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In the belly of the beast: Dr Rosie Bosworth on the pain, pleasure and promise on display at the world’s largest natural foods trade show

Dr Rosie Bosworth, who wrote a series for Idealog last year on the future of food, recently attended the world’s largest natural food and products tradeshow in California. What she found was a mixed bag: ‘Natural’ companies peddling healthy snake oil products, as well as promising plant-based protein start-ups that gave her hope for the future. Here, she reports back on the highs and lows of the show.

Total inspiration and utter disenfranchisement of the food industry are perhaps the two best (and contradictory), ways to sum up my experience of this year's Natural Products Expo West, the world’s largest natural foods and products trade shows held in Anaheim, California.

Spanning an exhibit area roughly the size of 25 football fields, Expo West can be described much like a Disneyland for grown up foodies. This year, over 85,000 attendees from “natural” food and health-related retailers, distributers and trend spotters to venture capitalists and food influencers attended. And more than 3,500 startups or companies exhibited, each proclaiming to have the next best natural, organic or healthy product that we all need more of (apparently).  

It was five days of sensory and stomach overload, networking, evening entertainment, bands, outdoor yoga, seminars, partying and excessive consumption (of all varieties). The gluttony, the endless free samples and eating, product giveaways, the crammed full sponsor goodie bags.

And ohhhh the waste. Hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of plastic spoons, plates, bowls and beverage bottles in the trash after single serve mouthfuls of food, and constant sampling. Waste at such monumental scale, even at a supposedly natural products show, is enough to put the entire industry into disrepute, and I was a little embarrassed to be partaking in it. But as passionate foodies, most of us (me included) temporarily left our morals at the door, and for four or five days acted like kids in a candy store who didn’t know where our next meal was coming from.

The Expo prides and promotes itself as being the place that brings together an inspiring conglomeration of purpose-driven companies and industry leaders on a mission to make us healthy. And with this number of “natural” food industry pioneers and innovators within a square kilometre of each other, it was the perfect place for me to spot the new and upcoming plant-based protein offerings and startups, which was my primary mission for attending. 

Berry smoothie flavoured popcorn.

Never before had I seen such an incredible selection of products in one relatively concentrated area proclaiming their better for you (BFY) offerings.

Alkalising cold brew coffee, probiotic and kombucha bars, plant-based milk, meat and protein powders, sprouted nuts, collagen-infused beverages, vegetable “tortilla” wraps, and bone broths galore were a small smattering of some of the (perhaps unnecessary) thousands of new product innovations on show at the booths. So too was coconut, maca and cacao everything, turmeric lattes, endless plant-based protein shakes, aloe vera super charged yoghurt (it’s not as tasty as it sounds), omega 3 and vitamin fruit gummies (yes, for adults!), organic water melon seeds, paleo pancake mix, and very questionable tasting chrysanthemum kombucha.  You get the drift. Excessive. Consumption. All under the guise of ‘natural’.

But the reality is, while some genuinely natural and healthy options were represented by companies at the show, so too were countless unhealthy, high sugar, waaaay too high in protein, me-too products and less than tasty food innovations.

Chocolate bark, fortified corn chips, green tea mints, stroopwaffels (Dutch waffles made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel syrup filling in the middle, plantain chips (friend in coconut oil), countless peanut butter cups, dairy free ice cream sandwich bars (if it's coconut it's healthy right?), high protein, gluten free chocolate brownies yet absurdly high in ‘natural sugars were just some of the many natural food imposters - claiming to be healthy to the unsuspecting passerby.

Freeze-dried avocado chips.

Some products like Cappellos Gluten Free Naked Paleo Pizza Crust and Forager’s organic cashew milks went down a treat. Many others were so unpalatable and poorly formulated they had to be rapidly ejected from my mouth, like NewGem Foods’ “paleo friendly” and  “all natural” veggie and fruit wraps. Designed to replace savoury tortilla or sandwich wraps, they had the texture and shine of fluorescent coloured plastic and the taste of a hyper sweet and fake Annie’s fruit leather I remember from my youth.  

Perhaps the two food products that took the cake for me suggesting the quality standard of Expo West had possibly gotten a little lax were Living Intention’s activated berry-smoothie flavoured “superfood” popcorn (yes, true story) and Avolov’s freeze dried avocado chips that tasted like warm cooked guacamole (yuck!) and stuck to your teeth when they started to re expand in your mouth when eating them (annoying!).  

“Those were the four most unhealthy days of my life” and "Expo is like being in Vegas one day too long" are some of the comical statements summing up the irony and reality of Expo West from colleagues in the industry who both exhibited.

It is also worth noting that while many small scale operators genuinely producing healthy and plant-based options with long term success potential were exhibiting at the show (Beyond Meat, Good Catch Foods, Miyokos Kitchen, Coyo, New Zealand's NuZest and Pic’s Peanut Butter to name a few). Almost every other major global player in the food industry as there as well, vying for a slice of the exploding natural foods market (many of which have less than credible track records for providing consumers healthy and nutritious foods in the past).

Kevita and Bolt House Farms owned by Pepsi and Campbell Foods respectively were there. So was Del Monte, Danone  (the now parent of Vega, So Delicious, Horizon Organic dairy and Silk), and Cliff Bar. I even saw Cargill (the largest privately held food and agricultural corporation in the US) logos donning large placards on the main floor. It is no surprise then, that Expo West is now the grocery industry's single biggest show in North America.

Oatly oat milk.

Enter the plant-based food renegades

But despite the gratuitous product offerings at Expo West and somewhat questionable health benefits thereof, the show wasn’t all bad. In fact, quite the contrary. As I mentioned earlier, the show was also a great source of inspiration on various fronts and I met a range of incredible entrepreneurs genuinely helping the transform our broken global food and health system.

On a mission to discover, taste and become acquainted with the next up and coming game changers in the plant-based protein world, I had a fairly impressive sample size of plant-based meat and milk companies to sift and taste my way through – especially since #plantbased everything seemed to be one of the hottest and common health claims of this year's Expo.

The usual larger and more traditional plant-based protein suspects like Light Life Foods, Quorn, Daiya and Califia Farms, were all there, each exhibiting their meatless meats and cowless milks. While their products taste okay, they are not exactly game changing in terms of taste and texture and thus their ability to win over the staunch meat eaters in the room.

Lucky for me, there were a number of smaller, shinier diamonds in the rough that I was able to spot. In terms of  “meat” substitutes, plant-based meat and seafood renegades, Beyond Meat, and the yet to launch Good Catch Foods were my two top picks of the show. It turns out I wasn't the only one who loved them. Out of all the 3,500+  booths, these two were probably the two most popular with endless queues of people muscling in to sample their meaty and fishy (animal free) products. The line for Beyond Meat’s recently launched plant-based sausage range was so long  I’m surprised people didn’t give up and move on to the next free sample. And Good Catch took out the 2018 Veg Invest Award for Best Show of the Year award with its incredible shredded plant-based tuna, delicious crab (free) cakes and fish-free patties.

Sampling Good Catch's seafood-free seafood.

On a mission to create “seafood without sacrifice", Good Catch’s co founders, (brothers) Chad and Derek Sarno – both plant-based culinary chefs and food educators – have developed nutrient dense, protein rich and omega packed fish free patties that have the taste and texture of real seafood. The startup uses a proprietary six-bean blend of plant proteins (a combo of pea soy chick pea, lentil, fava and navy beans) and aims to be on US and UK grocery shelves by the end of 2018. The brother duo have also created a hugely popular line of plant-based foods, Wicked Healthy Food, for Tesco in the UK, which is rapidly growing in popularity and size.  I sampled (on way too many occasions) all three types of Good Catch’s seafood in the form of sushi rolls, salads and fish cakes, and was suitably impressed with the texture and taste of all three. I’d also be none the wiser if it was tuna or a smart combo of lentils and beans that they were serving, which is a huge plus for the company.   

The Beyond Sausage.

Everyone loves sausage

Existing category leader in plant-based meat alternatives, Beyond Meat (traditionally known for its tasty and bloody plant-based burgers) was sampling the Beyond Sausage, the world’s first plant-based sausage that looks and cooks like its traditional pork counterpart. All three varieties were up for tasting: Original Bratwurst, Hot Italian and Sweet Italian. And all three tasted incredible. Made with pea, fava bean and rice protein and an algae-based casing, each sausage contains more protein and less fat than traditional links. For me they were a game changer, much more so than the Beyond Burger. They tasted so close to a traditional pork sausage that if a traditional carnivore was blind folded, I’m sure he or she would be hard pressed to tell the difference between a Beyond sausage and the real deal. What also makes the sausages so special (along with its other meat products) is Beyond’s proprietary approach to weaving and binding proteins, fats, minerals to reconstruct the real architecture of meat. Because, as we all know, alongside flavor, texture is everything when it comes to winning over the hearts of the non-vegan world.
 

Miyoko's plant-based butter.

Non-cheesy goodness

Outside of plant-based meat and fish, other stands outs in the crowd for me included Miyokos Kitchen. In particular its European Style cultured plant-based butter and its new line of cream cheeses that are indistinguishable, if not tastier, than dairy versions. Since I’m inclined to give the thumbs up to lots of plant-based products, I also tried a bunch of other dairy free butters at the show to make sure I wasn’t taking a biased approach to anything simply for being non-dairy. But Miyoko’s vegan version made from organic coconut oil, safflower and cashews and cultures certainly had the taste, spreadability and consistency of regular butter that other players at the expo like Melt didn’t. The only thing missing for me was the bright yellow colour associated with New Zealand’s grass-fed dairy. But, with the exception of New Zealand and possibly Ireland, the rest of the world isn’t used to bright yellow butter anyway, so it’s a moot selling point in many major markets.

Miyoko’s also recently expanded cream cheese and cheese wheel ranges were also tastier than many cream and soft cheeses on the market. Especially its “Plainly Classic” and “Spicy Revolution” flavours.  And its  “Sensational Scallion” cheese spread made from organic coconut cream and cashews would definitely give New Zealand’s classic Kiwi onion soup dip a run for its money in terms of taste.

Oatly's milk-free oat milk.

No-Moo milk

Swedish oat milk company, Oatly, was certainly the most successful at cutting through the over crowded plant-based milk category with its creamy milk made from oats and not much else.

Having tried almost every milk alternative on the market, Oatly (in my humble opinion) is by far the best plant-based alternative that behaves just like dairy milk. It foams perfectly in espressos, it doesn’t curdle, it’s creamy, it’s tasty and is great in baking.  All essential elements for a successful milk alternative. But the true sign of its success? The brand’s mainstream street appeal. Men (and women) by the droves were lining up for their Oatly flat whites and lattes at the company’s hugely popular booth and the company has recently expanded into the US and hallmark premium  coffee shops around the country.

Fellow dairy alternative, Ripple, is another next gen plant milk startup to watch with its pea protein-fuelled dairy alternative beverage range. Having even ruffled feathers in in its own plant-based beverage category calling almond milk a “sham”, Ripple says its unique pea protein matches the nutritional and fat profile of dairy milks, which they claim is a unique differentiator in the crowded industry since most nut milks on the market are devoid of any real nutritional value. “We are able to take all of the good from dairy without the bad … We’re designing products with just as much protein, more calcium and vitamin D, less sugar, less saturated fat and fewer calories, and a far lower carbon footprint,”​ says Ripple co founder, Dr Neil Renninger. 

I tried all Ripple’s products at the show (including plain, vanilla and sweetened, and half and half milks), but compared to other players (like Oatly) I still thought its milk varieties had a ways to go to truly transform the world of stoic dairy drinkers. And despite the buckets of funding the startup has received of late to perfect its milk alternatives product line, its standard milk does not perform well for espressos – a must-have for espresso grade coffees and baristas.  It also curdled badly when I added it to filter and instant coffees when using it at home – putting me off wanting to buy it again. Ripple’s pea protein based yoghurt range also became quite gritty as soon as the temperature of the products dropped below chilled.

The Expo West effect

All in all, for all its excessive and unhealthy elements, Expo West was a convention well worth attending that brought together some of the world’s best in the global food industry. Yes, there were certainly a number of exhibitors that will likely not see it through to the next year, with their patently faux and poorly formulated “healthy” product offerings. But there were also a good number of healthy options and plant protein renegades with long term potential to help transform and reform the global food system. And they too made a huge dent in inspiring the 85-odd thousand people who attended, including me.   

 Would I have missed Expo West for the world? No, not at all – it was worth every penny. Would I return? Maybe, maybe not. At least not before booking in a gastric bypass beforehand to keep me away from the over indulgence of it all.

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