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Our takeaway from Natural Products Expo West 2017: the rise of “edible ethics”


As food and beverage cultural observers, we've been happily attending Penton's "Natural Products Expo" (West and East) for many years. Back in the early days of the enormous industry trade show, there was a distinct vibe around organic and natural products "breaking in" to the mainstream market. It was truly an ideal hunting ground to look for innovative and different new products that typically cued in those two directions.

Today, the show still serves those needs but has a wider bandwidth that reflects the dynamic scope of a changing food and beverage market where organic and natural are just two elements among a broad swath of products offering diverse purity, ethical or nutritionally linked certifications and distinctions. In fact, one thing that we noticed at this year’s show was that what used to be considered "progressive" callouts, such as organic, non-GMO, grass-fed, gluten-free, vegan, plant-based, fair trade, kosher, soy-free and allergen-free (nuts, dairy, lactose), are now becoming the “greens fee” to just being considered a “natural product” — at least at this Expo. This would also include "nothing artificial," "no growth hormones," "antibiotic-free"… well, you get the picture.

There's little question that the scope and breadth of the products showcasing at Natural Products Expo today reflect a changing consumer market where products (and the companies that produce them) are increasingly under a spotlight that values transparency, clean ingredients and convincing narratives of production — all reflecting what our Hartman Retainer Services team finds is a rising interest in (what we first identified a couple of years ago) "edible ethics."

It seems no accident, then, that there was a "B Corp" scavenger hunt at the show. Hundreds of emerging and established brands are embracing B Corp certification to signal their social and environmental consciousness and to formalize and verify their commitment to using business as a "force for good." We find that progressive consumers are increasingly seeking B Corp food and beverage businesses as a way to participate in what might be best termed an edible civic process.

As we’ve discussed at our A.C.T. events, like the one in Seattle in 2015, we also find that products like those seen at Natural Products Expo are highly reflective of consumer interest in corporate transparency as well as a convergence of health and wellness goals and sustainability. Specifically, products found at the show reflect the fact that an increasing number of consumers see eating well as a fundamental health and wellness practice and as a central component of a high-quality life. Good food is no longer first and foremost about fewer carbs, lower fat or counting calories; it’s about fresher, less processed foods. Under the guise of transparency, consumers increasingly want to know what is in the food they are eating, how it was made, where it came from and how the animals and people who were part of its creation were treated. They are asking, "Is this good food also sustainable food?" Consumers want and expect companies to be more transparent about their ingredients and production processes — and they want to judge for themselves.

Products found at the show demonstrate an understanding of the rise in consumer interest in these concepts that might be summarized as “eating well, coupled with a focus on edible ethics.” Notes on products seen include:

  • Products offering protein were in abundance, reflecting the fact that protein plays an important role in how consumers approach wellness and is a commonly sought-out attribute in foods and beverages today. Numerous bone broths (RTD, powdered forms), drinkable yogurt (and lassis) and diverse jerky and dried-meat products were on display. We thought products like chef-created Think Jerky stood out: Think Jerky offers a clean label, is culinary inspired and provides limited-edition flavors sourced from family farms.
  • Other products of interest include brain health products (like Know Brainer creamer – "the thinker’s creamer for coffee and tea," “Bulletproof”-style RTD coffees, metabolic fuel chocolates) and FODMAP-friendly convenience foods. FODMAP-friendly sauces (such as those offered by FODMAPPED at the show) give consumers an easier way to follow the diet, which is believed to help with digestive issues and is thought of as a step beyond gluten-free.
  • Many products linking to the health-supportive properties of coconut were seen at the show, relating to the fact that coconut oil and its health-promoting MCTs are a staple in the progressive wellness consumer’s pantry. The new crop of coconut products ranges from flour to vinegar. Products made from coconut flesh (flour, butter) have a mild flavor, while ingredients derived from the sap (sugar, nectar, vinegar) have all the health benefits without the piña colada overtone.
  • Brand storytelling: Communication of brand stories, including founders’ narratives and stories of production, were also seen on numerous products: we liked Brio Ice Cream’s narrative as well as that told by Jackson’s Honest (coconut oil potato and tortilla chips).

Natural Products Expo is still a fantastic platform for exploring emerging food and beverage products, distinctions and ingredients well beyond organic and natural. We do believe that progressive health and wellness consumers will continue to pave the way for such products, sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge with mainstream consumers who are hungry for guidance and direction. As shoppers, progressives are no longer thinking about condition management (lowering cholesterol or blood pressure) or dieting (low fat, low carb) but are focused on real quality food, positive nutrition, fresh, less processed foods and beverages — and fun. Their impact will continue to influence the market, just as rising consumer interest in edible ethics and authentic narratives will continue to influence an intersection of ethical standards and higher-quality products.


Food & Beverage Occasions Consumer Package Goods Culture Health & Wellness Organic/Natural Trends Point Of View


As leaders in the study of American food culture, The Hartman Group has been tracking how Americans shop for food since the 1990s. From one-stop shopping to multichannel shopping to online markets and click-and-collect, we continue to track consumers’ evolving perceptions, needs, habits and relationships with food retailers. New to the 2017 report is a special section on the expansion of the discount grocery channel, the emerging fresh-format channel and smaller-footprint retail formats.


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