Natural Products Expo West  is the biggest annual event in the Good Food and Natural Products industry, and it takes place Tuesday through Saturday of next week (March 3-7) in Anaheim, California. With more than 3,600 companies exhibiting, it can be a challenge for the 86,000-plus attendees to decide how to spend their time. But for those who are looking for the next big things in food and other natural products, trendspotting is the organizing principle for their Expo West experience.

Guidance on innovations to look for was part of a webinar presented by Naturally Chicago; Naturally Chicago co-founder SPINS, the industry’s leading provider of business data and insights; and New Hope Network, which with its parent company Informa produces both Expo West and the Natural Products Expo East that will be held this September in Philadelphia.

Jacob Knepper, Data Product Manager at SPINS, walked webinar watchers through four trends that should be big on the show floor in Anaheim.

Meat and Plant-Based Blends

This trend is a twist on one of the biggest food phenomenons of the past few years: the fast-growing consumer interest in plant-based alternatives to meat. “The plant-based movement has won over a number of consumers in the past decade by appealing to two key shopper sensibilities: personal health and environmental health,” Knepper said.

But Knepper added, “While some consumers stick to a strict plant-based diet, the vast majority have converted to flexitarian eating, incorporating plant-based foods without sacrificing animal products completely.” Producers have responded with meat/plant-based mashups such as those in the photo below (from a slide in the SPINS webinar): CPG goods such as burgers that are combos of beef and mushrooms, a dairy-and-almond milk blend, and chicken nuggets made with chicken, vegetables and beans.

And Knepper said products such as these have proliferated throughout the market very quickly: “It is safe to say that product innovation geared toward flexitarian sensibilities is something that the market wants to see more of on the shelf.”

Knepper said positioning of these products has two main themes: “It has veggies so it’s healthy” and “We’re reducing the dependency on animal agriculture, so we’re being climate change conscious.” He said story telling about these virtues is key to the success of products in this category — with the caution that authenticity is a must, and the clean label claims being made need to be borne out on the nutritional panel and ingredients list.


Low-Carb Condiments

People love to slather their food with sauces and spreads to add flavor and variety. But conventional BBQ sauces, ketchups and the like have tended to be heavy on sugar and other sweeteners, and a wave of new products are hitting the market to address  rising consumer concerns about negative health impacts of too much sugar.

“Demonizing of sugar is not unique to this category,” Knepper said. “It is having an outsized impact here due to the integral role of sauces play in our everyday eating habits.”

He noted that lower-carb eating is trending, low-carb eaters tend to eat meat, and they like sauce with their meat: BBQ sauce, steak sauce, curry, enchilada sauce, ketchup. “The consumer is saying we need low-carb, no-added-sugar condiments to enjoy our personalized way of eating. We’re willing to sacrifice carbs, but not flavor,” said Knepper, who noted that these products “have truly disrupted that category.”


All in for Allulose?

Knepper said that the low-carb, sugar-reduction trend is also setting the stage for increased use of allulose in products such as cookies and snack bars. “Allulose is a new sweetener ingredient that if you haven’t heard of yet, you should take some time to get to know,” Knepper said.

Allulose is a “rare sugar,” derived from foods such as figs, raisins and maple syrup, that has the taste and texture of sugar but no net carbs or impact on blood sugar. Since it is not metabolized by the human body, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has determined that it does not meet the definition of total sugars and added sugar that must be reported on product labels.

“Allulose is on precipice of something very big,” Knepper said. “More and more products and brands are turning to allulose as an alternative sweetener.”

Modernized Moo

Just as meat producers have seen their market share trimmed by plant-based alternatives, the dairy sector is being seriously challenged by the proliferation of plant-based alternatives to milk, yogurt, cheese and other favorites. Knepper noted that dairy innovators are responding assertively with products that promote qualities such as increased protein, no lactose, DHA and Omega 3 benefits, and education around the difference between A1 and A2 proteins in milk products.

The strategy appears to be working. Knepper said that “dairy milk’s modernization efforts are wearing well with shoppers,” with sales of lactose-free milk soaring by 71 percent year to year. The dairy industry, he said, is exhibiting “innovation and keen understanding of what motivates shoppers,” and shoppers “are willing to switch back and forth between dairy- and plant-based milk.”

The webinar also included tips on success and an ambient experience for Expo West exhibitors. This segment was introduced by Jim Slama, a co-founder of Naturally Chicago and CEO/Founder of FamilyFarmed (Naturally Chicago’s parent non-profit), and featured members of Expo West’s planning team: from New Hope Network, Carlotta Mast, Senior Vice President of Content and Insights and Market Leader; Katie Orrell, Senior Marketing Manager for the Natural Product Expos; Zachary Watson, Account Manager; and Sam Ewig, Client Services Specialist, along with Jessica Siblia, founder of Lower Mountain Consulting.

One of the key takeaways from this discussion was the heightened focus on sustainability at this massive event. Already providing bins to separate compostable, recyclable and landfill trash, and advising attendees and participants to bring reusable water bottles and coffee containers, New Hope Network recently announced its goal of eliminating single-use plastic at the Natural Products Expos by 2022.

Naturally Chicago and SPINS will be well-represented at Expo West and will follow up with trendy takeaways in a Good Food Insights article published by New Hope Network and another webinar.