Showcase of the ‘natural’ offers plenty of anything but

Of the fake meats, the salmon was probably the best-tasting; it looked good, too. PHOTO: GETTY
Of the fake meats, the salmon was probably the best-tasting; it looked good, too. PHOTO: GETTY
It's the end of a long week – I am sitting in the wonder that is Los Angeles airport. I have spent the week at the Natural Products Expo — along with 90,000 other people — displaying our wares to distributors, retailers, investors and manufacturers. I had my sales pitch down pat, then my brain would inexplicably fail — illegal memory error — central processing unit failure — too many people, too much stimulation and sore feet ... who knew foot state had an impact on brain function?

The Natural Products Expo is the place to see food innovations, and I certainly ate my share. "Natural" is not a word I would use to describe much of what I sampled. Highly processed with many preservatives and additives, would be a better description.

I found myself sampling bison sausage and exclaiming how delicious it was, because up until that point, I had been sampling "plant-based meat", and had forgotten how good real meat tasted and how not-good most fake meat is. I had the great joy of walking up the Italian aisle and eating real Italian cheeses — but finished on the plant-based Italian cheese; oh no, ruination of my palate. I was polite, like a good Kiwi, nodding and smiling until I turned the corner and could spit it out.

Of the fake meats, the salmon was probably the best-tasting; it looked good too and would probably do well in small amounts in a sushi-type offering. It failed on texture and mouth feel, though. Is it too early in the fake meat journey? Or are the fake meat offerings doomed by the complexity that is real meat? As my colleague stated, "I am happy to eat a mushroom or chickpea patty that celebrates those ingredients — it’s when we try and turn it into something else where we go wrong."

The plant-based meats will keep evolving, and it won’t be long before we get real meat produced from "precision fermentation" that should taste better — I wonder how long before it hits the expo. One person I met had walked the expo for 26 years — imagine the trends he has seen come and go.

Big in the emerging trends was wellness, especially mental wellness and brain health, vitalisation and renewal. The rays of hope in the avalanche of preservatives. "Social Tonics" were driving the beverage category — bright, funky packaging, mostly cans with "adaptogenic and functional ingredients to calm and invigorate the body and mind". Beverages felt like a tough category to me, competitive and mostly targeting the young and cool rather than the old and hip — there’s a gap right there.

Mushrooms for health were hot property; females were hotter. There were many social messages — planet, health, regenerative farming, "beyond organic," "death to plastic" — but one which stood out was that "the future is female". "Happy her" — get that right and life is simple, right? Well, it was more the feeling that females are unapologetically stepping out. "There’s something we forgot to say to you" — it’s Aretha Franklin, 2023 style. This is our decade.

Things to never do again: eat "Chicken and Waffle Protein Chips" or use a slogan like "This cream cheese doesn’t suck" — it did.

As for the New Zealand companies? We looked and tasted good, in my opinion anyway — our packaging, messaging and quality was right up there, and some companies are blowing their categories away, like "Frooze" balls — cool and convenient and in Seven Elevens throughout the US.

Many companies at the expo won’t survive the next 10 years, but you couldn’t fault their commitment to innovation, changing the planet or passion. Health and taste were the missing factors for me. In a country facing an epidemic of metabolic disease, I wonder when the proverbial will hit the fan.

In final reflections, I will not be allowed to book Zestt’s Air BnB accommodation again without double-checking the dates, and a certain cafe in gangland will be avoided ... a cute Kiwi accent and ignorance helped avoid an unfortunate outcome. The story gets wilder in each telling!

 - Anna Campbell is co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She holds various directorships.