Natural Products Expo West

Expo West trendspotting: Functional benefits, purity testing help justify premium pricing as consumers navigate economic challenges

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: E. Crawford
Source: E. Crawford

Related tags Expo west

Emphasizing the value of exisiting products appeared to trump breakthrough innovation this year at Natural Products Expo West where many companies either introduced smaller sizes of existing SKUs to lower the entry point or more prominently called out functional ingredients or product purity as a stand-in for safety to justify premium prices.

Many industry stakeholders expected this year’s Expo West in Anaheim to mark the return of widespread innovation, which was paused by many companies during the pandemic. But lingering supply chain challenges, record inflation and a constricting capital market in 2023 appear to have delayed the triumphant return of the industry’s previous level of new product development, food tech launches or the publication of science to support new ingredients and production techniques.

“We are stuck in this innovation gap right now,” where for the last several years brands and retailers have focused their innovation efforts and funds on cost optimization, including production improvements, to manage inflation and improve profitabiity, Chew Innovation CEO Adam Melonas told FoodNavigator-USA.

As a result, he said, retailers and brands have focused on safe bets – such as flavor extensions of existing blockbuster brands or different pack sizes to either offer a lower entry price point or a bulk discount.

“We are stuck in this gap right now, and if you compound that with the fact that … strategic CPGs’ innovation cycle from insight to execution is about two to four years, then we are still two to four years away” from meaningful innovation for consumers beyond cost optimization, he added.

Other investors and industry stakeholders walking the show floor expressed similar disappointment about the lack of innovation and echoed the prediction it could be another year – maybe three – before the industry’s creativity regains its former glory.

Still, some strategic trends emerged or gained traction in response to the current macro environment – allowing brands to tap into modern consumer needs.

#1 Minis are mighty

1 minis

Many brands showcased smaller versions of their existing products, either as a way to lower entry level price points, drive initial trial or offer consumers portion control, which is gaining importance as manufacturers worry the increasing popularity and availability of weight loss drugs will dampen consumer spending on food along with their appetites.

Many minis come in around 100 calories per serving, such as plant-based bar brand Zing’s minis and Nature’s Bakery’s Fig Bar Minis.

Smaller sizes also allow for permissible indulgence, as with Just The Fun Part’s bite-sized filled waffle cones. Likewise, they can open new areas of the store for product placement, such as near the cash register or in a grab-and-go section, as has been the case for Nucolato’s singe-serve jars.

Smaller servings are also ideal for smaller people, with the brands using minis as a way to gain a spot in children’s lunch boxes.

#2 Food for kids

2 kids foods

With children back in school and many schools no longer offering universal free meals, there is renewed demand for small snacks that are packed with nutrition but not sugar or “nasties.”

The Froot Thief declares its 100-inch fruit whips to be made with real fruit and “no added baddies,” including no added sugar or preservatives. The brand declares them “perfect for lunchboxes” as they are free from major allergens.

Baby food maker Pumpkin Tree also is upping its commitment to clean nutrition with the addition of a QR code on pack that offers transparency into heavy metal test results for each batch of pouches. The pouches also call out the fiber content to support gut health.

Nancy’s Probiotic Foods also launched a new line of yogurt pouches for children with whole milk and less sugar than leading yogurt brands.

KIND Snacks also launched a new line of Kind Kids products that are school friendly in that they are free from tree nuts and gluten, made with 100% whole grain oats and have 5 g of protein per 1.2 ounce bar.

Harvest Snaps also debuted a line of freeze-dried fruit – another trend gaining momentum in the snacking space.

Pressed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches also are proliferating, with Nuture Life showcase its Super Sammies alongside several other brands offering similar frozen sandwhiches.

#3 Functional beverages let consumers drink their benefits, not their calories

3 functional drinks

Hydration was a breakout claim at Expo West with many beverage brands touting the benefit, including pirq, which offers turmeric alongside hydration it its stick packs, and Sunkist which offers collagen with hydration it its instant drink mixes.

Other beverages called out pro- and prebiotics, including fibrant and Organic Traditions. Others offered doses of essential vitamins and minerals.

#4 Protein remains paramount

4 protein

Double-digit grams of protein remains a popular callout across categories, including in Chike’s Protein Iced Coffee, which promises 20 grams of whey protein with two espresso shots. Kodiak also offers 20 grams of protein in its Peak Oatmeal as does pirq in its plant protein powder. Flourish ups the delivery to 24 grams in its pancake and waffle mix.

#5 Sparkling water brands highlight regions

5 regional sparkling water

To stand out in the increasingly crowded but still thriving sparkling water category, newcomers are calling out the region in which they were canned, as is the case for Austin-based Rambler, or from which they were inspired, as in the case of Moshi Premium Asian Water.

#6 Mood food

6 mood and energy

Recognizing that consumers just as often reach for a snack, meal or beverage for emotional or mental reasons as they do for physical sustenance, several brands continue to add or call out adaptogens and other mood benefiting ingredients.

#7 Nostalgia meets better-for-you

7 tots

The craveable tots category gains a nutritional boost in Kareem’s Falafel’s Falafel Tots and Unicorn Tots’ Lentil & Quinoa Tots.

#8 Oatmeal out does itself on nutrition, purity

8 oatmeal

Already recognized as a healthy food, oatmeal gets an upgrade with additional prebiotic fiber, protein, and adaptogens from Purely Elizabeth, Kodiak and Zego. The last in the trio also claims front and center on pack that it is purity verified.

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