Natural Products Expo West 2006: The Hall Was Alive

Dateline: Anaheim, home of Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, tons of cursing parents toting kids and of course every March, the good old Natural Products Expo. This year the show broke record attendance with more than 40,000 attendees according to New Hope’s PR person). On Friday the show floor was so packed it seemed more like Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving. Saturday and Sunday, however, didn’t seem nearly so busy.

Last year’s Expo might be best compared to the disappointment of watching the long awaited season premier of a your favorite TV show, only to feel bored, bitter and wondering if you’d ever watch it again. This year provided the opposite feeling, lots of exciting and fun new product launches, loaded with creativity and style.In other words Expo West 2006 revealed a renewed optimism that was absent the past few years. Expo 2006 made clear that we’ve come a long way, baby. No, we’re not talking about the great leaps and bounds we’ve made since the old, old days, when folks who wanted organic peanut butter had to mail order it from Walnut Acres. That’s old news, something we’re proud of and love, but we’re talking about something else, something newer.

A few years back when buyouts began, as corporate players and venture capital money makers bought up Cascadian Farms, Horizon Organic, Kashi, Lightlife, Muir Glen, White Wave and more, many worried that the creativity and spirit of the industry might be doomed.

This year that fear was laid to rest, proving once again that smaller, sleeker independent companies, ranging from longstanding leaders like Amy’s Kitchen, Nature’s Path and Organic Valley to newcomers like Sol Mate and other even small startups like Smart Monkey Foods and Matisse and Jack’s are still driving our thriving industry.

So the verdict is in . Regardless of corporate buyouts, renewed innovation, ongoing inspiration, and sustainable principles are not just alive and well, they were the driving force behind lots of exciting new products at the show.

Friday morning started out with NBN hearing a lots of groaning. Yes, lots of groaning and whining and complaining, about the sale of Tom’s of Maine to Colgate Palmolive and the Body Shoppe to L’Oreal and further anxiety, among the green at heart, about Wal-Mart’s declared intention to add 10,000 natural and organic SKUs to its stores.

Conversely others were more optimistic about the Wal-Mart news, and all the while NBN was skeptical telling folks don’t count your organic Wal-Mart chickensbefore they’re hatched. That same day USA Today’s full-page advertisement announcing the launch of Wal-Mart’s private label Parent’s Choice organic baby formula was making the rounds of the Expo, causing further grimacing, too.

Yet by mid-afternoon something else was evident. Amidst a preponderance of lots of new flavors including pomegranate in nearly everything and lots of new Acai ‘this and that’, it was clear that show was, in the immortal words of Julie Andrews, alive with music. The spirit, creativity and passion that started the natural products revolution was all over the hall.

The growth of fair trade, an explosion of more and more organic offerings, even from the most unlikely manufacturer’s like Reser’s (a company noted for its highly processed foodservice potato salads,cole slaw and side dishes sold in supermarkets.

There was renewed discussion about what organic means, the role of agribusiness in organic, and whether large scale operations, notably those of Horizon founderMark Retzloff’s Aurora Dairy. 

And all across the show floor there was an increasing number ventures created in order to fund communities and farmers in struggling areas like Senegal, Brazil, Central America and, Malawi.

Of course the consumer packaged good giants were all over the show. Kraftwas showing off its Boca Burger, Balance Bar and cross category line of organic foods under the Back to Nature brand. But the booth was empty and products once demmed interesting seemed dull. Small Planet Foods, General Mills division that runs Muir Glen and Cascadian, also was dull, while Seeds of Change under the heavy spending pockets of M & M Mars relaunched its failed frozen entrees with nice new packaging.

Other big players included the worlds largest soda manufacturer, Coca-Cola, (Odwalla) the world’s second largest dairy Dean Food’s(Horizon Organic Silk Soy Milk, and TofuTown), Kelloggs (Kashi) and ConAgra too (LightLife Foods), these latter two launching some terrific new products at the show.

Notable partnerships include Naked Juice’s (owned by a venture capital firm) fairly traded though not certified efforts with Acai growers in Central America, local brand Wholesome Sweeteners efforts in several regions growing sugar and agave and the efforts of several companies working with Women’s Coffee Cooperatives and the ever powerful work of Organic Valley helping conventional farmers transition to Organic.

Notable new products include the terrific Sol Mate soda . Created in Canada, this organic mate soda, made with blended green and roasted mate was the star of the show. Odwalla’s re-entry into the soy milk segment had people talking as this time Odwalla soy comes in gable topped cartons geared to battle in the dairy case against the market leader Silk (or should we say Dean).

And of course there were the companies that have and continue to inspire us.Amy’s Kitchen, which launched a remarkable new Thai Coconut Soup . Organic Valley the powerhouse farmer’s cooperative, Clif Bar which continues to lead corporate stewardship in green issues, the every powerful and expanding Newman’s Own Organic, Reed’s Ginger Brew(which is promoting the sale of its stock via neck-tags on its soda bottles) andGuayaki the powerfully happy leaders in the mate revolution are just a few of the reasons Expo 2006 was inspiring.

Amidst it all there was lots of spirit and even those who see the natural products world were excited buy it. As one of the many mainstream businessmen and womenat the show told me, “I don’t give a damn about GMO and frankly I think organic is too expensive but this industry is lot more fun then conventional grocery, and a hell of a lot more exciting, too.”

Our report on EXPO West Personal Care News is coming early next week.

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