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Natural foods: Eating up the trends

Published Apr. 6, 2012

Remember chia pets? Rinsing your hair with beer? Food that's just food — no soy protein isolate, xanthan gum, red dye No. 40 or mystery ingredients from the Amazon rain forest?

Well, chia is back, big time (the seeds, not the pets). And so is regular old food. We recently spent hours plodding the floors — along with 60,000 others — at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif., the biggest health food trade show in the world. The overarching theme we saw: What's old is new again.

Your grandmother would recognize a lot of these hot trends: Foods produced by local farmers. Skin products with ingredients that aren't nine syllables long and don't start with prefixes like dimethyl or phenol. Products for sale in packages that can be recycled or composted. (Compostable diapers, anyone?)

In years past, the exhibit hall brimmed with bottles of vitamin, mineral and herb supplements. Now the supplement segment has shrunk.

"There is growing distrust" of all things synthetic, says Carlotta Mast, an editor at New Hope Natural Media, the company based in Boulder, Colo., that produces the expo. "That is driving the idea of 'Just eat real food.' " She says the purification ethos extends to that shrunken supplement sector: The number of multinutrient formulas is shrinking, edged out by single-ingredient pills of vitamin D or omega-3s made from pond-scum algae.

Here's what jumped out at us:

COMING UP COCONUTS: Coconut flavor was popular back when kitchen appliances were harvest gold and avocado green. Now it's back. Among the many items we spotted: Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley's Coco'Mon, a coconut cooking oil, one of many coconut-based products in his food line, Ziggy Marley Organics. Other companies are making coconut palm sugar, coconut water, dehydrated coconut to make your own coconut water at home (no Earth-unfriendly plastic bottles to recycle).

HEALTHIER SNACKING: Natural products manufacturers want a piece of the grazing market. Some of our favorite beverages: mint-flavored water by Metromint and Blackwater — yes, it's pitch black — from Vancouver-based Blackwater Innovations Corp. The water's infused with fulvic acid, a supposed health-enhancer.

To go with those non-sodas? Sweet-potato chips, kale chips, bean chips, banana chips — anything-but-corn chips, in fact, as corn becomes a new devil of the health food world. Consumers want traditional foods like chips and crackers to snack on at home but would like to feel less guilty about eating them, says Heather Smith, a spokeswoman for New Hope Natural Media.

They're salty. They're crunchy! And the bean chips have a pleasing (truly) lingering mouth feel.

TIME TO RECYCLE: Corporate consciousness is a big selling point in the natural-products biz. Naked Pizza's new frozen pizza not only has probiotics and agave fiber in its crust and zero sugar in its sauce, but the box also comes from a manufacturer that uses only recycled materials.

CHIA SEEDS: The same seedlings you spread on a clay figurine to make a green Shrek are now being used in food products because of their high levels of omega-3 fats. We saw FruitChia bars, Mamma Chia beverages and Crunchy Flax With Chia cereal. One company is hedging its bets with Coconut Chia granola — two trends rolled into one.

NATURAL BABY FOODS: Today's parents are passionate about their offspring learning to like fruits and vegetables. Businesses are responding. Plum Organics has grab-and-go fruit and vegetable squeeze packs of pureed food (such as a blend of blueberry, pear and purple carrot) that babies can drink or be spoon-fed from.

Plum is infusing some of its products with Greek yogurt (more protein than regular yogurt) and ancient grains like quinoa (fewer food allergy issues and easier to digest).

DRINK UP: The yoga drink Bikram Balance, a blend of fruits and vegetables, aims to restore electrolytes after you bow and murmur "namaste." Fruitasia, a new fruit-and-veggie energy shot, is touted as having three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit in 3 fluid ounces.

STILL HOT: Some of the big fads are continuing strong. Probiotics are booming; gluten-free is growing; the Greek economy may be tanking, but Greek yogurt is making plenty of money for some businesses over here.

SOMETHING ELSE: Sarah Pearsall couldn't find a natural shampoo that made her kids' hair look shiny and healthy. Then her mother-in-law mentioned that women in the 1960s, including Jackie Kennedy, rinsed their hair with beer.

Sarah and her husband, Brad, came up with Broo Craft Beer Shampoo after going through 53 brands of beer before they found the right formula (their product is on sale next month in select Whole Foods stores).

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