In the Kitchen with Mother Linda
I have been going to the Natural Products Expo East for more than ten years. This is the premier show in the United States, along with a sister show for the West Coast in Anaheim, California, where manufacturers of “natural” and “organic” foods showcase and introduce their product lines. For three days, mom-and-pop health food store owners, along with buyers for big stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats, walk the aisles deciding which new and old products they will order. This year, Sally Fallon and I walked up and down 42 aisles (with probably a total of 1000 booths) to find out what’s new in the world of “natural” foods.
For years the East coast show was held in Baltimore, but Washington, DC’s brand new two-block-square convention center is the show’s new home. Ten years ago, you could walk the relatively few number of aisles in Baltimore and make your order in a day–but no more. Now it is a gigantic trade show. Over the years, supplements and body-care products have gradually increased their presence at the show, and with big bucks behind some of their products they are able to afford some of the biggest and most central booths. This year, more food companies took center stage, but not without some financial underpinnings.
Hain Celestial Group sponsored the biggest food booth at the convention. Hain posted $395 million in sales in 2002, so they could afford it. When I used to think of Hain, I used to think of good expeller-expressed cooking oils, but no more. In 1994, the oil company was bought, along with its good name, by a capital holding company formed the previous year called Kineret Acquisition Corporation, recently founded by Irwin Simon, a former marketeer at Slim-Fast and Haagen-Daz. In 2000, Kineret bought the specialty tea maker Celestial Seasonings and subsequently changed the company name to the Hain Celestial Group, which now sells 1,500 products touted as “better-for-you.” However, the bulk of their line is not organic and includes a big complement of “not-so-good-for-you” soy products.
Another front-and-center booth displayed the products of Small Planet Foods. It was decorated with a colorful globe and logos and info about its triumvirate of products: Muir Glen, Cascadian Farms and Sperry Organic Flours. This puzzled me because for the past few years the triumvirate was Muir Glen, Cascadian Farms, and Fantastic Foods. But this year Fantastic Foods was gone, replaced by Sperry Organic Flours. I noted that their jams, selling everywhere at discount prices, now contain sugar as the first ingredient.
Although the fact was not advertised at the show, Small Planet Foods was recently acquired by General Mills. I would go so far as to say that this new ownership was purposefully kept from show attendees who were making decisions about what they want to sell in their stores. The only clue to this new affiliation is a small “G” posted in the bottom right hand corner of the Small Planet Foods website.
SOY BOY TAKEOVER
Soy products took over the Natural Products Expo about a decade ago–I remember walking into the show and seeing young men in blazers and loafers for the first time (before that it was mostly hippie attire) and finding that at least a quarter of the booths promoted sleek new soy products. This year my guess is that about 40 percent of the booths were dedicated to soy foods and there were many huge banners and displays for soy, not only on the show floor but in other parts of the convention center, and even outside, where enormous soy banners were draped over the side of two brownstone buildings. The escalators in the DC Convention Center bring you down right into the center of the show where huge inflated globes, balloons and soy logos swayed over the heads of the visitors, creating an impression of Babes in Soyland.
Soy yogurt, soy ice cream, soy burgers, soy cheese, soy pasta, soy bars–all the imitation foods were there, along with some new, highly unappetizing forms. Hamburger Helper has been resurrected as Soy Addums, a soy vegetable protein touted as the best way to stretch a budget or literally any food further for only eight cents a serving, along with its competitor Veat, another new meat alternative. One vendor was offering soy jerky, looking ever so much like little turds on a plate. French Meadow Bakery offers Women’s Bread containing 80 mg of soy isoflavones per serving–a toxic dose!
One new company featured soy coffee. It was comprised of half roasted soy nuts and half real coffee. On the show floor they were serving it with soymilk. Sally refused to sample the brew, but I put on my smile and said, “Sure,” just to be able to write about it. It was wretched, even when they offered to temper the stuff with real half & half.
Stonyfield Farms was pushing its new O’Soy–a product they want us to call “cultured soy” and not soy yogurt–from its big corporate-sponsored booth. Danone, owner of Dannon yogurt and the number one producer of dairy products and biscuits in the world, bought a 40 percent interest in Stonyfield in 2001, which they have the option to increase to 75 percent by December this year. This has nothing to do with natural food, folks, but everything to do with big business.
SHOP THE EDGES
This show was like a grocery store–all the processed, high-profit items in the center with some real food around the edges. The smaller booths around the perimeter actually did display some products you might like to eat. We saw our old friends the Bennetts from Really Raw Honey and Arnold Badner from Red Mill with his wonderful coconut macaroons. We sampled some delicious cheeses and freshly grilled wild salmon.
Once again, Purely Organic, based in Fairfield, Iowa, was one of my favorites with their new findings of Italian rose syrup and pistachio nut butter. They import organic products from small, single-family Italian producers, but not before visiting each property to ensure that manufacturing is really carried on by the family and not in a big factory.
Kettle Cuisine was there with their delicious soups–made by chefs, not food engineers. We were delighted to learn that you can find their many varieties of soups in the refrigerator sections of stores like Whole Foods Markets.
Other new products included ice creams formulated with real cream, frozen coconut bars, crackers made with palm oil and a reformed Sucanat, made the way it used to be. For a few years it had been made through a co-crystallization process that mixed white sugar with molasses. Now they have returned to the original method of drum or air drying.
Unfortunately, there were still no naturally-fermented drinks, which is one of Sally’s dreams, nor were there any lacto-fermented foods at all.
As we left, we noted a section that featured shapeless organic cotton clothes. There’s a real opportunity for a talented designer to make these wonderful fabrics up into stylish apparel.
NOT WHAT IT USED TO BE
Overall, the health food industry ain’t what it used to be, a source of healthy foods from small farms and small producers. There may be different brand names at the health food store, but they are mostly the same products, even produced by the same companies, as the products you can buy at a grocery store. There’s no homespun feeling anymore–the whole thing smells of big business.
To get high quality food today, you need to buy from people you know. Not only will you bring some of the freshest organic foods into your home, in the process you will be helping to save the family farms by giving living wages to farmers.
And I think many consumers are waking up to that fact. One of my contacts told me “that a lot of vendors were upset about the lack of traffic.” Having paid $3,900 per 10 x 10 foot section–I estimate Hain Celestial Foods booth cost at least $40,000–vendors expected and depended on more people showing up. Someone else told me that the first two days of the show were dreadfully slow, but they had a good Sunday. Some of the shows over the past ten years have been so crowded at times it was almost impossible to navigate the aisles.
I hear that the big show today is the one put on by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) in Chicago every spring. Farmers’ markets, specialty and gourmet stores, home delivery from the farm, small independent health food stores and mail order are the new growth areas of the food economy. I wish them well.
SOME NEW RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS
- Giving Nature Foods, Inc., Newtown, PA: European-style cave ripened artisan cheese
- Aunt Gussie’s, Garfield, NJ: Cookies and crackers made with butter
- Raincoast Trading, Delta, BC Canada: Canned wild salmon and canned tuna
- Julie’s Organic Ice Cream, Oregon: Ice cream made with organic cream, evaporated cane juice and egg yolks
- Stillwell’s Stone Fired Pizza, Stillwell, KS: Frozen pizza made with high quality ingredients
- Kettle Cuisine, Chelsea, MA: Refrigerated soups made with real ingredients including meat stocks
- Morton & Bassett Spices. Novato, CA: Organic, non-irradiated spices
- Late July, Hyannis, MA: Crackers made with palm oil
- Bionaturae, Franklin, CT: Organic canned Tuscan tomatoes and tomato paste
- Rapunzel, Valatie, NY: Organic dry baker’s yeast
- Sibby’s Premium Organic Ice Cream, Westby, WI: Ice cream made with organic cream and organic egg yolks
- Wildcatch, Bellingham, WA: Wild frozen salmon, canned salmon, salmon jerky and smoked salmon
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2003.