Editor's Plate

Editor's Plate: Natural Products Expo West Is Just Not the Same

To this annual attendee, the natural food business is starting to look like ... business.

By Dave Fusaro, Editor in Chief

Natural Products Expo West continues to be an amazing show, my favorite annual event. With 86,000 reported attendees, it’s hugely successful, probably one of the biggest trade shows of any kind on this continent. But maybe after attending for around 10 years, I’m getting a little jaded.

With 12 months between shows, it’s difficult to discern the tiny year-to-year changes in NPEW, or Expo West. The Anaheim Convention Center added a whole new building last year, mostly to house this burgeoning event (this year there were 3,521 exhibitors). Even with it, there are booths in the two adjoining hotels and even out on the sidewalks between the buildings. This is Southern California, after all, and I can’t recall it ever raining during this show.

Maybe success is its own worst enemy. While this show continues to grow in attendance and exhibitors, I noticed some signs that Expo West is not the avant-garde event it used to be.

There seemed to be more suits and fewer tie-dye T-shirts and jeans, which used to be the business-casual dress code for this show. No more Fabio, Marilu Henner, Jessica Alba or Channing Tatum, investors who lent their star power to the struggling little companies who used to be the norm for this show. They also brought a fun circus atmosphere. I think all their fledgling companies have been bought out by Big Food. Some members of the Bob Marley family still attend, however.

Angie Bastian was there, but only her name remains associated with the popcorn she and her husband once popped at outdoor fairs to pay their kids’ college tuitions. Angie’s Boomchickapop is now part of Conagra Brands, and that’s where Angie, still smiling, was found at Expo West. Boulder Brands was in the Conagra booth, too.

There were a couple of noticeable absentees. I recall years ago a PR person for one of the exhibiting companies tried to explain to me what Greek yogurt was. With a name like Chobani, I thought, that company is going nowhere. Chobani was not an exhibitor this year.

Campbell Soup was missing, too, although I can’t recall if it ever exhibited as Campbell Soup. Instead, past show directories listed Bolthouse Farms and Plum Organics, as if those acquisitions had no connection to the big company. Nevertheless, Denise Morrison would walk the floor, which I thought was an exemplary thing to do. Another example that she may have been ahead of her time as Campbell’s CEO. With the restructuring that the soup company is undergoing, Bolthouse and Plum may not be there much longer either.

One big-company CEO who was in attendance was Mark Schiller, since last October the CEO of Hain Celestial. As head of what’s probably the biggest “natural” foods company, his presence maybe was expected. Irwin Simon, founder and the only other CEO Hain Celestial has had, seemed to attend every year. I hope Schiller made time to walk the floor. Like his fellow Pinnacle Foods ex-pat, Mark Clouse at Campbell, Schiller promises a reorganization of the big but unfocused Hain Celestial.

Gone, too, is WhiteWave, which housed a handful of leading natural and organic brands, such as Horizon Organic, Silk soymilk and Wallaby yogurt. On the other hand, its acquirer, Danone, was a new exhibitor with a large presence. Stonyfield Farm, which Danone had to jettison to buy WhiteWave, was still there, and so was Stonyfield co-founder Gary Hirshberg, one of the original hippies at this show. At least his presence was reassuring.

Everywhere I turned, there seemed to be cannabidiol ... but not a drop to drink, to paraphrase the Ancient Mariner. I’m still educating myself on hemp and marijuana derivatives, but none of the CDB companies I talked to foresee their product in foods or even beverages. There were some efforts (like Prana Principle CBD water) but they looked strained. Plus, it's technically not legal … yet. There’s potential for the non-hallucinogenic compound as a supplement in gummies and oil drops, but as a food component it makes about as much sense as putting ibuprofen in a soda or brownie. THC, the hallucinogenic component, is another story, but there was none of that at Expo West. At least not to my knowledge.

There was keto-this and plant-based-that, oats and mushrooms in unusual applications, turmeric everywhere and yogurt from every mammal imaginable, plus some from plants. But no Fabio, Marilu Henner, Jessica Alba or Channing Tatum. I miss them.