Wrestling your way through 85,000 attendees all straining to get a glimpse of more than 3,500 exhibitors and discover the next big thing is not a sport for the timid. It requires focus, a strong stomach, good shoes, and the ability to help keep the herd moving along.

In order to make sure we covered the breadth of the show we sent 4 of our sharpest trend spotters to walk the show. And walk it we did. We traversed every aisle, approaching each new situation with a beginner’s mind to help identify patterns and trends that a person more in the weeds might miss because they are too close to what’s going on. After our first day walking Expo West, we stopped and asked ourselves: “If we were from another planet, and this show was our first exposure to food in the United States, what would it say about us?”

The answer came quickly: We are a thirsty, protein-deprived nation seeking to eat our way to enlightenment and a longer life, and to look better while doing it.

What does this mean? And what does it mean specifically for your business? Grab a bottle of water (preferably oxygenated to give you better mental focus), sit back and read on…


1.  Water, water everywhere and for every micro-occasion

“Oh look, another water booth,” said one attendee with more than a little snark. This was on day one of the show, and only a few hours in. That’s how many new water offerings were present. Usually you are looking for a bottle of water to help cleanse the palate from the many samples of chocolate, chips, and chewy bits of jerky. This year, you were able to have a water to cleanse your palate after you sampled a water.

Artisanal water from volcanoes and glaciers is nothing new at Expo West. However, this year we found numerous waters that were oxygenated, caffeinated, electrolyte-enhanced, charcoal-detoxifying, alkaline, ph-balanced, or even for your pets. But never all in one gulp.

As we sipped our various bottles of water, we wondered who this would appeal to. What consumer need is this meeting? What’s the job to be done? The problem to solve? Unlike an Annie’s or Once Upon a Farm that’s meeting a broad need that consumers have – cleaner ingredient decks that “I feel good about feeding my family” – these waters serve a very narrow need. That is, a niche-moment in the life of a consumer who has a very specific mindset.

These waters represent the fusion of two societal trends. The first is the growing aversion to sugar added into our food, or artificial sweeteners that mimic sugar in our brains. The slump in soda sales and the concern consumers have about many juices and isotonics like Gatorade is due in part to our sugar aversion. Enter the oxygenated or caffeinated water. It gives you the benefits without the sugar. The second is micro-targeting, that is, products targeted at “micro-occasions.” Fuse our sugar aversion with micro-targeting and you get moments like: coming out of the gym, grab an oxygenated water to help your muscles recover; enjoy a bottle of caffeinated water in the afternoon instead of a latte, you’ll hydrate and energize simultaneously, without the calories.

What do micro-occasions mean for your business? Micro-occasions can mean micro-revenues if you are a large company with big revenue targets. A small start-up can capitalize on the oxygen-deprived market by selling to gyms nationwide, but unless it can expand to other occasions, it will remain very niche.


2.  Hope in a Bar

Protein remains the nutrient of the day but collagen has built on its debut last year. Offering benefits like improving the health of your skin and hair, we can now literally eat our way to beauty. Collagen has many other health benefits like joint health and gut health and was key to the excitement around bone broths. Now, collagen comes in powder, chews, liquid and bar form from diverse, identified sources like bovine and marine, so how and what you consume is up to you.  Stand outs include Kalumi, Primal Kitchen, Vital Proteins for its wide array of collagen peptide powders with different flavors (matcha, blackberry, or chocolate anyone?), uses (coffee creamers) and benefits (beauty water). Neocell, who managed to make collagen taste delicious with their fruit chew Beauty Bursts, topped their taste innovation with a Collagen Cookie Bar this year! And the brand Reserveage Nutrition is focused on the beauty benefits of collagen with a very extensive line-up.

What does the hope of beauty mean for your business? Keep an eye on collagen, and perhaps dabble with what a collagen-enhanced offering might look like from your brand. It won’t replace protein as it doesn’t offer the promise of “fuller for longer” but it does offer something even more potent - the hope to enhance beauty. Charles Revson, founder of Revlon, once said they sell “hope in a jar.” Think of this as ‘hope in a bar.’ The entire beauty industry is based on this idea of hope, and now it’s arrived in our food and beverage space. This could be transformational.


3.  Ingredients to Keep You Living Longer

The other great promise at Expo this year was immunity. It’s not exactly immortality, but it is a promise to live healthier. In a year of such a strong flu season, that sounds pretty good. One way to achieve this is through the consumption of turmeric. This golden spice has been simmering on the trend back burner for a few years. Finally, the flame was turned up and you see turmeric showing up in everything from Nature’s Path’s golden cereal (makes your milk golden) to turmeric-boosts for your coffee, and everything in-between (Ginger People’s tonics, shots, and lattes, Numi’s golden lattes, Pranayums’ powder supplements).

Honorable mention for an emerging super food is tart cherry. Several exhibitors were offering tart cherry juice which offers more antioxidant super-power than even pomegranate juice. Plus, it’s a super anti-inflammatory. Better tasting than turmeric, our money is on cherry juice.

What does the immunity-offering turmeric mean for your business? Turmeric is an acquired taste which may limit its trend longevity despite the health benefits. If you must use it, look for ways to sneak it in without offsetting taste, which remains king. And explore what you can do with cherry juice – a flavor that is generally more palatable to the US consumer than turmeric.


4.  Taking Better Care of Women

Given the rising cultural movement of women empowerment sparked by #metoo and continuing with #timesup, could this be the moment when the focus of health and wellness shifts to become more specialized for women?

A new bar called EM*PACT was developed by two ex-lawyers whose mission is not only to provide great protein and energy bars, but to empower women. We saw established brands expanding into some new categories. Traditional Medicinals, an established tea brand, seems to be going all-in on new bars and chews for women to prepare for pregnancy, calm morning sickness, and aid with lactation. And that wasn’t all. We also saw progesterone and menopause creams from Internal Harmony as well as supplements to help with conception, energy, and digestion once pregnant, and then when breast-feeding.

The form of a supplement is also evolving. It’s been a few years since vitamins were reimagined as gummies. Now, those gummies are being made out of food products that taste like real food, courtesy of Mega Food. And powdered supplements are being packaged in better looking containers, such as this line from ORA with names like Renewable Energy, Easy Being Green, So Lean and So Clean, and Trust Your Gut.

What do women-centric products mean for your business? Make products for women, just like you would for men. Women have specific needs that the industry is just starting to recognize. And who says those bulky jars of powders on our counters and over the fridge have to be so ugly – get inspired and bring design to your package structure for a little extra consumer appreciation.


5.  Eat Your Way to Enlightenment

No, we didn’t achieve enlightenment from the copious amounts of samples, but it was promised to us. Notably in the Fresh Ideas tent, we found three booths side-by-side, offering “peace of mind,” “clean energy,” “enlightened balance” and “grounded” benefits one right after the other from their products. This generated eye rolls on our part as there was nothing in the ingredient lists that would actually yield enlightenment. This felt like a ‘jump the shark’ moment.

What does the promise of enlightenment mean for your business? Stay grounded. In reality. Promise to consumers what you can actually deliver with your products and ingredients. Keep it realistic. It’s one thing to promise improved hair and skin due to collagen – a believable claim because collagen is known to be vital to healthy skin and hair. In all our years of mindfulness retreats, yoga classes, and meditation, we haven’t heard of any food that will bring you enlightenment.


6.  “Will This Make Me High?”

We overheard that question at the Good Bites booth as they were promoting their new CBD-infused line of goodies. There were several people at the booth worried if the little protein bites they were about to sample were going to make them high. The Good Bites folks were quick to reassure people that the samples didn’t have CBD in them, nor would they feel any psychoactive effects if they did consume CBD, which is true because it has different receptors than THC, which is what will make you stoned. CBD oil was being used a few other places besides Good Bites so it’s worth keeping your eye on it.

Even though California is now a state with legalized recreational marijuana, the cannabis industry is in its infancy and so even at a trend setting show like Expo West, out-of-state (and even in-state) attendees aren’t that versed in the uses of CBD.

What does cannabis mean for your business? It’s the Wild West when it comes to the cannabis industry, so if you are dabbling in it, make sure you are prepared to talk with people who are less well-versed, otherwise you might create a panic and inadvertently turn people off from your mainstream product. We’ve done some work looking at people who are using legally, you can check out a video here or email us if you want to discuss this emerging space.


7.  Jack(fruit) of All Trades

Big and ugly, the jackfruit is being used as a meat-substitute because its flesh has chicken-like texture with a flavor that is almost pork-like. It’s also being used as an anti-Stevia sweetener (along with Monkfruit). Several booths were using jackfruit as their meat substitute and we even came across it in ‘real life’ during brunch at Granville restaurant in West LA after the Expo. Jackfruit substitution has been on the rise for a couple of years but it looks like it finally gained traction this year. 

What do meat-substitutes mean for your business? Consider the jackfruit for a meat-substitute in any products you are looking to take vegetarian or vegan. Be mindful that it’s just emerging and may take some explaining and sampling to win consumers over at this point, although the Today Show covered jackfruit over a year ago.


8.  And then, crickets…

When you go to these shows as often and repeatedly as we do, you start to recognize companies and enjoy watching them grow (hopefully) and evolve (probably). You might remember we wrote about crickets in 2016. High-protein with a much lower environmental impact than traditional animal protein, eating crickets seems like the right thing to do but so many can’t get beyond the idea of intentionally ingesting an insect. We’re happy to report that the cricket companies are still going at it, offering either new formulations or new flavors of their bars and chips. Maybe one of these days it will take off like turmeric finally did.


But wait, there’s still more…

There’s so much more that we saw and want to share with you but don’t have room in this blog post. If you’d like to hear more about our learning around the new jerky, mushrooms, algae, monk fruit, farmer’s cheese, and overnight oats (among others) and how it might impact your business, let us know. Just contact us and we’d be happy to make time to talk further. Application workshops on all of these trends are also available.

In the meantime, we’re really curious to see which water brands make it to Expo West 2019. And for a little context, check out the 2017 trend reports from Expo West and Expo East.