Organic products and those without preservatives and harsh processing remain big business in the United States — with $81 billion in sales last year — despite a tough economy.

Sales in stores, online and in practitioners' offices were up 7 percent from the year before, according to the trade publication Natural Food Merchandiser, which conducts a survey every year. The public consumed items that included foods and herbal supplements, health and beauty items, and pet supplies.

During the next few days, about 25,000 buyers from groceries, drugstores and big-box retailers, as well as distributors and food service operators at hospitals and colleges, will scour the aisles at the Natural Products Expo East, the largest show of its kind on the East Coast, to find the Next Big Things to put on store shelves. (It's not open to the public).

The 1,200 exhibitors include established brands like Stonyfield and Cabot Creamery, who want to expand to more markets, and small and local companies looking for someone to carry or distribute their home-grown products, according to event host New Hope Natural Media.

Erica Stone, show director, said many of the items are "passion products," created in basements by people who want to use and consume them themselves. They are moms looking for healthful baby food or shampoo without parabens, or eaters who don't want any genetically modified organisms in their food.

There are "organic" products, which need to be certified by federal or international authorities, and "natural" products that meet standards of established associations because there is no federal definition for these products.

"We have a standards department that reviews everything," Stone said, emphasizing the challenge of vetting items for the expo for false claims and purity. "In food, for example, we don't want to see any artificial sweeteners, and we don't want artificial colors or flavors. We also have standards for health and beauty products."

But while consumers seem to hunger for "healthy" products, not all organic and natural products are good for everyone. Some are high in fat and calories. And the science behind other health claims is inconclusive. The government also doesn't regulate herbal supplements like other drugs. And for those trying to avoid genetically modified foods, the government doesn't require food labels for those either.

Lee Cohen launched Avenue Gourmet in the basement of partner Patricia Lobel's home almost 13 years ago because they wanted to bring a range of organic and specialty products to markets that were long on items masquerading as natural or healthy. "If the ingredients list has more than a few lines, you really need to take a closer look at buying that product," Cohen said. "And I think more people are reading labels."

For those who want to buy such organic and natural goods locally, or just learn about which ones are made and distributed from the area, here's a look at area companies and their offerings:

Avenue Gourmet, Owings Mills (

Avenue Gourmet is a specialty and natural food distribution company that scours the market for hard-to-find products. It was launched by two specialty food veterans, Lobel and Cohen. They sell natural, sugar-free, vegan, low-carb and kosher items, as well as organic products. They include everything from baking and soup mixes to chocolates, popcorn, sauces, honey and spices.

The items are available through their online catalog, at Whole Foods and other local markets. New items include Envo Water in a recycled paper box, Frontier Dakota Territory Beef Barley Bean Stew mix and Jelly Belly Dark Chocolate Dipped Mint jelly beans.

Barcelona Nut Co., Baltimore (

The company's first nut was roasted in 1924 in a small Baltimore shop by an immigrant from Barcelona, Spain. It's still run out of Baltimore, but the plant is located in Dover, Pa., and sales are now in the multimillions of dollars. Its 150 types of snack foods are distributed globally. The products come under the Barcelona banner, as well as Stonehedge Farms Popcorn.

The company buys directly from farmers and growers and roasts the nuts in peanut oil and ships them within days of getting the orders. Most sales are through wholesalers and are sold in convenience stores and supermarkets, as well as at Camden Yards and other major league ballparks.

H&S Bakery, Baltimore (

The Paterakis and Tsakalos families came to Baltimore in 1943 from Greece and began baking Italian bread in one of the family's basements. Eventually, the company, named for the two original partners, Harry and Steve, became a giant in the industry, making bread and rolls for large grocery chains as well as McDonald's and other restaurants.

In recent years, H&S, now with third and fourth generations working at the company, launched a line of organic, natural and whole wheat bread products under the brand names Perfect Balance and Ultimate Grains. They don't use corn syrup or preservatives. And the products are available in markets including Whole Foods.