No other trade show of its kind on the west coast of North America can claim the size or power of influence of the annual Natural Products Expo. All the big brands were there representing, showcasing and testing out their latest products at the Anaheim Convention Center, and I was there to catch a glimpse.
Some exhibitors had impressive artwork, some had models, and some had celebrities. Ziggy Marley sang, Cat Cora cooked, and Fabio struck a pose in between nutrition discussions with a small, but loyal group of fawning middle-aged women.
I sampled oodles of food and beauty products, spoke to the artisans behind them, and picked their brains about nutrition, product creation and sustainability. I brought home a tote of samples as heavy as any trick-or-treat bag I remember wielding as a kid. It was pretty much Disneyland for the natural health junky.
But the most important thing that I gained from the experience was a macrocosmic view of the industry itself: This was no hippy-dippy lovefest, nor did I expect it to be. It was a trade show, like any trade show, complete with the inevitable mark of the beast ($$$).
Forgive me for being melodramatic, but this exhibition served to further reinforced my pessimism about the natural products industry. I want to remind everyone to exercise caution when buying anything "natural," "ethical" or "healthy", because frankly, those terms don't mean a damn thing.
As Michael Pollan so aptly put it, "If you're concerned about your health, you should probably avoid products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a strong indication it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.”
Pollan is dead-on. "Natural food product" is almost always an oxymoron as far as I'm concerned.
And yet, there was plenty of good mixed in with the repulsive this weekend.
I was fortunate to meet a gentleman named Art who has been a personal trainer and life coach to the stars for a number of years. He shared with me his experiences and stories working in the natural health industry and how it has grown and changed. He's gotten to know some prominent public figures who have gone from to nobodys to natural health superstars over the decades.
Together we attended a seminar called "Spontaneous Happiness" by Dr. Andrew Weil, whom Art knew in his younger years. He called him "one of the pioneers of natural health", or at least as we know it today in the mainstream.
"To give you some idea, I was here with Andrew at the first Expo in 1983," he said. "Back then nobody knew who he was. There were only 1,000 people at the show. We were just a bunch of hippies."
This year there were approximately 2,000 exhibitors and over 56,000 attendees. Dr. Weil has gone from unknown hippie to household name, and recently became the spokesperson for Megafood vitamins.
Despite the sheer size and diversity represented at the event, I've concluded
Five Truths about the Natural Products Industry
1) "Naturals", as it is called by insiders, is a hot, growing market that supports a lot of positive change and innovation.
I saw a myriad of inspirational things happening based on cutting-edge scientific research, purity of ethics, desire for social change, superb artistry, and culinary passion. I'm happy that all the buzz is giving some very talented individuals the opportunity to thrive.
2) It's still a market.
The flip side of the coin was a lot of business people in suits, wheeling and dealing over drinks in the Hilton lounge, Mad Men-style. On the floor, it was all about sales and promotion, glitz and glam, with very few reliable facts about the products' health claims.
That said, you could easily pick out the genuine vendors from the bunch--They were usually the small guys, dressed in normal clothes. They were the ones promoting their own products, without bells, whistles, or body glitter. And they weren't selling supplements. They were selling whole foods, and body care or lifestyle product
3) People are generally really confused about what is healthy--Even the ones who buy, sell, and market health products as a career.
It's possible that they don't even care about health at all, but I prefer to be optimistic.
Almost everything on the floor this year was gluten-free. There were also quite a few vegan products, but not nearly as many as gluten-free baked goods.
While I was happy to sample all of these foods, it seems that a TON of producers are just jumping on the bandwagon, and I'm not sure how many of them really know what gluten is. Plus, they were full of starches, refined flours and weird gums--Not my idea of healthy, natural or nutritious.
There were also too many energy bars, with WAY too much added sugar.
4) "Natural" is a nebulous term which means something different to everyone.
There were too many of what I consider to be unnnatural products to even name, but my opinion is just one of many. The best example I have to share with you is an energy bar called Sight Bites that was designed (or marketed) to improve eyesight. It contains lutein and zeaxanthin, which are supposed to promote sharper vision. However, the first ingredient listed on the package is corn syrup. I don't think that any product which contains corn syrup deserves to be called "natural," even if it contains certified organic corn syrup (which does exist, by the way).
Besides that, the amount of "natural" colorings and flavorings that I encountered was appalling. The companies that make the natural colorings and flavorings were also at the show, with some of the most costly and appealing exhibits. Out of all the products being promoted on the floor, these took me the longest to figure out what they were. And from the descriptions of how they process their products they are FAR from natural. I hope to do a full post on this topic in the future.
5) "Eco-conscious", "green", "sustainable", "fair trade" and "organic" are also hard to define, and often conflict with one another.
A great example of this is the debut of the "first USDA-certifed organic sake". A representative from the company explained to me the lengthy travels that each bottle takes as he poured me a glass.
The rice is grown and certified in California, then it's shipped to Japan to be processed, and shipped back to the US where it is bottled and sold.
Is it really worth the extra trip? Or is the organic label doing more ecological harm than good? What's your opinion on this?