Oh boy, it's soy -- a hit at natural products expo; 20,000 here to sample, buy alternative foods; Marketing


There is a buzz at this year's Natural Products Expo East that's even louder than Mimi Shofer Bennett's honeycomb display.

Not that her creamy white, Really Raw Honey isn't a hit at the expo this weekend -- it can cure allergies, burns, you name it, she says. But the big buzz at the annual event for manufacturers and retailers is soy.

Makers of soy products are presenting their vegetarian-friendly versions of America's favorite foods -- ice cream, chocolate mousse, fruit desserts, tuna, steak, chicken, milk, butter -- on the cusp of Monday's long-anticipated FDA announcement endorsing soy in the battle against heart disease.

"They've been so resourceful and creative," said Jyoti Friedland, 45, food service manager for Talley's Green Grocery of Charlotte, N.C., after tasting foods and placing orders in the food section of the expo yesterday. "It's so tasty you can hardly tell it's made from soybeans."

More than 20,000 retailers and manufacturers are expected to tour the packed exhibit floor this weekend, sampling the wares of nearly 1,200 companies peddling natural products -- from vitamin supplements and enriched fruit drinks to aromatherapy candles and herbal, nonalcoholic beer. The 15th annual expo, which is not open to the public, is the largest show on the East Coast for the $25 billion industry, organizers say.

"I have had so much magic at this show," said Jill Clements, owner of Nadina's Cremes and Candles. Clements, who mixed her first batch of scented lotion in her grandmother's kitchen on Old Harford Road in 1989, moved her company from Baltimore to Vienna, Va., six weeks ago.

Clements and other exhibitors say the expo is valuable ground to meet new clients, catch up with old ones and get alternative products out to a crowd of mostly like-minded buyers.

"We are a really small company, so we get almost all our orders and exposure coming to these shows," said Miyoko Schinner, president of Now & Zen Inc. of San Francisco, which started selling meat substitutes a year and a half ago. Schinner impressed many buyers with her company's nearly bird-shaped and stuffing-complete "Unturkey," made of wheat gluten and soy, for the holidays.

But the natural-products industry, once considered alternative -- and pulling in only $1.9 billion in 1990 -- is starting to go mainstream.

In the last month, two companies -- Kellogg Co. and H. J. Heinz -- gambled on the continued growth of the health food segment with their pocketbooks. Kellogg acquired meat-alternative maker Worthington Foods Inc. for $307 million and Heinz bought a 19.5-percent stake in natural foods maker Hain Food Group Inc., the largest U.S. maker of health foods, for about $100 million.

Expo organizers attribute the growth of the industry to concerns about meat products, genetic engineering and the increased awareness of diet and health among baby boomers and younger generations.

Bennett, 63, of Baltimore-based Really Raw Honey, envisions a world where her products are sold in mainstream grocery stores and organic foods are mainstays in American diets.

"We are getting more natural -- we have to," she said. "We won't survive if everything is genetically engineered."

An article in Saturday's editions incorrectly reported where former Baltimore company Nadina's Cremes and Candles has relocated. It is based in Vienna, Md. The Sun regrets the error.
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