Last weekend I attended the Natural Products Expo, and from my vantage point, the health food industry is poised to take over the world. Over 2,600 vendors were on-site, filling three levels of one of the largest west coast convention centers and spilling out to the courtyard. Elaborate, multistory booths, gobs of free samples and even celebrity appearances from legendary industry figures, including the Bob of Bob’s Red Mill, proved that the natural foods and products industry is a force to be reckoned with. For the most part I felt at home amid rows and rows of vendors ready to talk about everything from chia seeds to raw coconut water, but there were surreal moments where I also found myself shaking my head a little at how obsessed some people can get about the purity of their food.
After a record-breaking event, which grew 5% in the last year and drew in over 67,000 attendees, the natural products industry is set to grow to $226 billion by 2018. Natural Products Expo West just released key trend predictions set to drive the future of natural products in 2014, and I was hardly surprised to find that they identify health-minded moms as a key demographic for the health food world to target.
The 5 key-trends of “what’s next” in the marketplace, as identified by Next Accelerator, include:
- Chief Health Officers, aka Mothers, and Other Key Consumers Targeted: While the healthy eating movement is spreading across all demographics, 5 key consumer segments have been identified. This is where us moms come in. Labeled as the Chief Health Officers, we are predominantly married professional females with young children. We are “goal-oriented health managers that are active information seekers, who will pay more for food or health products that are backed by research. Once they are sold they serve as influencers passing along their knowledge and recommendations.” Characteristics include being environmentally and socially aware, and we tend to be strict, rule-enforcing moms. Sound familiar, anyone?
- The Need for Convenience: Consumers are asking health food companies to up the ante and make their products more and more convenient to eat/use/cook with, once obtained.
- Transparency in Labeling: A large population of consumers are demanding the right to know what’s in their food and are asking for an end to the confusing labels and mystery ingredients that require a science degree to decode. For example, MSG can fall under 40+ other ingredient names, and unless an educated consumer, would never be none the wiser. The call to label all foods containing GMOs is also a huge point of contention for this arena.
- Food Tribes Are Growing: Look up the hashtag #vegan or #glutenfree on Instagram, and you’ll encounter almost 5 million photos labeled as such. Unique niche groups of foodies are on the rise, including Paleo, Gluten-Free and Vegan, and they’re not only fueling the healthy eating movement, but are also changing the way people think about and look at food.
- Individualized Eating Habits for Individualized Health: One person’s medicine is another person’s poison, and with the rise of food allergies and intolerances, creating and targeting these niche groups of consumers is on the rise.
The health food world may no doubt be growing by leaps and bounds, however I sense a major disconnect with the natural foods movement and the “average” consumer. After all, while the health food industry swells to epic proportions, our waistlines don’t necessarily reflect that, with 1 in 3 Americans considered overweight or obese. The biggest questions and the largest impression I get from readers is how simply overwhelming and complex eating healthy can be. Between the sheer abundance of products available and wildly differing views on what’s healthy and what’s not, the health food marketplace, in their quest to grow, has led many consumers to believe eating healthy can’t possibly be as simple as increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables, and ditching the junk food. After eating clean for 9 months, I myself am mystified by how complicated I initially made this way of life out to be.
Beyond the complexity of it all, let’s not fail to forget that this way of life isn’t even attainable for a large population of our country. Twenty percent of the population lacks even basic food security, meaning they can’t put three square meals on the table, and 16 million kids go to bed hungry each night. Additionally, close to 24 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts, with no safe and easy access to fresh, healthy food. It goes without saying that for these individuals, fresh and healthy food of any kind would be a welcomed blessing.
I would like to see 3 other topics make it on the list of important growing trends in the natural health food marketplace:
- Affordability: While I can certainly understand that more health-conscious products can cost more to make, therefore cost the consumer more, I’d like to see a growing desire to add more affordable natural food options to the marketplace. This is a multidimensional issue to tackle and can span topics as diverse as where government subsidiaries go and simple laws of supply and demand, but the bottom line: We need to make the basic essentials more affordable, including antibiotic-free meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, and simple whole grains. Those of us in the health-food community can further help by outreach and showing how to make healthy food simple and economical. The basic ideas that harken back to the old days include: making beans from scratch instead of pouring them out of a can, saving scraps to make our own stock, growing some of our own food, and other money-saving tips. Not every person eating a healthy diet is wealthy or privileged, and we need to do our part to help show how we do it.
- Approachability: For goodness sakes we need to demystify this crazy health food world and tone it down on the jargon. We also need to scale it back on the mission to find the purest, best possible foods available, for risk of alienating newbies and those interested. I’m not saying demand or produce inferior products, but stop with the fear-mongering tactics and make healthy eating simple, because it really, truly is.
- Accessibility: Let’s make it a goal to make healthy and nutritious food accessible for as many people as possible and available in as many places as possible. I’m hopeful that investors and companies continue to see the importance and value in the natural foods movement and industry. I was ecstatic to see Target begin carrying Applegate products last year, and at an affordable price. It’s this type of buying power which will help small health food companies grow and reach the masses. Many of the health food companies are small, family-run operations which benefit greatly any time a large corporation puts their support behind them. If more grocery chains and corporations continue on this path, it will help to put a dent in the dismal food desert statistic, as well as make these products seem more commonplace.
Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond excited to see so much interest, enthusiasm and growth in the natural foods world, but I think we have a ways to go before claiming any sort of victory in the war on health. As a health-focused mother of three, I’d like to think I’m winning the battle in my own home, but I know I could always be doing more. Perhaps it’s time to look into starting that community garden.
What do you think? Has the health food world made it easy to tackle the issue of eating well, or do they need to make it less complicated and focus on the basics?