I figured on an hour. Easy in, easy out. Little did I imagine that I would jet into the Natural Products Expo East in Boston and stumble out five hours later with three shopping bags (yes, re-useable and heavily logo-ed) brimming with business cards, brochures, and mini samples of everything from silver ionizing healing cream and nasal cavity washers, to gluten-free pizza and rare tea blends. Plus, an added bonus during my workday hours: much useful and highly personal advice on how to protect myself with probiotics, perform a toxic cleanse, and use crystals to change my aura. It’s the Fancy Food Show for the New Age set. And it is a hoot. Hundreds of booths, wafting aromas of lavender and ozone, many peopled by people who resemble the guys who testify after encounter with UFO’s, but a lot of savvy, suited-up marketing people offering studies and statistics, and spiral bound presentations with their competitive advantage. I know that big companies like Pepsi, Kraft, and Coca-Cola now own many of the leading natural products. It’s just surprising to see what their entrance into the formerly-Mom& Pop, crunchy-granola world of natural products has meant to the explosion of the industry. And I don’t think it is bad at all.
Being a food writer with a gluten allergy, my personal quest was to see what new, potentially edible, gluten-free products were coming to the market. I imagined a teeny corner of a not-so-major expo where I might find one or two crackers and cookie mixes good enough to serve my civilian guests. I was astounded by the sheer depth of the offerings––not just for gluten-free folks, but aisles of products that were cross referenced and segmented for every known food sensitivity—no eggs, booth 1178. No dairy, take a left to booth 1276. Tree nuts and peanuts? The whole aisle over there. The niche is huge and by the number and the sophistication of many of the vendors, I suspect quite profitable. Yes, as someone with an allergy I will happily pay more for a product whose claims I trust. Every product label carried an organic logo, called attention to its ingredients locus of origin, and is readable without a magnifying glass.
Many of the people staffing the booths come with a story attached. For me, a veteran story-sharer, cruising the entire trade show was like eavesdropping on the true confessions of people with food issues. A mother whose two sons were diagnosed with a peanut allergy. A woman diagnosed with celiac in her mid-forties and longing for a cracker she could bring to a cocktail party. A man who suspected he had allergic reactions but couldn’t find a diagnosis. A younger man whose own diet concerns led him to develop a wheat-free granola with “live” grains that helped him lose thirty pounds, and clear up his skin! Food as medicine, developed by consumers and food professionals with a problem to solve.
I bounded from table to table, bonding with the proprietors as I tasted gluten-free mini-pizzas, gluten-free power bars, gluten-free sourdough bread, probiotic lime and green tea swirled frozen yogurt popsicles, marched myself down the aisle for gluten-free pretzels, crackers, cheesecake with gluten-free graham cracker crust, chocolate cookies (both shelf-stable and fresh from a mix), and carrot muffins, and back to the pizza again. There was even a gluten-free line of chocolates, (who even knew that chocolate had gluten?). In between, I washed it all with a huge range of organic teas, power drinks, and three sets of powders (diluted in distilled water) that each and all pledged to make be beautiful and young. (Still checking….)
I was thoroughly ill when I reclaimed my car from the convention center valet. But I was also enormously impressed. First, at the sheer number of food entrepreneurs operating in a niche market for allergy friendly foods; second at the fact that so many of them have a personal connection to the need for the product; and third, with products that are both responsive to allergy concerns and to conscience.