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Natural is no longer simple

The Baltimore Sun

Not long ago, a granola bar was enough. A little oats, a little honey, enough fiber and virtue to get you through the day.

Once fat was all anyone wanted products free of.

Remember when ingredients you couldn't spell seemed suspicious?

It's a whole new natural world now.

As the nation's top dealers showed off the latest in guiltless cookies, cleanser and Kashi at Baltimore's convention center this week, one thing became abundantly clear: Natural is no longer simple.

To stand out at the Natural Products Expo these days, that granola bar had better boast outrageously nutritious additives or be able to prove a dangerous something-or-other has been removed from it or show that it's helping to save, if not the planet, at least a small tribe in the Amazonian jungle.

Organic, you see, is so yesterday.

Entrepreneurs, striving to appeal to the ever-expanding - and ever-lucrative - market of health-conscious and eco-aware consumers, have invented a mind-numbingly vast selection of products that promise to do everything from boost one's immune system to taste like cheese to reduce one's carbon footprint - ideally all three at once.

"It's not enough just to have a healthy drink," says David Karr, a vendor pushing Guayaki, a bottled energy drink made of yerba mate, a mysterious substance that's supposed to induce mental clarity, help with seasonal allergies and control weight - for starters.

The company says the yerba harvest helps preserve the South American rain forest and provides work for indigenous people.

"You want to feel good about what you're drinking,"

Natural products shops have come a long way in a short time. The out-of-the-way college-town shops that used to stock sprouts, reek of incense and attract mainly the Birkenstocked are now supermarkets unto themselves.

According to Natural Food Merchandiser, natural product sales grew nearly 10 percent last year, nearly hitting $60 billion.

Whole Foods Market alone is a Fortune 500 company with sales of almost $6 billion last year.

About 2,000 companies fought for attention at Baltimore's expo, a dizzying blur of elixirs, salves and heroic superfoods.

Here a guy's hawking dog food that's so fresh it must be refrigerated. Here someone's selling non-chlorine diapers. Every other vendor seems to have gotten the endorsement of Dr. Weil - the white-bearded guru's benevolent grin is second only to soy in ubiquity - no small feat.

At some booths, the earnestness is palpable - folks who really want to make the world a better place and hope that their candle or lip balm or spray and wipe will lead the way. But for every believer there seems to be a pitchman hoping to ride the organic gravy train all the way to the fair-trade bank.

There's emu oil to stave off aging. A beverage line made from grasses - "You won't believe you're drinking greens." A hemp seed nut butter that puddles on a slice of wheat bread like a thick, olive green ooze.

MyChelle's skin care line is rich with something called bioactives.

"Those are ingredients that are alive," MyChelle's Susan Mesko explains, adding that when people are going about the business of firming and hydrating their skin, they shouldn't settle for ordinary vitamin C when they could have ascorbic acid. And they shouldn't accept regular water when they could have "heavy water," like MyChelle's water from "a very deep lake" that keeps hydrating longer than the shallow, regular stuff.

"It works so harmoniously with the skin," Mesko coos.

Everyone seems to have discovered the acai (pronounced ah-sigh-ee) berry hiding with all its antioxidants in the Brazilian rain forest. Companies have hired people to climb 60-foot palm trees to shake down the purple gems whose seeds are pureed and then packaged into juices and smoothies and sorbets.

Those who aren't preaching the gospel of the acai have fallen under the spell of another berry, the goji. It is imported from China and dried - precious nutrients intact - into a raisin-esque tidbit. Companies are slipping little red goji into trail mix and squeezing them into juice.

Each product struggles to out-ingredient the next. Juice with aloe vera. Cat food with a "triple cranberry system." T-shirts that say "Buy Local," printed with only water-based ink (nontoxic, for the uninitiated) or 100 percent vegetable dyes on sustainable threads.

As hard as it is to imagine anything more important than what goes into the veggie burger, what the makers purposely leave out of the burger is the real selling point.

No corn, no gluten, no wheat, no artificial preservatives, colors or flavors.

No high-fructose corn syrup. No hydrogenated oils. No cholesterol. No sulfites.

Egg-free. Dairy-free. Lactose-free.

No testing on animals. Ever.

At the Sheese booth, where they're selling faux cheddar, gouda, mozzarella and blue, a woman is coaxing a reluctant sampler: "Be brave - you may be surprised."

The sampler tentatively bites an orange square from a toothpick.

"It's exactly like cheddar, right?"

"It's free of about everything," says Scott Myers, who imports Sheese from Scotland. "It's amazing."

At NKD Candle, they advertise "100 percent soy. Zero percent bad stuff." The candles, tucked into compact tins, are mixed to smell like purity itself - everything from "farmers' market" to "monsoon forest" to "promised land, a comforting medley of oatmeal, milk and honey."

"It's a cleaner burn, it's a longer burn too," says the company's Franco Cruz when asked about the soy. "We're so naked we lost our vowels."

Christina Chambreau, a homeopathic veterinarian from Sparks who was browsing the candle display, bought right into NKD's mantra. "For a store to carry petroleum candles is like awful," she says. "Petroleum candles is why we're fighting a war in Iraq.

"Burning soy candles is like supporting peace."

Interestingly enough, the pet food people are as down on soy as the food people are up. "Dogs prefer a meat-based protein," says Freshpet Select's Kent Hemphill. Soy, he says, basically just cheapens pet food.

If fit bodies, happy animals and a healthy planet are the clear goal, the means to that end seem ever murkier.

No hunkahydroxapolyflaks, one cookie vendor advertises, the made-up word seeming, at least at the expo, all too real.

And at Maine Root, they wink as they advertise "free-range root beer."

"Really?" an expo-goer asks the drink's founder, Matthew Seiler, "Free-range?"

"It's a joke," Seiler answers in a tone that suggests he already has had to explain this once or twice more than he'd have preferred.

Yet, he can't help but add, "It is the first fair-trade organic soda - the sugar comes from a small co-op in Paraguay."

If only it had a little yerba mate.

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