch bag or carry-on bag. This new world is not necessarily a perfect one: “organic” does not mean sustainable. Several “fair trade” companies grumbled about the costs of certification and questionable spending by such organizations. Growing demand for foodstuffs like hip quinoa are festering problems where the grains are grown. Plus some would grow at the large companies who attend the show and have booths that would leave Comdex vendors green with envy. Nevertheless, the trend overall is a positive one, and the sampling showed that the only thing there that tasted like cardboard was the packaging in which some of these foods were enclosed. And let’s be frank: the Expo, its attendees, exhibitors were fun and full of life, and made me envious that these folks, decent and hard working people, could turn an idea from a kitchen into a passion and a company. They deserve our applause and support. They are the real Food Network.