Natural Products Expo West is an event we greatly look forward to every single year. With the past 2 years being canceled, we couldn’t wait to return this year to see what was new!
To us, Expo West is like adult Halloween where you Trick-or-Treat for the latest and greatest foods, personal care products, nutraceuticals, and even pet nutrition support not yet on the market. Here you will have companies that are 200 years old launching new subsidiaries (shoutout to ZENB’s parent company, Mizkan!) and products to companies that are 2 days old launching what they think will be the future of food.
Natural Products Expo, you’re thinking everything must be green, organic, and bursting with nutrition, right? Not so! Surprisingly, about 70% of the products featured at the expo are heavily ‘well-washed’ in our opinions, meaning they make numerous health claims on the front of the packaging or in their marketing materials, but don’t have the nutritious ingredients to back those claims. We’ve become more vigilant over the years prior to accepting samples or engaging in conversation with vendors, checking ingredients of products to look out for highly refined carbohydrates, including sugars and grains, large amounts of artificial sweeteners that may not be great for the gut microbiome, excessive saturated fats, and other inflammatory ingredients.
Rather than leaving with bags and bags of products from the 2,700+ vendors, we usually end up coming home with 1-2 bags of foods we’re excited about and a nice backpack of exciting functional beverages. While we may sample foods that we wouldn’t usually recommend to consume in large amounts daily; some out of nostalgia since going plant-based over 11 years ago; and some out of curiosity of how they will taste, we’re always excited to curate a list of the best-for-your-gut foods to share!
As gut-centered and plant-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionists, Expo West is our opportunity to view the latest and greatest (or not), all in one location in order to help our patients and community navigate the sometimes confusing and often overwhelming world of food.
So what were some hot food trends and common foods we saw this year?1. TONS of beverages containing functional ingredients such as Adaptogenic herbs, roots, and tonics.
- Inclusion of lots of mushroom products, lots of chaga/reishi/lion’s mane, which some studies have reported to help balance friendly fungi populations in the gut microbiome.
- Sparkling teas with added herbs, roots, and tubers with the goal to support gut motility, gut microbiome balance, neurotransmitters, skin, energy, and more.
- SO, so many probiotic beverages, some great with the added benefit of probiotic strains which hope to colonize the gut in a friendly, balancing way. Many of these beverages unfortunately containing tons of refined sugars and sweeteners, which may negate the effects of the added probiotics altogether.
- Want vegan chicken nuggets, plant-based seafood, egg mcmuffin alternative, plant based deli mock-meats, vegan hotdogs, mock cheeses, and every single kind of plant milk you can think of? You’re in luck because they’re coming! Are these foods very nutrient-dense? Not always — many of them were very calorie dense, providing energy, but many of those calories came from saturated fats coming from coconut or palm oil, refined carbohydrates, emulsifiers, which have repeatedly been shown in studies to offset the delicate balance in the gut microbiome, and other not-so-good-gut ingredients.
- Are these foods fun every once in a while? Definitely! Will eating them occasionally cause gut dysbiosis? That’s highly unlikely. The issue is they’re not being marketed that way — they’re marketed as daily replacements for animal products. For those following a vegan diet for ethical reasons without much emphasis on gut health, these can certainly be an option, for those of us in our Good Gut Gang, many of the new vegan foods about to flood the market may not be on the regular grocery list.
- We did find many cool new types of plant milks including chia, barley, buckwheat, and others. Some with emulsifiers, some without. The same was observed with dairy free cheeses — some were cashew or almond based without many additives, others touted quite a bit of oil and sugar.
- The name of the game with these new vegan products is reading labels to check for some of the aforementioned ingredients.
- Lots of gut health branding — whether it is true or not is another story. Everywhere we turned we saw claims for gluten free products, probiotics, gut healthy foods, and more claims seemingly trying to make eating gut friendly foods more convenient.
- Low FODMAP products (Fermentable Oligosaccharides Disaccharides Monosaccharides and Polyols AKA fermentable carbohydrates that can cause bloating and gas) were also making themselves known. Some were great whole food options for those who may not tolerate certain FODMAPs, many others came in the form of cookies, muffins, and dressings with several teaspoons of refined sugars per serving — soooo, not so Good Gut after all.
4. Less Sugar Added/Sweetened with Stevia/Monk Fruit
- Though we saw our fair share of maple syrup, cane sugar, sorbitol, and sucrose (AKA white table sugar) in a large percentage of the foods at Natural Products Expo, we also saw a spike in the use of Stevia (both whole leaf and slightly more processed stevia leaf extract) and Monk Fruit AKA Lo Han Guo. The jury is still out on the long-term effects of these more naturally derived sweeteners. They’re currently viewed as a nice and easy way to achieve a sweet flavor without a significant spike in blood sugar. We appreciated foods that were thoughtfully sweetened with these or pure dates or date sugar.
5. Environmentally Friendlier Approach to Products and Packaging
- Edible Spoons made from corn and wheat
- Barley milk, upcycled using leftover barley from brewing
- Cacao bean pod beverages
- Tofu run-off ingredients being put into tortillas
- Fiber and skin of foods being found in crackers, bites, and other foods giving a new life to what once was considered waste.
- Our favorite, using the entire crop/whole food (like including the skin) like they do at ZENB with their yellow pea pasta.
- These are simple, yet extremely important ways to reduce food waste, energy, waste and at the same time increase the health benefits of the food product.
About James and Dahlia Marin:
James and Dahlia Marin are the co-founders of Married to Health, a plant-based integrative dietetic practice that provides medical nutrition therapy to bridge the gaps in health maintenance, disease prevention and disease reversal. As members of the ZENB Plant Council, their combined expertise help advocate, educate and inspire people about the power of plants.