Some Oldtimers Reflect on Expo West

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This year marked the 38th annual Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, CA. It also marked the 20th anniversary of my first visit to Expo. As I reflected on this years’ experience, I was forced to consider my own mortality…have I really become that old and cynical? So, I asked some other oldtimers for their digested impressions and they provided some colorful commentary on the trends seen on the show floor. While they asked to remain anonymous, all five people I talked to have been attending Expo on-and-off for the last 25 years.

1)     “TOO BIG!”
Expo used to be a safe place to network, share concepts and synergize ideas. Now, attendees hide their name tags, so you can’t see they’re with a competitor. And that’s if they can push their way to your booth through a wall of people. By the way, the organizers of Expo estimate there were more than 85,000 attendees and 3,212 exhibitors.

2)     “Can fried pork rinds really have a health halo?”
True story. There were multiple fried pork rind products with claims of organic, GMO free, dairy free, gluten free, and so on. But these, and other similar snack foods, are still treats. Just because they have a laundry list of free-from or natural claims doesn’t mean they’re “good for you.”

3)     “Sensationalized water.”
It’s not just about flavor or packaging anymore. Specific brands are making sensational claims like reducing fatigue, improving cognition and sleep, and detoxing, among others. These claims are based on source, processing, mineral/solids content (or lack thereof), NOT on water itself. While there is plenty of science to show that water is important in these processes, specific brands rarely have the substantiation they need to justify their specific claims. Buyer beware!

4)     “Gut health is here to stay.”
The growing body of science supporting gut-health products is the silver lining in the clouds of sensational marketing claims. And it’s not just about supplementing the diet with probiotics anymore. More products are being formulated to make sure that ingredients aren’t conflicting with healthy microbe management and the science behind processing and handling of these products continues to advance. Where gluten free may have started the gut-health revolution, it’s not the final word. There’s much, much more on the horizon!

5)     “Herbs aren’t just for cooking anymore.”
The sheer size of Expo forces you to prioritize your floor visits, which means that sometimes you miss the dietary supplement aisles (I haven’t made it over there in at least three years). One of my friends made a point of going this year and her observation was the emergence of “herbs” in mainstream medicine. Gone are the days of single phytochemical or vitamin compounds used to treat deficiencies and diseases—they’ve been replaced with “whole plant” supplements used to achieve optimal wellness. For example: curcumin, the highly studied component of turmeric believed to be the key to the herb’s bioactivity, is no longer the star of the show; instead, turmeric combined with black pepper, has become the hot product in supplements!

With its significant growth over the years—and the presence of products and trends of questionable healthfulness—Expo West can be overwhelming, and at times make even the most hardened oldtimer a bit cynical. That said, Expo remains a valuable learning experience and a unique opportunity to keep up with industry happenings.  Innovation in the food industry will certainly continue apace in the years to come, bringing consumers new opportunities to eat a more healthful diet—and new trends to sort through as well.