Iâ€™m just back from the Natural Products Expo East convention in Baltimoreâ€”a showcase for organic and natural food, health and beauty productsâ€”and I have to confess, Iâ€™m feeling a little queasy.
Itâ€™s my own fault.
Wandering the floor of the show, I sampled a Solo Mint Mania low glycemic snack bar, Green & Blackâ€™s organic Dark chocolate, all-natural Veggie Munchees from a company called Health is Wealth (which could have been the theme for the entire show), a thinkThin Chunky Peanut Butter â€œhigh protein bar for an active lifestyle,â€ a Clif dark chocolate raspberry organic nectar cacao bar, and Dr. Andrew Weilâ€™s Goji Moji fruit and nut bar (cranberry and goji berry) from Natureâ€™s Path.
To wash it all down, I had some of Living Harvestâ€™s Vanilla Hempmilk (no, it didnâ€™t give me a buzz), a probiotic peach smoothie from pro-bio Max, a glass of Sol Mate (cool name) sparkling Yerba Mateâ€™, and a taste of Ayalaâ€™s Jasmine Vanilla herbal water.
All in the name of research, of course.
Although I donâ€™t cover the food industry, I like to eat and Iâ€™ve been thinking a lot lately about food and sustainability. As Hazon, a Jewish environmental group, says: “The story of our food does not begin and end on our plate. More and more people are asking not only, ‘Is this food good for my body?’ but also, ‘Is this food good for the world?’ â€œ Good question. Here are a few of my impressions from the show:
The organic and natural foods category is booming. Organics alone are said to be a $16 billion business, but going to a convention with 25,000 (!) people in attendance and acres of exhibit booths, and products you never imagined brings it home. Who, for example, dreamed up Dreamerz, the â€œfirst all-natural sleep beverageâ€ with two safe, active ingredientsâ€”Melatonin and Lactiumâ€”that are proven to promote relaxation and sleep? Flavors include â€œvanilla van winkle,â€ â€œcrÃ¨me de la REM,â€ and â€œchocolate sâ€™nores.â€ Clever, but really, didnâ€™t a cup of hot milk used to do the trick? On my way out, I spotted an aisle lined with organic and natural pet foods, like Pet Promise, â€œa promise of purity to you and your pet.â€
The American entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. Consider Albert Cahana, founder, chairman and CEO of Herbal Water Inc., which makes Ayalaâ€™s herbal water. Ayala turns out to be his wife, Ayala Laufer-Cahana, a pediatrician, passionate cook and lifelong vegetarian. She didnâ€™t want to serve her husband or friends sugary or artificially flavored waters and so created her own blends of herb-infused waters. â€œI was her first customer,â€ Albert, a successful technology executive, told me. Most husbands would just enjoy their herb water (flavors include Lemongrass Mint Vanilla, Lavender Mint Lemongrass Thyme, Cloves Cardamom Cinnamon and Ginger Lemon Peel) and say, â€œThanks, dear.â€ Albert started a company.
Natural does not mean virtuous or healthy. Neither does organic. This should go without saying. Natural means whatever a marketer wants it to meanâ€”just ignore the word the next time you see i on a label. Organic, by contrast, is a real standard, embodied in federal law; it tells you how products are grown. But organic foods are not necessarily better for you. Consider, as an example, Raw Revolutionâ€™s organic Chocolate and Coconut bar. Ingredients are cashew, agave nectar, amaranth, date, coconut, cocoa, etc. A single bar has 231 calories, 135 from fat. Call the obesity police, quick.
You never know who you are dealing with in the food business. I knew that many organic and natural food brands had been acquired or started by big conventional food companies. Kashi cereals is owned by Kelloggâ€™s, Cascadian Farms is part of General Mills, the company that makes VitaminWater was recently sold to Coca Cola. But when I stopped by the booth of a company called Back to Nature, which was established in 1960 and is best known for its granola products, I was told that it had since expanded into cookies. One of themâ€”â€œclassic crÃ¨me sandwich cookiesâ€â€”looked a lot like an Oreo and tasted like one, too. Though itâ€™s labeled natural, it has a shelf life of 180 days (somehow my daughterâ€™s home-backed cookies donâ€™t last that long) and it has a long list of ingredients including palm oil, expeller-pressed oleic safflower oil, brown rice syrup and soy lecithin. It turns out that Back to Nature is part of Kraft, which owns Nabisco, which makes Oreos. So you can now get the original not-so-good-for-you Oreos and the imitation allegedly-better-for-you Oreos from the same company. Itâ€™s synergy, I guess.
Late in the afternoon, I felt a sense of relief when I arrived at the booth operated by Albertâ€™s Organics, which sells fresh, organic fruits and vegetablesâ€”foods my mom or grandmother would recognize. Carrots. Apples. Oranges. They looked delicious. Better yet, they made no questionable claims, and there was no ingredients list to ponder.
I chatted with a very nice sales guy named Bill Ellwood, used to work for Whole Foods, who explained to me that the company buys produce from farmers and distributes it to retailers, through regional distribution centers all over the countryâ€”in California, Colorado, Florida, New Hampshire, Minnesota and New Jersey. â€œWe try to sell local when possible,â€ he told me. Great, I though, local and organic, too.
But when itâ€™s no possible, Albertâ€™s will import organics from all over the world. Grapes from Chile. Garlic from China. (And we all know how strict health and safety standards are in China.) On container ships that burn oil and spew carbon into the air, most likely. And why? â€œPeople want fresh foods year round,â€ Bill explained, and you canâ€™t get organic garlic in the winter in the U.S. â€œWe have to meet the needs of our customers.â€
So is buying organic garlic from China good for the world? I’m not sure how to think about the answer to that question.
Maybe thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m feeling queasy.