Fresh Food

Natural and Organic Brands See Key Trends Reinforced in COVID Crisis

Meals at home highlight nutrition, convenience
Photograph: Shutterstock

The industry’s first major trade show cancellation due to the coronavirus outbreak, Natural Products Expo West, was originally scheduled for early March in Anaheim, Calif., when the trajectory of COVID-19 was uncertain. As the eve of the show approached and exhibitors and attendees weighed whether to attend, New Hope Network, the event’s organizers, made the difficult decision to postpone. Days later, on March 13, they announced the show would not go on for the first time in 40 years.

Expo East is scheduled for Sept. 23-26 in Philadelphia.

WGB editors look forward to attending the trend-spotting extravaganza that is Expo West each year and to sharing with our readers the hottest new products and topics from the show floor, which most certainly would have included the continued growth in plant-based food and beverages; low- and no-sugar products; better-for-you snacking; portable potables and eatables; protein; cannabidiol; cauliflower; chickpeas; and much more.

But this is no ordinary year, and neither are the trends.

WGB reached out to scores of would-be exhibitors across multiple categories to get a lead on what the trends are now, as well as predictions regarding what lies ahead for the natural and organics industry in a post-COVID-19 world.

The Breakfast Club 

Virtually overnight, we went from a nation of on-the-go consumers to sheltering in place and eating all of our snacks and meals at home. As a result, consumers are stocking up on comforting old favorites and newer introductions with a decided health angle.

“The virus has reinforced several key trends,” says Greg Steltenpohl, co-founder and CEO of plant-based dairy provider Califia Farms, Los Angeles. “One is the plant-based movement, or what we call ‘a plant-based revolution.’ ”

He said he sees an increased rate of adoption from consumers seeking healthier options. “A side benefit of parents being at home with their kids 24/7 is that mom and dad have full visibility into how much sugar their kids are eating,” Steltenpohl says. “Another outcome is that families are sitting down to cereal and granola again.”

Data from New York-based Nielsen shows that sales of cereal were up 93.7% for the one-week period ending March 21, vs. the same week the previous year. While that figure dropped to 28.4% the following week after panic buying subsided, the data continues to reflect the reality that breakfast is now consumed at home. (Rising sales of coffee and orange juice also support the trend.) And as consumers pour their morning bowl, many are adding plant-based milks to the mix.

“We’ve seen the biggest sales jump in oat milk,” says Steltenpohl. “It’s the easiest plant-based milk for consumers to make the switch to because of its mouthfeel.” Califia, which launched an oat milk earlier this year, has witnessed sales soar for both its unsweetened almond milk and its oat milk. Nielsen reports that sales of oat milk were up more than 413% for the one-week period ending March 28, 2020, vs. the same week in 2019.

Despite the cancellation of Expo West, organizers held a virtual ceremony for its NEXTY Awards, which honors innovation in the industry. San Francisco-based Just, which recently launched its folded Just Egg, won for Best New Frozen Product. It marked the first time a plant-based protein has ever won in the frozen category. “The timing of our folded Just Egg is fortuitous, because it provides a delicious, convenient plant-based protein source that is incredibly easy to prepare at home,” says co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick. “[It’s] especially valuable for those in our core demographic: younger millennials who have relied on eating out more.” 

Organic Valley of La Farge, Wis., is also ready to meet the demand for breakfast at home with its new Organic Valley Egg Bites in three flavors. Hitting refrigerated cases in late summer, each pack of two bites is ready in 90 seconds, has 14 to 16 grams of protein, contains less than 250 calories, is made with all organic ingredients and is gluten-free.

Plant-Based Pantry Staples 

As consumers make fewer trips to the grocery store and experience longer lead times on grocery delivery, shoppers have been stocking up on pantry staples to get them through the pandemic.

While the traditional canned tuna category hasn’t seen a great deal of excitement in recent years, COVID-19 has changed that. Shelf-stable seafood (canned/pouched) was up 117.3% for the four weeks ending March 28 vs. those four weeks a year ago, reports Nielsen. Additionally, shelf-stable tuna was up 123.5% for the same period.

Bumble Bee Foods of San Diego, makers of Bumble Bee canned tuna for more than a century, was poised to make a splash at Expo West with the launch of its joint venture partnership with plant-based seafood brand Good Catch.

“Bumble Bee is the first and only major seafood company to venture into the plant-based protein business, and we couldn’t be more excited to make a bold move as we create a new generation of seafood lovers while staying committed to protecting the health of our oceans,” says Jan Tharp, president and CEO of Bumble Bee Foods. “Canned and pouched seafood, including tuna, is a very popular item always, but in times of crisis, it becomes even more sought-after.”

Organicville, Sky Valley and Green Garden of Danville, Va., is finding that its core products, including shelf-stable sauces, condiments and freeze-dried herbs, are just what consumers are looking for as they spend more time in the kitchen. “As consumers continue to cook at home and spend time with their families, we expect that they will seek out new products, recipes and mealtime inspiration,” says Brand Manager Theresa Lindholm.

“Based on our research, we’ve found that low- to no-sugar diet trends continue to rise to the top for consumers, and to meet this demand, we will be launching Organicville Ketchup, an organic, no-sugar-[added] ketchup that consumers can enjoy guilt-free, as well as a line of no-sugar-adds and Whole30-approved pasta and pizza sauces,” she adds.

Known for its 100% Avocado Oil, San Diego-based Chosen Foods was set to launch new products centered around avocado fruit, including frozen diced avocados, spicy and classic guacamole, and an avocado tomatillo salsa. “Although sales have been strong, we are being incredibly cautious about the future. Buying habits can be unpredictable at times like these,” says Gabriel Perez Krieb, Chosen Foods’ chairman and CEO.

During the peak pandemic-buying weeks, the company saw increments of two to three times its average weekly sales at select stores. “I’m not quite sure anyone knows exactly how the market will react once we get through to the other side of this difficult situation,” Krieb says. “Our hope is that these moments of cooking at home with family will further resonate with people and encourage more exploration in the kitchen.”

Meal Kit Resurgence 

Meal kit companies, such as Blue Apron, which was nearly delisted from the New York Stock Exchange last year, posted gains of more than 330% in the past month (the four weeks preceding mid-April 2020).

San Francisco-based Burma Love Foods, a supplier of Burmese dressings and dips inspired by its Bay Area-based Burma Superstar restaurants, was planning to showcase five new grab-and-go salads, including Golden Ginger Salad, Four Way Tofu Salad and Superstar Noodles at Expo West. The company is now exploring new ways to introduce its products to the home chef.

“Initially we saw consumers flocking to either takeout from restaurants or nonperishable grocery items like rice, grains [and] canned goods as they adjusted to new health recommendations around the pandemic. But as the new normal set in and the shelter-in-place was extended, we’re seeing an uptick in fresh grocery purchases via delivery or in-person,” says Hong Nguyen, product manager at Burma Love Foods. “This has definitely given us a perspective on how to be creative in our offerings. We’re currently developing meal kits … that come with all ingredients to prepare a meal at home.”

The Honest Stand, a Louisville, Colo.-based maker of plant-based cheese-style dips, had planned to introduce two additions to its flavor lineup at Expo West: Sriracha Ranch and Buffalo Blue. Given the unprecedented pressures on grocery retailers at present, The Honest Stand has decided to pause its rollout on the new products.

Instead, the company is “exploring alternative and creative distribution means to help consumers gain access to [its products],” says Alexandra Carone, co-founder and chief operating officer. “With changing consumption habits, we’re talking with retailers and other alternative channel providers about ways to integrate our versatile and convenient flavor profiles into grocery delivery services, meal kit services and other avenues that add value for consumers.”

Direct-to-Consumer Connections 

As shoppers looking to fill their baskets in-store and online were often met with out-of-stocks at the start of the pandemic, many began turning directly to the suppliers of their favorite products. While the dynamic of these direct-to-consumer relationships remains to be seen post-coronavirus, there’s no denying the personal connections suppliers are making with consumers during this crisis.

“Our online, direct-to-consumer business has grown dramatically,” says Neil Cohen, VP of marketing for plant-based dairy provider Miyoko’s Creamery in Petaluma, Calif. “People are ordering across our entire product line,” he says, citing favorites such as its European Style Cultured Vegan Butter and hard-to-find items like its Truffle Cheese Wheel and Black Ash Cheese Wheel.

To further the brand’s outreach as consumers shelter in place, founder and CEO Miyoko Schinner has been hosting a daily cooking show on Facebook Live “that has become hugely popular,” says Cohen. The show focuses on comfort foods made easily with what’s in the pantry.

New Products on Pause 

34 Degrees, the Denver-based maker of light and crunchy cracker crisps and Sweet Crisps, was planning to showcase Snaps—a new line of better-for-you baked chickpea snacking thins in three varieties: Sea Salt, Everything and Umami. But founder Craig Lieberman says the launch has been postponed. “There’s no playbook for introducing new products during a pandemic,” he says. “Promotions are on hold, there are no demos and retailers are in triage. They can’t consider new products right now.”

Natural Products newcomer Poppilu of Chicago was eager to showcase its two lower-sugar lemonade lines: Poppilu Antioxidant Lemonade and Poppilu Bold & Tangy Lemonade, a new line of pouches for kids in three flavors. But because the majority of Poppilu’s portfolio is single-serve beverages sold through the grab-and-go section, the brand will likely have to wait to win over new customers. 

“In this time of coronavirus, where consumers are literally sequestered at home, the need for on-the-go anything has simply vanished,” says Poppilu founder and CEO Melanie Kahn. “We’re excited for the summer and our core lemonade season, but we certainly hope life gets back to normal so there’s a reason for portable refreshment beverages.”

How Snacking Is Tracking 

While high-protein, low-sugar, better-for-you snacks were a strong trend before the pandemic, the long shelf life of Country Archer Provision’s 100% grass-fed beef jerky has made it even more sought-after in recent weeks.

“With a wave of products out of stock, this unprecedented situation re-raises the need for a shelf stable, better-for-you, high-protein meat product,” says Eugene Kang, co-founder and CEO of the San Bernardino, Calif.-based company. “Our meat snacks have become in-demand items. We saw our [March] sales on Amazon peak as high as 375% vs. February daily sales.”

Country Archer recently debuted Zero Sugar Beef Jerky, a line developed to meet the needs of keto, gluten-free, low-carb and low-sugar consumers looking for a protein-filled zero-sugar and soy-free meat snack.

Mary’s Gone Crackers planned to introduce its Real Thin Crackers in three new flavors—Tomato & Basil, Olive Oil & Cracked Black Pepper, and Chipotle—but surging demand for pantry items has led the company to scale back production of certain items to deliver more of what consumers want.

“We are experiencing a significant increase in demand and are working diligently to meet that demand,” says Carla King, senior marketing manager for the Reno, Nev.-based company. “We have had to limit our production to the top six selling SKUs, which accounted for 90% of our business before the pandemic ensued. The demand correlates with consumers making more meals at home and choosing products that are better for you.”

Nutradried Food Co. was set to unveil its new Moon Cheese White Chedda Black Peppa flavor. The new 100% cheese, high-protein, low-sugar and low-carb snack is currently available through the company’s website and will soon be available on Amazon. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in sales on both [our website] as well as Amazon,” says Mike Pytlinski, CEO of Ferndale, Wash.-based Nutradried Food Co., parent of Moon Cheese. “While our core flavors of Cheddar, Gouda and Pepper Jack remain the favorites, we are seeing new flavors kick up and generate interest.”

Immunity Boosters 

As consumers look to strengthen their immune systems during the coronavirus pandemic, they are increasingly turning to supplements, foods and beverages to help them stay healthy.

“Sales of our core sauerkrauts and kimchi items have been strong,” says Chris Glab, co-founder of Wildbrine, pointing to the immune-boosting properties of naturally fermented foods and pantry loading as reasons for the uptick.

The Santa Rosa, Calif.-based company recently began using its fermentation knowledge to expand into the plant-based dairy category last year. It is now planning on a phased introduction this year of its Wildcreamery line that includes plant-based brie, butter, cream cheese, creamery-style dips and sour cream. 

“Consumers are gravitating toward wellness products that boost immunity and provide functional benefits,” says Brian Durkee, president of Numi Organic Tea, Oakland, Calif. “Numi’s Daily Super Shots, which feature concentrated ingredients that support needs like immunity, cognitive health and anti-inflammation have been selling quickly on our website.”

With the wellness and functionality markets in mind, Numi had planned to showcase its new Sweet Slumber tea, which features a blend of sweet flowers and valerian root that has been found to relieve stress and inspire rest and relaxation—much-needed benefits in difficult times.

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