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Trend Watching at Expo East

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Expo East was a small but powerful show this year. There was no lack of excitement, but at the same time the effects of the recession linger. Figures from Mintel that I’ve seen indicate that new product introductions in the organic category have been leveling off over the past year to 18 months, even though sales of organic food and beverages grew roughly 5.3% in 2009, according to another organization, the Organic Trade Association.

A very unofficial survey of the show floor bore this all out. Many exhibitors I spoke with said business has been fair — not explosive, but steady and reliable. The number of new products being introduced here at the show seems to be down from past events. There are several new exhibitors in established categories, and a good number of brand extensions (new flavors, new packaging or sizes), but no “Wow” debuts that created buzz. That said, there was enough to keep us busy. Here’s a sprinkling of what we found:

— Kettle Corn. This salty-sweet version of popcorn attracted several new vendors to Expo East, with flavors ranging from traditional to chocolate and caramel. The companies say the product (provided it’s made in a dedicated facility) has caught on with gluten-free consumers looking for an indulgent snack. And of course, it’s always popular with anyone looking for a little fun with their fiber.

— Nori and seaweed. And we’re not jut talking sushi here. The Asian-inspired, paper-thin sheets are being cut into light-as-air chips or flake for sprinkling on salads or soups. The intense green color is matched only by the salty flavor profile and the impressive vitamin and mineral content. Most of the products include special packaging to prevent the chips from crumbling.

— Alternative crackers. A new generation of crackers, flatbreads and related products is enticing consumers with add-ins like exotic grains (aramanth, spelt), kale or seeds (chia). They’re exceedingly crunchy, versatile and funky. Vendors we’ve spoken to say this is also an outgrowth of the gluten-free craze, but more about the desire for new taste and mouthfeel experiences. These products are also opening up new avenues to other like-minded products, such as dips and hummus.

— Water. Yep, water is back. One exhibitor wrapped his raw water product in a paper bag or bottled it in dark brown bottles to prevent algae from blooming (it’s naturally pure and filtered, but not purified). A lot of of others have added soluble fiber to their water for satiety and regularity (goodbye Metamucil!); still others are adding mild carbonation and all-natural flavors like lemon and ginger.

— Reusable bags and bottles. In a nod to our ongoing desire for sustainability, a number of companies are exhibiting new bag sizes for lunch or produce, and tabletop versions of water bottles that have shed their tough, backpack-friendly exteriors for decorative glass. The basic pitch we hear is that whatever the need, there is now a bag or bottle size available for every situation and environment. No more excuses!

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