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Eye on the Aisles

Posted on September 27, 2000

At the Natural Products Expo held last weekend in Baltimore, a woman in a colorful lunch truck was handing out samples of Boca Burger, the vegetarian patty once associated with sandal- wearing sprout eaters. Only now, Boca is owned by Kraft.

At the Cascadian Farms booth, there were brochures describing the company’s new frozen edamame. But those soybeans are really being sold by General Mills, which gobbled up the longtime natural foods company last year.

Big food manufacturers with clout and distribution are on the prowl for the little health food guys with the inside track on the industry and its products. And that’s only one reason why once obscure natural foods keep going mainstream.

Venture capitalists and sophisticated sales reps roamed the aisles of the biannual convention, which attracted 21,500 attendees and 1,756 exhibitors. Former health food hippies handed out slick public relations materials, booths displayed once-unfamiliar brands now common in grocery stores, and everything from Walkers Shortbread to gummy bears has gone organic.

The show “used to be more on the edge,” said Monty Kilburn, director of operations for Harvest Direct, a vegetarian food company in Knoxville, Tenn.

Not that there weren’t plenty of on-the-edge exhibits. In the New Products Showcase, an Orlando company displayed its Bible Bar, “a biblical alternative to junk food,” based on a recipe from Deuteronomy. A New York company hawked its new green tea chewing gum. And Robert’s American Gourmet unveiled its latest snack food: Past Life Puffs, which company CEO and founder Robert Ehrlich developed with the help of a psychic. Ehrlich, who said his past lives include being a Tibetan monk and the director of a British orphanage in the 1600s, added that consumers will soon be able to get information about their own previous lives on the company’s website.

In this life, shoppers will be seeing more soy. Soybeans, which have been touted as reducing the risk of heart disease, among other ailments, are being incorporated into every conceiveable food. Spicy Cajun crisps. Mongolian barbecue chips. Rum raisin or English-toffee-flavored milks. Chorizo, “steak” strips, candy, jerky.

There’s even a soy caviar — and a soy water, introduced this spring by Energy Brands of Whitestone, N.Y. At the company’s exhibit, rock music pulsated the platform while staff in bright orange jumpsuits handed out samples of pina colada, strawberry banana and orange cream soy waters. Yet J.. Darius Bikoff, president of the company and a Richard Gere look-alike, said he thought soy was being a “little overdone” and that the new trend is going to be total “health-style.” That’s why Energy Brands just launched “wellnesswater,” water enhanced with vitamins, minerals and botanical herbs.

Could hemp products — displayed at several exhibits — be a successor to soy? “It has that potential,” said Richard Rose, president of HempNut, Inc., a Santa Rosa, Calif., company that makes cookies, cooking oil, nut butter, vegetarian burgers and lip balm from shelled hemp seeds, which Rose says are rich in protein and essential fatty acids. The only sticking point to a hemp craze could be this: The plant, whose stem is made into rope and cloth, is in the same family (Cannabis sativa) as marijuana. But Rose says that eating his hemp foods won’t make you high, and in an unusual label disclosure, the package of chocolate chip HempNut cookies says “Hemp foods should not cause a positive drug test.”

Speaking of tests, on Saturday, the Bethesda-based company Honest Tea released the results of a study it commissioned that compared the antioxidant levels in bottled green teas. Of the eight bottled teas tested by a private lab, Honest Tea’s Moroccan Mint had the most EGCG, a potent antioxidant reputed to protect the body against heart disease and certain cancers. “If people drink green tea for its health benefits, they have to be aware that they’re not all the same,” said company president Seth Goldman.

Indeed, it’s hard to know the amount of a health-promoting ingredient in many of the products in the natural foods industry or whether it’s enough to be beneficial. Nevertheless company representatives at the show seemed quick to point out why their products were somehow healthier or better than the rest.

Concerned about the potential for misleading claims, New Hope Natural Media, the Boulder, Colo., company that sponsors the show, evaluates all the materials brought by exhibitors, said Rick Prill, president and COO of the firm.

One claim that’s gaining in popularity on labels is that the product contains “Non-GMO” ingredients, meaning it’s not made with any crop that’s been genetically modified. While it’s getting increasingly difficult for companies to buy non-GMO ingredients such as soybeans and corn — since a growing amount of those crops are being produced from genetically engineered seeds — it’s also becoming a more common label feature, said Karen Raterman, vice president of editorial content for New Hope Natural Media. Such labeling may even be of interest to major manufacturers in the wake of last week’s recall by Kraft of taco shells containing genetically modified corn approved only for animals.

On the other hand, it’s getting increasingly easier to source certified organic ingredients, as evidenced by the aisles of organic products at the convention: snow cones, soy pasta, hearts of palm, chocolate sprinkles, triple chocolate biscotti, cocoa mix, chamomile tea, to name a few. According to Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, the organic industry has been growing consistently at 20 percent a year and is now a $6 billion business.

Another hot growth area is natural health products for pets, including natural foods. “People who want to eat healthier themselves want the same things for their pets,” said Laura O’Neill, president of Tia Pet Foods of Redding, Calif., which sells organic treats for rats and gerbils and wheat- and corn-free snacks for allergic dogs.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. wants people — and fish — to eat healthier. That’s why the avid environmentalist and lawyer is selling Keeper Springs, a bottled water whose sales profits will go directly to environmental groups working to protect America’s waterways from corporate pollution. Kennedy, who spoke at a press briefing at the show, said that Keeper Springs is also launching a line of soups in November.. Among the varieties, he said, is “clam chowder — of course.”

Aside from food products, there were hundreds of booths displaying supplements and natural health care products — pills and powders of every kind and color, not to mention vegan chap sticks, cruelty-free creams, organic cotton tampons and liquid herb supplements for children.

And in a cross between the edible and wearable, there was a company selling T-shirts and aprons with vegetarian slogans, including “One Flew Over the Couscous Nest,” “Silence of the Yams” and “Lawrence of Arugula.”

Copyright © 2000, The Washington Post Company. All rights reserved.