Allergic to gluten, soy, grains and dairy, Debbi Ascher was having trouble finding snacks that fit her diet and weren't loaded with refined sugar. So she made her own.
It has been three years since Ascher and Jen Burnstein, friends and Gaithersburg residents, created the CharmedBar, a fruit-and-nut mix free of common allergens and sugars. And in that time, the demand for foods that cater to specific dietary restrictions and health concerns has skyrocketed.
The CharmedBar founders will be among more than 1,300 vendors showcasing their foods, beauty products and home goods at the annual Natural Products Expo East. The 31st annual showcase — a sister to the yearly Natural Products Expo West — returns to the Baltimore Convention Center Wednesday through Saturday.
CharmedBar, one of 29 Maryland vendors that will be at the expo, is just part of a swelling group of foods that are just as quick and easy to eat as they are nutritious.
"You're just not eating a snack that's empty calories, but a snack that's completely nutritious and that almost substitutes for a meal," Ascher said. "We rarely have time to sit down and eat a meal."
Carlotta Mast, whose title is executive director of content and insights for the expo's organizer, New Hope Network, said she sees the "modern meal" as the main force driving the move toward convenient natural foods.
Another local exhibitor, smoothie maker B'more Organic, has seen rapid growth as part of that push. The Hampden-based company's sales increased 350 percent last year, founder Andrew Buerger said, and he expects this year's growth to match that.
B'more Organic offers five flavors and will debut a sixth, coconut, at the Natural Products Expo. The company's smoothies are made with skyr — an Icelandic style of strained yogurt.
Buerger said his brand caters mainly to a combination of CrossFit athletes and "yoga moms," but it's increasingly being picked up by mainstream supermarkets. This fall, B'More Organic will make its debut at Publix supermarkets in Florida and other Southern states.
For many natural products manufacturers, the annual convention is a platform to launch new products on a large stage before retailers who could propel their businesses to new heights. More than 400 vendors are exhibiting for the first time at this year's show, according to the New Hope Network. That includes a number of good-for-you snacks, smoothies and frozen meals, from meatless jerky to blueberry waffles.
The expo is important for exposure, Buerger said, because it draws a wide range of retailers looking for new products to place on their shelves.
"It's not just the people like Whole Foods and MOM's [Organic Market] and Roots coming to this," he said. "It's Wegman's and Kroger [and] all the mainstream coming as well."
"I think being healthy, eating better, safer food is becoming so trendy and especially with the millennial generation," said Livio Bisterzo, CEO of Green Park Brands, which will debut its new brand of chickpea puffs at the expo. "Why eat a conventional snack when this tastes equally as good, and it's better for you?"
Often the biggest drawbacks is cost. A 12-ounce bottle of Zupa Noma, a new line of ready-to-drink gazpacho launching at the expo, retails for $6, for example. But Jon Sebastiani, CEO of Sonoma Brands, which makes Zupa Noma, says he sees more customers — particularly millennials — willing to pay a premium for foods like those his company makes.
"We have a bigger pie to work with, therefore these customers are demanding quality," Sebastiani said. "That shift in consumer behavior is driving changes up and down the entire food system."
In snacks, that means simplifying products by using fewer and cleaner ingredients. "They're kind of the opposite of what maybe a Cheeto would be," Mast said.
It also means packing a heavier nutritional punch into a smaller package. Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group, said the role snacks play has taken a 180-degree turn since the 1980s. Whereas snacking was seen as more of a treat several decades ago, now snacks more often fill nutritional needs.
"Snack foods really used to be about an indulgence, and as such most people would say they tried to avoid snacking," Seifer said. "That has reversed itself – most people do not say that they are avoiding snacks."
And that means more often, consumers are turning to snacks rather than full-blown meals.
"It's definitely symptomatic of an always-on culture that's in need of fuel but that is also looking for snacks that provide good nutrition," New Hope Network's Mast said.
Hippeas, a new brand of organic chickpea puffs that Green Parks Brands is launching at the expo, is an example. Bisterzo wanted to make a snack that was healthier and could reach a mainstream audience. After experimenting with a number of main ingredients, the group settled on chickpeas. The puffs come in flavors like Sriracha Sunrise, Vegan White Cheddar and Happenin' Hickory.
"It's got the taste profile, it's got the crunch, it's got the bite — it delivers on so many points when it comes to being a snack. But at the same time, it does so much more for you," Bisterzo said.
In addition to flavor, natural foods producers are also aiming to deliver more filling options, and more protein snacks have emerged as a result. Bart Silvestro, CEO of New York-based Chef's Cut Real Jerky, said he sees more consumers looking for lean proteins as they work to eat healthier, maintain weight and build muscle.
"Everyone's always running, so you need a snack that works better for you, that you can take on the go," Silvestro said.
His company offers beef, chicken and bacon jerky with less sodium than brands like Slim Jim, and made of what Chef's Cut claims is higher-quality meat. Since Chef's Cut was founded in 2011, Silvestro said both retailers and individual consumers have become more savvy, demanding low-sodium, gluten-free foods once seen as fads.
"It's becoming mainstream now," he said.
Meanwhile, Lightlife, a company that focuses on vegetarian-friendly meat substitutes, is launching its own meatless jerky called Smart Jerky at the expo. The imitation-steak jerky is made from soy and comes in two flavors: original and teriyaki.
"We wanted to come out with something that already had a proven sales track record behind it," said Brad Lahrman, Lightlife's marketing director. "I think the consumer is just becoming smarter about protein and where it comes from."
Mast said she's seeing more varieties of protein powders and protein drinks emerge, and more smoothies will be on display at the convention this year.
Although it's not a traditional smoothie, Zupa Noma is another blended drink that will make its grand entrance at Expo East. Sebastian, CEO of the soup's parent company, was drinking his first bottle of vegetable-based soup at 7. on a recent morning.
"It's kind of a bit of a new concept to think about soup, to think about vegetables in a convenient meal replacement," he said. "When we think about juicing and we think about fruit, we as a consumer are so much more comfortable thinking about those foods as a breakfast food."
With organic varieties like tomato gazpacho, beet orange basil, carrot coconut lime and cucumber avocado fennel, Zupa Noma is looking that shake up typical American breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Each 12-ounce bottle packs four servings of vegetables and a fraction of the sugar of a typical fruit smoothie in less than 100 calories.
"Until a consumer tries it, they don't fully understand that this is really good," Sebastiani said. "It's not just, 'I have to suffer through my vegetables this morning.'"