Natural Products Expo West 2011, Part 1: Big Issues

What recession? If the gigantic Natural Products Expo West 2011, held last weekend in Anaheim, Calif., is any indication, things just might be looking up. The expo was even bigger than last year’s record-breaking event. All things organic, natural, sustainable and GMO-free converged on the convention center in a vast trade show of more than 3,500 exhibits and 58,000 attendees.

I spent two days trolling the show floor–at times feeling like a hardworking little sustainable salmon swimming upstream against the tide of people. Of course, I tasted all manner of goodies, but amid the fair-trade quinoa-laced chocolate, myriad coconut-based products and artisanal cheeses, these are two major themes that touched just about everything at the expo:

Say No to GMOs!

GMOs have made headlines in the last few months, as the USDA continues to deregulate genetically engineered crops. That has the organics industry mad as hell and looking for ways to mobilized consumers to demand better regulations and labeling.  The GMO debate was a hot topic everywhere, from the expo floor to overflowing educational sessions. The Non-GMO Project, the third-party certifier of GMO-free products, had a major presence with a big booth and its seal prominently displayed by hundreds of exhibitors.

“At the end of the day, it’s about freedom of choice and taking back our country,” Stonyfield Farms CEO Gary Hirshberg told the audience at an educational session. “This isn’t just about organics vs. GEs. We have a lot more allies in this than we thought.” To be successful, the fight against GMOs has to include the entire range of opponents, from those who support organics to conventional farmers who don’t use GMOs to others who object to messing with nature’s work.

We’ll have more details on what was said about GMO’s at the expo in a future post, including some grass-roots solutions from Europe that may make a difference here.

Origins Count

Some foods have always been about origin–gourmet chocolate and coffee are just two examples. Now producers and manufacturers of all kinds of other commodities are looking for ways to share the story behind a product; telling consumers where it comes from, who produces it and under what conditions. Why? We want to know that food was sustainably produced and safe.

Earthbound Farms’ large booth displayed photos and info about their “Meet Our Farmers” program. Petaluma Poultry, makers of Rosie Organic and Rocky the Range free-range chicken, debuted its Trace Our Tracks program that allows shoppers to enter a label code at (or scan it with a free iPhone app) to follow their chicken back to the farm.

This kind of information is smart to share with consumers, especially those with concerns about sustainability and/or food safety. It also helps justify the price for a premium product. One example is Wild Planet’s Wild Albacore tuna, which costs about $5 for a 5-ounce can. It’s sustainably caught by troll or pole, and each fish is individually selected. Wild Planet uses only smaller troll- or pole-caught, 9- to 25-pound tuna, which means this albacore is low in mercury. Then it’s cooked in the can with no added water or oil, so it’s very high in omega-3 fatty acids. This makes for a delicious canned tuna you’d want to highlight in a recipe that really spotlights its vivid flavor, like our Sustainable Tuna Caponata, below, or Trennette Pasta with Tuna, Lemon, Capers and Spinach.

Of course, there’s also the taste-of-the-place appeal. Organic Valley’s Pasture Butter, which is produced in small batches from May to September using the milk of pasture-grazed cows, is rich in vegetal flavor.

And what about all the other treats I sampled? We’ll have a followup post that spotlights some of the best items I found, including ancient-grain cookies, a vegan cheese even I can love and a new type of sugar I can’t wait to try.

Natural Products Expo West: A world of organic

By Alison Ashton

Turning 30 is a big deal, whether you’re a person or an event, and it was certainly cause for celebration last month at the Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California. Its monster size–1,700-plus exhibitors and 56,000 attendees–was a reflection of how all things organic and natural have moved into mainstream. I revisited some of our faves from the Fancy Food Show and discovered new goodies you’ll want to look for too:


Revolutionary rice

Environment and flavor come together in Lotus Foods’ new SRI–One Seed Revolution rices. The company worked with Cornell University to introduce the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) in Indonesia, Madagascar, and Cambodia, which allows farmers to use up to 90% less seed and half as much water than conventional rice while boosting yields up to 100%–with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Varieties include Indonesian Volcano Rice (a nutrient-dense blend of brown and red rice), Madagascar Pink Rice (an endangered type that was preserved by one farmer), and Cambodian Mekong Flower Rice (prized for its floral fragrance). The rice is currently sold in 11-pound bulk bags ($31.79) and will be available in 15-ounce packages in the fall.

Gluten-free grows up

Expo aisles were chockablock with gluten-free everything, from cookies and crackers to pizza crust. Some still have all the appeal of a hockey puck, but many compare favorably with their traditional counterparts for texture and flavor. One winner was King Arthur Flour Company’s new line of gluten-free baking mixes for bread, cookies, brownies, cakes, muffins, and pizza crust ($6.95 each). The gluten-free chocolate cake was rich and moist with a light, tender crumb. Since gluten’s not a problem for me, I was also pleased to see King Arthur now offers unbleached cake flour ($4.50 for 2 pounds), which would work beautifully with our Chocolate Angel Food Cake.

Salty flavor, less sodium

NutraSalt Low-Sodium Salt ($3.99) hails from the Red Sea and Dead Sea. It’s 66% lower in sodium than conventional table or sea salt yet high in heart-healthy potassium, with an intensely salty taste. Since going to culinary school last year, I’ve been using a heavy hand with salt in my cooking. Now I can use this salt without sacrificing flavor.

Bag it

Now that you’ve made a habit of toting reusable grocery bags to the store, the next step is to focus on produce bags. Several companies make reusable produce bags, but I like the ones from 3B Bags ($7.50 for a three-bag set) made of a breathable mesh that’s fine enough to accommodate bulk-bin items, too. If you still use plastic trash bags and the occasional zip-top bag in the kitchen, look for Green Genius’s biodegradable bags; they’re priced competitively with national brands.

alison-thumbA longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and the Editorial Director for NOURISH Evolution. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times, and Natural Health as well as on her blog, Eat Cheap, Eat Well, Eat Up.