Monday, March 14, 2011

Top natural foods at Natural Products Expo West

The big buzzwords at Natural Products Expo West last weekend were probiotic, gluten-free, antioxidant, detox, superfood and raw.* Kind of like a carrot, yet there were few carrots in sight.

*Also hydrate. As if there's something inadequate about water.

The first thing that struck me about the foods at the Expo, the largest gathering of natural product producers in the country, was how much floor space was devoted to junk food. I attend the Fancy Food Show, where it doesn't matter whether companies profess health claims or not, and that's an unending cornucopia of chocolate, ham and chips. Here, it was more like fair-trade chocolate, soy ham and veggie chips.

That said, cruising the floor of this show in Anaheim, trolling for free samples, is like being a kid in a macrobiotic superfood store, if you're into that sort of thing. Which I am, although each day, after sampling lots of meat alternatives, I found myself craving seared animal flesh.

The show exists mainly for retailers to find new natural products; the mainstream food press doesn't give it the attention that is paid to Fancy Food Show, mainly because the food press as a group doesn't like the taste of hemp milk. Having tried it yesterday, count me with the mainstream on that one.

I'm a little sorry to say the highlight for me wasn't actually the food. I only buy natural soaps and toothpaste and the like, and every producer of "my products" was there. I got to ask Lily of the Valley why they stopped making my favorite sunblock (not profitable), tsk tsked over Dr. Bronner's unnecessary line extensions, and walked away with a bag full of tiny sample packets of Biokleen laundry soap, Auromere toothpaste, etc.

I passed on the opportunity to bring home samples of most of the supplements because they're like green heroin: you're supposed to take most of them every day, accepting on faith that you're not adding a steep monthly bill for a placebo. On Saturday I sampled at least a dozen probiotic products meant to help one's digestion, and Sunday I woke up with a stomachache. And I took a bunch of brain enhancers too, yet I still don't really understand

But I did find plenty of food products that I enjoyed, and I want to share a few here. I can't claim they were the best in show (except in one case), but they were both tasty and apparently good for you.

Carpe Diem Kombucha, Quince flavored: I'm drinking it as I type this. It's excellent because it's not too sweet, like a quince (which nicely covers the usual kombucha flavor); it's lightly fizzy, has a slight hint of tea flavoring, and would probably be a great replacement for wine with dinner. In fact, the label touts it as "a sensible accompaniment to any meal." I can see this; I can't understand how people drink sweet sodas or even worse, fruit juice with meals because it would seem to obliterate flavors in exactly the same way people complain about over-ripe Zinfandel. The only things I ever drink with meals are wine, water or tea, but for this I can see making an exception.

Bragg's vinegar drinks: I'm a longtime fan of Bragg's Liquid Aminos, which I usually use at takeout salad bars instead of salad dressing. Their apple cider vinegar drinks were delicious and refreshing, especially the Apple Cider Vinegar and Honey drink. It's ironic because the reason I started using Bragg's Liquid Aminos on salad in the first place is that I don't like the sharp taste of most vinegars. But the racy acidity of this, and its mild flavor, makes it seem like it would make your spine tingle on a 95-degree day.

Harmony Valley vegetarian hamburger mix: I gave up beef for 14 years and during that entire time I never found a veggie burger alternative I liked. Too bad I didn't find this. I particularly like that it's unformed -- not a hockey puck-like patty -- so that it works well in vegetarian tacos.

Lightlife Smart Dogs: I'll be honest, I hated their sausage. But this hot dog had good texture and I would actually prefer it to most ordinary versions of the real thing. In fact, when served on a bun with sauerkraut, I'm not sure if I could tell it from a pork hotdog in a blind taste test.

Tanka Dogs: The dense meaty flavor of these has a slight natural sweetness, and no wonder, because they're made from buffalo meat. I love buffalo, and the only way we're going to see them recover as a species is 1) an extinction event for humans, or preferably 2) popularity as a cash crop. The company is Native American-owned, which adds interest to the name.

Solterra vegan cheese pizza: This was named Best New Vegan Product by VegNews, and deservedly so. The crust is extremely thin, yet pleasantly chewy, and the Daiya fake cheese -- main ingredient tapioca flour -- is cheezily satisfying. What I liked most about this pizza was its long finish; I kept tasting it for a minute or so, in a good way. What others may like best is that it's gluten-free, wheat-free and dairy-free. But it's tasty enough to be worth buying even for non-vegans.

Rezealiant wheatgrass/barley grass drinks: I don't want to promote supplements after one taste because I can't know whether or not they accomplish what they boast. However, I have to single out this company's dried grass drinks just on flavor. Sometimes when I feel undernourished or guilty or just want to punish my palate, I've had fresh wheatgrass at Jamba Juice, and while it may be good for you, my next few minutes are usually spent trying to erase the impression of having mowed the lawn with my teeth. I don't know if these dried grass drinks are the most nutritious version, but they are the best tasting I've tried, particularly the Kiwi Lime Barley Grass.

Fentiman's Ginger Beer/Fresh Ginger Ale by Bruce Cost: I loved both of these, and wished they hadn't been on separate floors so I could have tried them side by side. Bruce Cost's version is cloudy with real ginger and it's more intense; the Fentiman's version has more botanicals and is more complex. There's a place in my fridge for both.

Yakult: I would be remiss if, in light of current events, I didn't mention at least one old favorite from Japan. I used to enjoy one of these mini yogurt drinks every day at my desk in Tokyo; a woman from the Yakult company would come to our office at 11 a.m. and remembered every one of my coworkers' favorite drinks. My thoughts are with them. お気をつけてください.


Joel Brüt said...

I will have to check out the Lightlife veggie dogs. I used to love the Yves chili dogs, but they don't make those anymore. I can't drink Kombucha because it tastes like spoiled wine, but I do dig Drinkwell's sodas. They have a booth at the SF farmer's market, at the south-west corner.

Sondra said...

Interesting that it's called the Natural Products expo when it sounds like its all manufactured not so natural products.UGH!

Marlene Rossman said...

Blake, when did you become a food writer?

W. Blake Gray said...

Sondra: If you think that, the misimpression is my fault. It's not a farmers' market, and the amount of junk food was amusing enough for me to comment. Plus there were plenty of supplement dealers with nebulous claims. But there were a huge number of well-meaning committed companies, many of whom I happily buy products from all the time.

Marlene: I wrote my first paid, published food article more than 20 years ago. Why do you ask?