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Industry // March 24th, 2023

Inspiration and Insight at 2023 Expo West

Written by Jessica Lyness and Natalie Stronczek MS, RD

This is no run-of-the-mill business conference. Natural Products Expo West is an opportunity to experience the latest products, trends and innovations in the natural food and beverage industry. It’s a chance for brands to launch new products, meet retail buyers and grow their business. We also like to get to know the faces behind our favorite brands and ask them hard-hitting questions like, “What’s your brand’s sustainability plan?” and “How is your product so delicious that I physically cannot stop eating it?” 

Mushrooms have been hot for a while now, but have you met mushroom-fermented pea protein? You’re up on your gut health, but where are you at with your awareness of soil health? Is your next snack coming from the sea? Are there beans in your ice cream? From regenerative agriculture certification to intriguing new ingredients and flavors from around the globe, come along as we run down our impressions of this year’s top trends and tastes. 

Regeneration Nation 

Organic is always big at Expo, but this year the emphasis took planet-friendly standards a step further with rising visibility of the new Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), which helps cue commitment to soil health and regenerative standards to consumers. It’s a movement that’s right on trend with consumer expectations. According to the Hartman Group, 75% of consumers are aware of soil health as an environmental concern and 57% are aware of regenerative agriculture as part of the solution. 

Alexandre Family Farm is one emerging leader in the regenerative ag space. Operated by fifth-generation farmers, the company is best known for its regenerative organic A2/A2 dairy products sold in select retailers across the country. As we walked the show, a handful of additional milk-based regenerative brands stood out: Cheddies Crackers, Serenity Kids Baby Food, and Alec’s Ice Cream 

We discussed the rise of regenerative agriculture in our 2023 Trends Report, and  the trend is moving beyond the pasture. Lundberg Family Farms debuted its first ROC Basmati Rice. Other regenerative brands of note included Cook’s Venture pasture-raised chicken, Big Picture Foods organic olives, and Milkadamia macadamia milk.  

Lupini on the Pulse 

Speaking of plant-based: all hail lupini, the hottest new pulse around. Also known as chocho, this yellow legume (common in Mediterranean, Latin American and North African diets), is nutritionally similar to beans and peas but boasts more protein than soy and other legumes. It’s also the only keto-approved bean on the market. 

First mover Lupii, launched by a former Pepsi exec, had a big presence at the show. It was ahead of the game when it launched lupini-based protein bars in 2020, followed by a variety of pastas last year. Serving up a similar color palette and vibe, as well as the main ingredient itself, was the personality-infused brand Brutal, which introduced “one hell of a puff snack” in the form of its new Chocho Lupini Puffs. The founders, who have Ecuadorian roots, explained that in Latin American cultures, “brutal” is used as a slang term for “mind-blowing” or “awesome.”  

Meanwhile, in the freezer aisle, Wicked Kitchen introduced the first vegan ice cream made with lupini beans and credited their creamy texture with finally nailing the right mouthfeel for an ice cream alternative. Trend Hunter is on it. Since pulses are miracle workers for our planet, personal well-being and pocketbooks alike, we’re happy to hop on the lupini train. 

International Inspiration 

More consumers are returning to the office (either full-time or hybrid), which means there’s a renewed fervor for convenience. That said, during the stay-at-home pandemic days, many of us grew accustomed to delicious home-cooked meals. Our taste buds were spoiled. We’ll no longer settle for bland, nutrient-void on-the-go food.  

The industry heard our cries, and let me tell you, it delivered. Not only did we see an influx of creative, nutritious products aimed at alleviating a busy schedule (check out these frozen mini waffles packed with fruits and veggies), but after our experience eating a walking taco while having a dance party at SOMOS Foods“Fiesta Booth,” we noticed that this year’s Expo marked an exploding trend in global flavors. The investment in BIPOC founders in recent years was evident. Brands like Maya Kaimal’s unbelievably convenient Indian meals are part of a category with significant revenue expectations over the coming years. Meanwhile, the seriously flavorful, beautifully branded, Oregon-based brand, Heyday Canning Co. has revolutionized our feelings about canned beans. Made with vibrant flavors, nutrient-dense ingredients, and BPA-free cans, this brand has all the best intentions in their effort to revitalize a sleepy CPG category.  

On a sweeter note, our minds were blown by Marco Ice Cream. “Global cuisine meets ice cream” in flavor combinations we didn’t know were possible. One bite of the Moroccan Honey Nut and your life will never be the same.  

Other brands providing top-notch global flavors included Cool Beans Plant-Based Wraps, Diaspora Co. Spices (with a rebrand that will leave you weak in the knees), and the Momofuku’s Chili Crunch stealing the hearts of eaters everywhere, all at once.  

Kelp! Kelp! I Need a Snack!  

We told you kelp was on trend for 2023 and, wow, did it ever show up. A sea-salt breeze whispered through the halls of the convention center as kelp appeared in every way, shape, and form. Who got us talking? Well, we definitely had some questions about this kelp burger, such as, did SpongeBob himself grant them the rights to feature him at their booth? We also felt our Portland souls align with the “peace, love, and seaweed” message shared by Wavy Wonders’ crunchy Norwegian Winged kelp snacks. We even got to visit the booth of the sea-chi producers (now also making ingenious Kelp Smoothie Cubes) that we called out in our 2023 Trends Report. Did we fangirl? Mind your business.  

Out of concern for overdoing it, we won’t use the word “superfood,” but kelp truly is a nutritional powerhouse, rich in vitamins and minerals and fully deserving of a seat at the table. On top of that, these sea vegetables have a negative carbon footprint, meaning they sequester carbon back into the earth’s soil. Sound familiar? Another word for this: regenerative farming, heyyy.  

I Want Candy 

Those of us who swing toward the sweet side of the aisle will be happy to hear that Expo really delivered this year. New brand Oomph! Sweets introduced a line of low-sugar gummies made with functional ingredients (like apple cider vinegar and lion’s mane mushroom) and “just the right balance of feel-good nostalgia and exciting novelty.” Giving us sour power, Better Sour gummies debuted their plant based, low-sugar gummies featuring globally inspired flavors such as calamansi, “the unicorn of the citrus family,” and ume, a relative of the apricot. Behave gave us chef-imagined Sour Bears, Sour Stars and Sweet Bears with better-for-you ingredients and bursts of great flavor. Issei’s Mochi Gummies offered vegan chewy candies made with rice flour, and Froot Thief delivered a fresh fruit spin on clean candy in an adorable package. Early pioneer Smart Sweets, known for making candy without added sugars, sugar alcohols, and artificial sweeteners, showcased its full product lineup and introduced caramels. We wonder if the caramels were Nina’s idea? 

 Still Shroomin’ 

If you’re skeptical of the kelp burger, maybe mushrooms will be more your thing. Meati made certain you’d have a “what am I eating? moment” with their nutrient-rich mushroom-root steaks. We had a similar moment when we tried Moku and Pan’s mushroom jerkies. Mycelium-based meat alternatives are an exciting take on plant-based products, but mushrooms did not stop there. A much-deserved shoutout to Shroom Junkie and their mushroom plant milk. Are you thinking, “But you can’t milk a mushroom!” True, but you can use mushrooms to ferment pea protein, and you can source vitamin D2 from mushrooms for your milk, and you can also unlock super flavor and nutrition with the use of mushrooms. This product is next-level innovative, so let’s leave the nuances of what’s allowed to be called “milk” to the FDA.  

 At Expo West We Wear Pink 

Pantone named Viva Magenta 2023’s color of the year, and people ran with it. At this year’s Expo West, pink hues were everywhere, and it seemed like anybody who’s anybody was either wearing a pink power suit, working in a pink booth, or both. But nobody worked it harder than the pink-clad bellhops handing out churro puffs, veggie straws, and grain-free tortilla chips from You Need This Snack. 

 Until next time, keep your friends close, and your snacks even closer.