The Organic Trade Assn.'s "All Things Organic" component of May's Power of Five show is one of two components of that former extravaganza slated to stay put in Chicago. For 2008, the show will move from the basement to the main floor in the usual McCormick Conference Center venue. That's good, because in the past few years, the gravity that is the organic trend has been drawing increasingly larger crowds down to the basement for that segment of what had become the largest food processing show in the country.
While the Food Marketing Institute show (FMI), the National Assn. of the Specialty Food Trade ("Fancy Food Show"), the U.S. Food Export Showcase and the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Assn. ("United Produce Expo and Conference") shows were respectable if not shoulder-to-shoulder, ATO saw consistent crowds. "This is a terrific show," exclaimed Kent Spalding, Director of Marketing for Barbara's Bakery Inc. (www.barbarasbakery.com), Petaluma, Calif. It brings together such a wide range of folks it's fun to be a part of the community. Regardless if you wear a suit, wear Birkenstocks or are somewhere in-between, it is a great place to build relationships, see old friends and develop new ideas -- it's exciting. Where else can you get that?" Spalding, who encompasses the perfect blend of hippie and "suit" himself, was at the show to announce Barbara's Bakery new 100 Calorie portion control organic cookies.
Speaking of ready-to-eat bakery and breakfast food manufacturers, one of the biggest showings at ATO was the Nature's Path Organic Foods Inc. (www.naturespath.com) megabooth. The Vancouver, B.C.-based company has been in overdrive with new offerings, as well as new initiatives in healthy foods and nutrition as well as environmental causes. How many of us have promised that, when we hit the lottery, we'll devote a portion of our success to altruistic causes? Nature's Path is doing just that. The company is teaming up with a number of school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, Princeton University and Harvard University to provide more healthy snack fare to students.
On the environmental side, Nature's Path is making one interesting change and one very clever and hopefully infectious change. The interesting one is the company switching to recyclable plastic packaging for its 2 lb. cold cereal "eco pacs" -- yet not a biodegradable, corn-based plastic. Explaining the conundrum, Director of Marketing Maria Emmer-Aanes says the company's rigid policy of refusing to use genetically modified crops meant they can't use the corn plastic. They're hope is that folks who buy their products in the recyclable bags will indeed recycle them.
The other change in packaging is Nature's Path's "Envirobox" initiative, in which the company switched to cardboard packaging for its ready-to-eat cereals that is 10 percent smaller. Begun in just a few SKUs a couple of years ago, the company is ramping up to more than 50 different items next month. The amount of cereal is the same; the company is merely -- ingeniously -- taking advantage of the fact that "some settling may occur during shipping and handling." According to Emmer-Aanes and Arran Stephens, company founder and president, this move will save 144 tons of paperboard, nearly 1 million KwH of energy, more than 1.3 million gallons of water and remove 400 tractor trailers from highways each year.
Perhaps the move to smaller packaging by Nature's Path will also clear a little shelf space for the company's flood of new products. Few food manufacturers launch new items at the rate Nature's Path has been doing so. At the ATO show, the company featured an entire line of products using hemp seed.
"This year's hemp product line growth has been in the double-digit category. I believe there are two major reasons for this: Last growing season, hemp farming legislation was passed allowing it to be legally grown hemp in the U.S. for the first time since the 1940s. Consumers are rightfully concerned about global warming and they're looking for ways they can become more sustainable. Organizations like Vote Hemp are educating consumers how this wonderful ingredient is also rare in that the entire plant is used when harvested. Whole, healthy and sustainable on every front...what more could you ask for?"
Hemp, which was banned in the U.S. for about 70 years because of its relation to marijuana, is a permitted crop in Canada, the company's home. Hemp is rich in protein and omega 3s and protein. Without the THC that gives marijuana its psychoactive properties, it makes a great functional ingredient (see "Nutrition Beyond the Trends: Don't Bogart That Hummus").
Hemp has been trying to become a breakout ingredient for years but has been held back by its legal troubles plus its tendency toward creating a bitter aftertaste in products. However, in the hot and cold cereal formulations from Nature's Path it is barely noticeable. Hemp could end up the next goji berry (which is fast becoming the next açai -- scores of goji products, including a few from Nature's Path, were on display at the show).
Aloe is another trend pushing to come in from the fringe. Thirty years go the cactus juice was touted as a panacea for a number of ills, and imbibed by the gallon by the hardest core of the patchouli set. But the texture and flavor of the stuff was just too hard to circumvent.
Several beverage makers at ATO, however, took the plunge and released aloe drinks in several flavors. Unfortunately, they're compensating for the negatives by making it overwhelmingly sweet. My vote for the winning beverage goes instead to the organic, agave-sweetened brown rice and cherry soda from The Organic Food Chef (www.theorganicfoodchef.com), Woodland Hills, Calif. The unique beverages actually contain enough whole grain -- 8 g -- per serving to qualify for the Whole Grains Council (www.wholegrainscouncil.org) stamp -- one of the first and only beverages to do so. Sounds strange, but an open mind is rewarded with a refreshing beverage here.