Expo East 2018 Recap Pt. 2: Organic Association Meets, Plant-Based Goes Conventional

In the second and final part of our Natural Products Expo East 2018 recap, BevNET covers news emerging from the Organic Trade Association meeting and takes a look at some of the new products and developments in plant-based dairy, kombucha, functional waters and other categories.

Organic Trade Association Seeks to Educate Consumers Amid Opposition

Speaking with food and beverage industry trade reporters during Expo East, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) offered insight into how it is maneuvering a tricky political environment in Washington while combating what it regards as anti-organic misinformation in the pages of national newspapers.

Concerned over a fresh emergence of anti-organic voices this summer, the OTA has increased its targeted public outreach efforts. OTA CEO Laura Batcha singled out a Monsanto-aligned columnist, Henry I. Miller, who last month published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal titled “The Organic Industry Is Lying To You;” the OTA responded to Miller’s op-ed with its own full-page advertisement in the same paper. The advertisement, which ran earlier this month, included a lengthy list of chemicals and artificial ingredients prohibited from use on organic-compliant farms and organic certified products.

Although Miller’s column created concerns within OTA, Batcha said, it was followed swiftly by comments on Twitter by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Scott Gottlieb stating his department would issue more detailed information on organic labeling as well as consumer confusion in the wake of a $289 million lawsuit that found Monsanto liable for cases of cancer caused by its product Roundup.

“So many of our members said their Facebook pages were inundated with consumers asking whether or not glysophate is prohibited in organic or not, and it just struck me how still, the basic information is not out there,” Batcha said. “And the debate that is being put out there by fringe thinkers is an entire distraction from what people really think about.”

Batcha said the consumer outreach campaign is intended to offer “ironclad, truthful claims” in a direct manner that allows the consumer to draw their own conclusions.

“Part of it is educational and part of it is to demonstrate that perhaps the real interest on the part of some of those folks is for there not to be a conversation about organic at all,” she added.

From a business perspective, Batcha noted OTA is also conducting consumer research and has discovered that interest in organic products from African Americans and other minority consumers is “exploding.” But she lamented that the industry does not know enough about what is motivating those demographics to make the transition.

Batcha also spoke to the current environment in Washington, D.C. for the organic industry, noting that although the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is the primary agency for organic issues, there is a power struggle between it and the FDA over regulatory control. Batcha said she was surprised to see Gottlieb focusing on labeling and, in OTA’s opinion, drawing inspiration from Miller’s anti-organic writings.

In its congressional lobbying efforts, OTA has sought to advance a version of the farm bill that includes a baseline funding of $50 million per year for the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).

Also in attendance during the meeting was Tracy Misiewicz, science project specialist at OTA-operated The Organic Center. Misiewicz discussed a report by the organization, reviewing 129 independent studies, that explored how organic agriculture can reduce farmers’ risk of exposure to dangerous pesticides.

“[The reasons that] consumers really choose to purchase organic certified products, number one is to reduce their own pesticide exposure through dietary consumption and the number two reason is because of the low impact on the environment,” Misiewicz said. “But one thing that really just seems to slip off of everybody’s radar are the societal impacts…. The people who are most likely to be exposed to pesticides most frequently, the most toxic pesticides, and at the highest doses of course are going to be those who are working in the fields.”

According to Misiewicz, organic agriculture by law requires farmers to implement rigorous pest control techniques on their farms before they are able to use organic-approved pesticides under limited circumstances, greatly reducing the length of exposure to chemicals for field workers. The full report can be found on The Organic Center’s website.

Progress in Plant-Based

Over the last half-decade, beverage brands that have launched in natural retailers have watched as many of the trends initiated in that channel have migrated into conventional grocery stores. At this year’s Expo East, the momentum behind dairy-free and plant-based smoothies, milk and coffee products seemed to be picking up steam.

Plant-based protein drink maker Koia exemplified this trend through its new three-SKU brand extension, called Fruit Infusions. Speaking with BevNET at the company’s booth, CEO Chris Hunter said the new line, available in Chocolate Banana, Strawberry Creme and Mango Creme flavors, represents a deliberate shift towards the taste preferences of conventional grocery consumers who are familiar with fruit-centric products from Naked and Odwalla. As such, the line will launch in retailers like H-E-B. Whole Foods, which took on Koia as an exclusive when it launched in September 2016, will carry two of the SKUs. The line is priced around $3.99.

Meanwhile, former New Beverage Showdown contestant Remedy Organics is taking a more visual approach to creating differentiation in the plant-based smoothie space. Co-founder and CEO Henry Kasindorf emphasized that the use of ingredients like blue spirulina (in the brand’s Blue Oxidants flavor), matcha and turmeric in certain SKUs has given the brand an appealing and distinct look as presented in clear 12 oz. PET bottles. Following suit, the newest flavor, Pitaya Power — which contains dragonfruit, medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and maca root — features a bright pink color and will be part of a Breast Cancer Awareness Month tie-in when it launches in October.

As BevNET reported this summer, coffee has been one of the primary beneficiaries of the movement towards non-dairy milk alternatives, and vice-versa. Specifically, oat milk has emerged as the non-dairy milk currently in favor with baristas at espresso bars, thanks in large part to the prodigious rise of Swedish brand Oatly. After making its U.S. debut at Expo West last year, the company followed up by showcasing a new product aimed at the coffee crowd: Mocha Barista Edition, available in 32 oz. (1 qt.) cartons. Oatly is also preparing to open a new production plant in New Jersey to meet the soaring demand from on-premise service and also supply its major retail partners, such as Whole Foods and Target.

Further underscoring oat milk’s current coffee-fueled momentum, Elmhurst 1925 showcased its own “Barista Edition” milked oats product (also available in milked brown rice and milked almonds) in 32 oz. cartons. Organic almond milk brand New Barn, which also has its own barista-specific offering, shared a look at its first coffee-based SKU, a combination of organic cold brew and almond milk. Elsewhere, Rise Brewing Co. took home a NEXTY Award for Best New Organic Beverage for its new nitro-infused, oat milk-based line of cold lattes.

Beyond just oat milk, coffee brands are finding plant-based dairy a much larger sandbox within which to play. Nearly every brand BevNET spoke to at Expo East had launched a non-dairy-based SKU, has one in the works, or at least had given the idea serious consideration as a way to differentiate themselves from a crowded field of competitors. New York-based Wandering Bear launched its second non-dairy milk-based SKU of the summer at the show: Vanilla with a Splash of Coconut Milk. Texas-based Heyday Cold Brew continued to build awareness for its dirty chai flavor. Debuted at Expo West 2018, the product which is shelf-stable and contains coconut milk will launch in 4-packs in November. Meanwhile, Bold Brew Coffee of San Diego brought samples of its nitro-infused coconut milk-based lattes, while Brooklyn-based Cafe Grumpy indicated that it is working on a non-dairy cold brew SKU set to launch early next year.

Other Notable Finds

It wasn’t a huge surprise to see functional waters, typically of the low-calorie variety, have a large presence at Natural Products Expo East 2018. However, where companies are sourcing that functionality continues to evolve.

In terms of functional ingredients, seaweed snack maker Ocean’s Halo pushed toward the bleeding edge with a new four-SKU line of kelp-based superfood drinks. Using the same colorless and odorless kelp concentrate that the brand has used for its vegan broth products, the new line delivers the same nutritional content as its snacks in the form of four fruit-infused flavors: Hibiscus Cinnamon, Watermelon Lime, Kiwi Aloe and Honey Ginger. The line adds further differentiation by using naturally electrolyte and mineral rich deep ocean water as its base. The result is something of a hybrid between an enhanced water and a juice.

A handful of younger brands working under the general umbrella of low-calorie functional waters also made an impression at Expo East. Not to be confused with Ocean’s Halo, New York-based sports drink Halo launched at the show, aiming its two SKUs, Original Lemon and Pink Grapefruit, at active lifestyle consumers, according to a company representative. Elsewhere, Los Angeles-based Glim Water shared its three functional waters: Activated Charcoal, Turmeric and its newest, Colloidal Silver. The product is shelf-stable, has no sugar or calories, and is priced on average between $1.79 to $2 per 12 oz. PET bottle at retail.

Also at the show was Body Surf, an organic fruit-flavored infused water company based in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. The brand, led since last year by Jerry S. Wilson, a longtime Coca-Cola veteran and former president of the soda giant’s global McDonald’s division, comes in at between 5 to 15 calories per 16 oz. PET bottle, depending on the flavor. Wilson said the brand is slowly building its on-shelf presence around local north Florida market, while also shipping nationwide via Amazon and direct-to-consumer sales on its website. Priced at $2.99, Body Surf comes in Blueberry + Lavender, Cucumber + Mint, Mango + Yuzu and Strawberry + Mint flavors.

Kombucha has been one of the great natural retailer beverage success stories in the past decade, but the category didn’t feel as big a part of this year’s Expo East as in prior editions. The most significant new entrant was Evolution Fresh, which shared samples of its new six-SKU line of organic kombucha. Elsewhere, Brew Dr. Kombucha showcased a slightly refined label design that downplays the brand’s roots as an offshoot of the Townshend’s Tea Company. Fellow Oregon-based kombucha brewer Humm, which announced last month it had developed a proprietary fermentation process that ensures its products never reaches over 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), was also on hand with samples of its forthcoming reduced sugar subline (available in Hopped Raspberry and Ginger Juniper) and a new 40 oz. multiserve bottle.