Natural organic foods and specialty brands are growing rapidly and gaining mainstream acceptance. This is a huge bright spot in the Food & Beverage (F&B) industry and the big players know it, as was evident at Natural Products Expo West held in Anaheim, California last week.

More than 90,000 people attended and thousands of exhibitors launched new products. Big Food companies and entrepreneurs co-mingled and it’s clear that many of the partnerships between them are now bearing fruit (no pun intended). The image of ‘alternative’ and ‘natural’ is changing. While health and wellness are the primary benefits being sought, today’s products are also tasty, fun, and widely available at retail and big box stores.

We thought it was noteworthy that legacy companies such as Nestle, Kellogg, Frito-Lay (PepsiCo), Conagra and General Mills chose the Expo as a platform to showcase new innovations and make important announcements:

Nestle had a total of 10 booths. Awesome Burgers (plant based), GoodBe bars (refrigerated, probiotic infused) and Goodnight clusters (sleep enhancement) were some of the new concepts introduced. Doug Munk, director of new business ventures for Nestle USA, said, “We really see the growth in the chilled snacking section Perfect Bar has created…we are looking at the $60 billion functional food and beverage category growing at 8% and we are asking how we can help our consumers with digestive issues and immune benefits.”

The booth for General Mills showcased a massive sign with its new goal and focused on telling how the cereal and snacks maker would transform farms to regenerative agriculture.

Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms launched a vegan “Cheezeburger” and vowed to transition to completely plant based and vegan by 2021.

Frito-Lay’s Off the Eaten Path introduced Veggie Puffs in spicy cheddar, and sour cream and onion flavors with five grams of protein per serving. Conagra Brands’ Angie’s Boomchikapop introduced air-popped corn puffs.

Overall, the major trends highlighted at Expo West were:

Plant-based: From beverages and yogurt to a variety of snacks, plant-based products continue to dominate the industry. This is not new, but companies said that more consumers are choosing plant-based and vegan options and that retailers are giving them more shelf space. Within this category, oatmilk is a budding trend.

Dietary trends: Keto (the high fat, low carbohydrate diet where ketosis is the desired state for weight loss and performance benefits) is the biggest trend. Products labeled as Keto compliant were everywhere. Paleo was also prominent. Both these diets are similar in that they focus on nutrient-rich foods and emphasize taste. Social media has been a boon as well. It appears Keto and Paleo still have mileage ahead and won’t be fading anytime soon. Expect to see more dairy-free, low-sugar, and full-fat products on grocery store shelves next year.

Hemp/CBD: A burgeoning trend is cannabidiol, CBD, or hemp extract, which is linked to various health benefits, including pain management and anxiety reduction. As regulatory compliance becomes easier, companies of all sizes are adding hemp and CBD ingredients to their products. From beverages to brownies to gummies, this category is just beginning to take off.

Other trends included the increased emphasis on mood and immunity enhancement, usage of herbs and fragrances, healthy adventurous snacks that kids would enjoy, mushroom and umami flavorings, and makeovers of pantry staples such as rice.

Overall, the ‘mainstreaming’ trend of food as medicine is still a large and growing opportunity. The key is finding the right niche as some categories, such as vegan burgers, are becoming crowded. Some companies are rolling out new innovations on Amazon first to test the market and refine their offerings. Many are testing ideas at Culinary Labs or accelerators.  We expect to see more collaborations between legacy companies and entrepreneurs, more channels of distribution, and more creativity as consumer acceptance grows.

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