I just got back from Expo West in Anaheim, CA– and I feel like it may be time for a Jerry McGuire style manifesto! Yes, me—the food scientist who is probably more part of the problem than part of the solution – was rather shocked at the ridiculous abundance of processed food products on demo at the Natural Products Expo. Even that sentence sounds wrong– natural food show and processed foods– Processed is what the Natural Foodies want to avoid-but yet they cannot escape it! I feel like the packaged food world has gone completely over the edge and its no longer about the food at all- its just about putting out something… anything… on the shelf that meets a marketing claim. I feel like I may even want to become good friends with Michael Pollen now—or start my own organic farm—or do something. Anything to balance out the universe again.
From what I understand, back in the day the Natural Product Expo was way smaller—with lots of hippies trying to make a difference—I don’t know because I never went to the show back in the 80’s- I can only talk about Expo now—and what it has become!
The show was HUGE this year. Not only did they have the main floor and the basement, but there was also the attic area and a whole other section in the Hilton Hotel next door. It was like every food company was multiplying at an exponential rate and every time one turned around there were 100 more companies born right there on the expo floor. I am just so relieved that maybe at best only 5% of the products at the show will make it to the market and the rest will end up in a dollar store somewhere. Who has time to make that many choices at Whole Foods?
Hardly anything tasted good at this show. But apparently taste has nothing to do with natural products. As long as it hits a claim and eliminates the bad “sounding” ingredient of the day—then it’s ok to spend millions to manufacture it and serve it to the masses. Why eat potato chips made with salt and oil when you can have a NON GMO VERIFIED processed gluten free ancient grain powder based kale chip infused with vitamins, fiber and protein made in a local sustainable factory in the Midwest? AND if you are lucky it will go down easily with a shot of nasty HPP’d (high pressure processed) beet, coconut oil and carrot puree? Hey, its Paleo right? It HAS to be good for us. Taste means nothing. I tasted so many bitter, sour and over processed food products at this show—yes, processed— imagine that, processed foods at a natural food product expo. You know how there are all those articles about how the BIG EVIL corporate food industry is manipulating food ingredients and tricking our minds into thinking it taste good— well, yes- they are– and Oreo’s DO taste good. But making a really BAD tasting version of an Oreo with apple fiber and sugar alcohol is NOT going to convert the masses.
Candy that will make you smart because it’s infused with Vitamin B? Labels with portion sizes that are double what they should be so you can supposedly be getting in “good” amounts of protein and fiber? Then the opposite- candy portions being cut in half and claiming “low sugar”— since when do soccer moms get to decide what is and is not an appropriate portion size? Oh right, they all have degrees in nutrition now- children nutrition, adult nutrition and athletic nutrition.
There is nothing natural about dehydrating vegetables and then mixing them up with starch and running them through an extruder and turning it into a cardboard chip. Even if the starch is “unmodified” (could a caveman make unmodified food starch with two sticks and fire?) Adding flavors and colors even if those flavors and colors are natural themselves… is not really natural. Yes, the FDA may sort of say it is (although they don’t have a real definition of natural either) but lets all be honest here– buying freeze dried fruit from an industrial supplier and repackaging it into a foil bag is just not something that naturally happens in life.
I can’t take any more stories. The mom that just want better foods for her nutritionally deprived children and the only way to make that happen was to create the food herself gosh darn it! The ego-maniac super rich former executive who MUST create his/her own line of sauces with their face all over it, the hipster who spent the last 3 years farming in Africa and discovered the latest super fruit and has now turned it into a line of energy bars— The body builder who “created” an exact blend of sugar alcohols that saved his life– and cured several diseases-The doctor who wants to promote her own line of allergen-friendly products– I think pretty much all 2500 companies exhibiting at Expo West fall under one of those story categories. You know what my favorite story is? The one about the guy who came up with the idea that HEAT killed bacteria– yes, my hero– Louis Pasteur.
In an effort to keep ingredient statements clean (and lets all agree here- clean has nothing to do with the whether the ingredient is good for you or not, it only means that everyone and their grandmother can understand the legal definition) we have compromised on flavor. Companies would rather shove in massive amounts of spinach powder to hit a calcium claim then to use a soluble calcium powder. End result—bitter tasting spinach chips. To make a label clean we are essentially heavily processing ingredients that people know—and manipulating them to be functional in the product. Don’t use 0.5% starch, starch is not “clean”- lets use 30% vegetable powder instead. Its “cleaner” and we can call it “carrot” on the label. Even though it’s not really a carrot anymore, no more than corn starch is “corn”. Sure it taste like crap now but Homer Simpson understands carrots and doesn’t understand starch or soluble corn fiber. DOH!!!!!
Everyone has a different take on what sweetener should be used. The low carb people use stomach grinding sugar alcohols (provide the bulk, but not the calories!). Those that want to be “natural”, just use evaporated cane syrup (that’s sugar by the way in case you thought cane meant something besides sugar), those that don’t want any sugar (but are ok with carbs) can use maltodextrin and monk fruit. Monk fruit is not organic, so if you want a high intensity “natural” and organic sweetener—you use Stevia. Then there are those that pray to the food gods that somehow making something with all pea protein and artificial sweetener will taste like a Hostess cupcake and sell equally as well. It won’t taste like Hostess, because Hostess cupcakes are really good, I just ate some the other day. Hostess has corn syrup and sugar and wheat gluten similar ingredients seen in the supposedly much better products at Expo West.
Ever notice how the probiotic drinks all say the number of good bacteria at the time of bottling—right, that’s because most of them die off by the time you drink it. So congrats on paying a fortune for a vinegar-tasting beverage that may not have many good bugs in it. I am actually excited about the newest wave of vinegar drinks on the market– at least they are what they say they are, diluted vinegar (with some fruit juice added to make it palpable)– yum!
Maybe its because I am a food scientist that I am so disillusioned. Is all this my fault? Did I help create these products? I always keep an unbiased and open mind when it comes to these shows but the natural products food industry is on the brink of insanity now and I left the show hungry.
Lets End This on A Positive Note
Despite all that has been written, and despite almost everything tasting like packaging peanuts sprinkled with vegetable powder, Expo West is a big fun scientific experiment party. We have music and booth babes and young cool hipsters doling out nutrition advice with a bored superior look on their face- the show is super charged with energy and excitement and everyone is trying SO HARD to make their product healthy and shelf stable. The rules of shelf stability are fairly simple—you can dehydrate it, you can freeze it, you can cook the crap out of it, you can HPP it, you can throw in a bunch of acid and lower the pH to 4.1- you can retort it. Food Scientists invented short cuts and industrial ingredients to make the food taste good and the new wave of non food scientists (that would be the hipsters, soccer moms, former financial executives and body builders) are reversing all our hard work to make it appear healthier- even if no one can eat it.
I don’t think that everyone was in such bad shape 50 years ago when we were all eating Mac & Cheese, Pop-tarts and condensed canned soups. I think we were actually healthier and thinner back then– this was before fat and cholesterol became bad (and then became good again) – I think Expo West-the organization making millions and millions putting on this show– needs to stop instigating the creation of all these food products and start putting a cap on how many items can be allowed in. Instead of limiting the amount of items, they are just renting out more space. How about only allowing a max of 1000 exhibitors and they have to pass a Shark Tank like competition to be allowed in? Expo West should be a privilege, not something that anyone with investment money can get in on.
*Will I get my press pass next year for saying all this??
Is there a solution to all this? Yes! No! I have no idea– sorry. If you have any ideas, please comment below.
So—do you still need help developing your next gluten free, low –carb, natural, free range, nonGMO verified, clean label, certified organic food product that lasts one year on the shelf and was made from sustainable people on sustainable farms? Give me a call! I can help you! I won’t judge, I promise!