Showing what comes naturally at food expo


You're not a vegetarian, aren't into aroma therapy or spray-on vitamins, and think the planet can pretty much take care of itself . . . why should you care about the Natural Products Expo?

One, it's big. Nearly 800 exhibitors of such natural products as organic foods, natural fibers, homeopathic remedies, vitamins and supplements, and herbs spilled out of the main floor of the Baltimore Convention Center, filling the entry hall and the exhibit rooms upstairs. Dozens more didn't make the show for lack of space. Visitors, the retailers and manufacturers who tour the show to see what's new and to buy products for their stores and restaurants, numbered about 10,000. Sales of "natural" products -- those produced without artificial ingredients, additives or chemicals -- have risen from $2.7 billion in 1984 to $7.55 billion in 1994, according to expo organizer New Hope Communications, of Boulder, Colo.

And two, it's coming to a store near you. Among the food items, there are names anyone might already recognize from supermarket shelves: Muir organic tomatoes and sauces, Celestial Seasonings teas and Fantastic Foods hot cereals in a cup are old standbys at many groceries.

But soon they might be joined by such newcomers as Celentano frozen pastas, Thai Kitchen jasmine rice, Imagine Foods Veggie Pockets (pizza-style, Greek style, Sante Fe style) and Garden of Eatin's Salsa Reds and Sunny Blues tortilla chips, just to name a few of the food products that seem to have mass market appeal.

And maybe you'll even be sampling Ame sparkling fruit, herb and vitamin beverages, marketed by the Whitney Group of Modesto, Calif. The drinks, packaged in wine-style bottles, come in elderberry, apricot-jasmine and raspberry-passionfruit-blackberry flavors and are billed as "the natural alternative to wine."

"People are looking for alternative beverages, but they have to taste good," said Judith Keer, executive vice president of Whitney. "They're seeking out products that are good for you, that are clean. There's such a trend to natural products -- you can see it from the big players coming through" the expo, she said. Representatives of major grocery chains and specialty stores don't yet outnumber the buyers for mom-and-pop shops and health food stores. But the fact that they're showing up means the market is changing.

Indeed, a product like the Mr. Spice line of fat-free and salt-free sauces might once have marketed itself solely to health-food and specialty food stores, but company founder David Lang is pursuing shelf space at a couple of major local supermarkets. The sauces, including Sweet & Sour Sauce, Ginger Stir-Fry Sauce, Indian Curry Sauce and Garlic Steak Sauce, have no cholesterol, no refined sugar, no preservatives, no sulfites, and are gluten-free, soy-free and dairy-free, so they appeal to a wide range of people with dietary restrictions.

Also among healthful products is pasta, and it was everywhere at the expo, in all colors and shapes.

Organica di Sicilia pastas, imported from Italy, are certified 100 percent organic and come in flavors of eggplant, paprika and tomato, chickpea and garlic, chick pea and rosemary, orange and pumpkin, and chili and tomato.

Rice Innovations Pastariso products are made of 100 percent rice flour. "They were originally developed for people with wheat allergies," said company representative Alan Hamilton. "But, since pasta has grown in popularity, people are just looking for a tasty alternative."

Jacques Petit of La Maison de Soba might be the crossover king. A French Canadian who served in the American Army during the Vietnam War, Mr. Petit studied martial arts in Japan, where he fell in love with soba, the ubiquitous Japanese noodle dish. He then studied with a noodle "master," learning how to produce the noodles by hand. Then he went back to Canada and began manufacturing his own Oriental-style pasta.

At first, the products weren't organic, but exposure to the natural foods industry made him switch to certified organic flours. Now he comes to the expos not just to market the product, but to see friends made in the business over the years. "The natural foods industry really is like a small family," he said.

Hottest items

What's hot in the natural products field these days? Even the most casual visitor to the Natural Products Expo would have spotted these trends:

Tea: it's the new beverage, hot and cold, from the Republic of Tea's exotic flavors to Frontier's Dragonwell green variety to Sport Ice Tea, a ginseng-enhanced offering from Good Earth.

Chai: it's also tea, in a traditional Indian style flavored with spices, honey and sugar.

Pasta: made of wheat, buckwheat, or rice, it comes in Italian or Japanese style, flavored with such things as pumpkin, eggplant and fennel.

Oriental sauces: such as Thai peanut sauce, ginger stir-fry sauce from Mr. Spice and shiitake mushroom sauce and lemon grass herb sauce from Annie Chun's.

Ethnic flavors: Tex-Mex and Italian items (tofu burritos, Red-Hot Blues tortilla chips, roasted sweet pepper and olive pesto, sun-dried tomatoes) join traditional Indian chickpeas with spinach and Oriental spring rolls.

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