Navigating a World of Conflicting Trends: Natural Products Expo West 2019

Ashley Jones - Innovation Director at The Idea Suite - takes a closer look at some of the key trends from 2019’s Natural Products Expo West, and at the conflicts they raise.


Returning from the 2019 Natural Products Expo in Anaheim leaves you facing two big questions, ‘what are the new trends - and how can I build them into my business’? But, in a space that is increasingly and ever more rapidly becoming part of the mainstream, how are these trends, once far more niche, experienced by consumers - and what does that mean for brands?

After Expo has closed and you’ve doubled your daily step count, it’s time for everyone - the show, industry, bloggers, and those who attended on behalf of bigger companies - to maintain their heightened levels of energy. There are new products to distribute, innovations to test, new philosophies to explore, and thousands of people hyped up on modernized matcha shots, oat milk lattes, sparkling cascara juice, and caffeinated coconut water.

But what about the consumers - what will they see when they hit the aisles or browse social media during the year ahead? How do they land these trends in their own lives, first and foremost with what they ultimately decide to buy?

Adding things to our life

It wasn’t so long ago that we were collectively striving for reduction: low in fat, no calories, no added sugar, made without, etc. Now, though, we’re seeing a shift on shelf, where the focus has moved to what we are consuming, as opposed to what we aren’t, and on bringing things into our lives, rather than removing them from it. Products are sure to tell you what kind of eating style is satisfied (i.e. Keto, Paleo, Vegan), and language is changing its tone to full of, made with, added benefits, grown with, nurture through, boosting, and the like.

In a society where we are so often looking to minimize our consumption (I’m not the only one with a new wardrobe thanks to Marie Kondo), it’s notable that food claims are instead getting away with offering us more. Ingredient lists, however, don’t always follow the same philosophy.

Minimal ingredient lists

Not new to a Natural Products Expo veteran, but becoming increasingly commonplace in the discourse of consumers, is a desire for fewer ingredients – so few, in fact, that they can often all be listed front of pack. Food and drink products, it seems, still need to be clean. This has also resulted in a re-romancing of old standby ingredients that consumers are less inclined to question and instinctively believe are wholesome. Oats for instance, said to be in the human diet for more than 100,000 years, are back in action as oat milk, fresher than ever, and are coming to multiple stylized Instagram stories near you in the form of oat milk lattes.

However, if I’m a consumer that has been told oats are healthy but also high in carbs, everything is likely to get a bit perplexing if I’m also exploring Keto products (now available across a multitude of categories) that highlight being low in carbs! Is it a yay or a nay to oat milk, then? How is a consumer to know?

Do liquids get a free pass?

If taking shots at your desk wasn’t part of office culture before, 2019 might change that, at least for shots with functional benefits: between tea, coffee, dairy, dairy alternatives, supplements, juice, and water, there were shots in virtually all beverage categories at this years Expo. I’m sure LMFAO and Lil Jon will be looking for new partners in the oat industry any day now.

Thinking back to the theme of putting more into our bodies, this isn’t simply about ingredients, calories, and vitamins. Instead, it’s about enhancing our natural state. This year’s Expo gave a lot of permission to liquid to provide multiple body and brain benefits at once, with the underlying message being you can only drink so much in one day, so you might as well get more bang for your buck. Whether that be a smoothie-kombucha hybrid with probiotics and vitamin C, a hydrating carbonated coconut water with caffeine, or water that helps curb sugar cravings in order to promote brain function and better rest, there is a liquid for that (and that, and that).

Rituals and the natural state of people

Humans are innately prone to straying from their natural impulses, and perpetually employ a wide range of strategies to continue that behaviour: When we are tired, we look to take something for a boost. When we are sick, we take medicine. When our mental energy is low, we don’t take breaks, but instead try to ‘push through’ with stimulants. The reason we create these consumption rituals? To make sure that we don’t stray too far from feeling ‘normal’. These drinks or shots aren’t part of our nature as human beings, but we make rituals to take them anyway, as part of an overall push to bring our bodies back to their ‘natural’ state.

As such, it’s not all that surprising that there was an increase in products at Expo this year that were positioned to add to your life and/or help you through, or out of, just about anything. However, if you pair this with the natural product space’s usual behaviour - creating new habits or rituals to maintain ‘natural’ behaviours – this can feel somewhat counter-intuitive to the ‘natural’ way of doing things.

It reminds me of an age-old question: ‘If you patch holes in your jeans until there’s no original jean left, are they still the same pair of jeans that you started with’? When we continue to amass natural remedies or products for our body, throwing ever more ‘natural’ solutions at the wall to see what sticks, how natural are we really being?

Connect with your consumer, not the ritual

With the natural products space growing in popularity, with consumers being told to take care of their health and to be kind to their bodies and mind in more and more ways each year, it’s worth considering how consumers will navigate this increasingly crowded space, filled with conflicting trends. Will they drink Oat Milk, or not? Is Keto right for them? Will Chondroitin in bone broth be seen as clean, or as a chemical? How much collagen will they accept as being ‘natural’? What remedy is the right one for them, or for their kids?

It will be easy to get overwhelmed and even frustrated when surrounded by such mixed messages. So, when it comes to consumers making a choice in the natural products space, brands need to remember that a simple message may well be the most effective, and that it will be critical to develop a bond with the consumer that goes beyond functional benefits and product attributes alone. As always, the consumer is key!