There’s no question that natural, organic and sustainably produced consumer products are a rapidly growing segment of the market. While these products are being adopted by mainstream consumers they continue to be trendsetting and signal changes in the broader marketplace.  In both sectors, understanding the needs and desires of consumers – particularly values-driven millennials – is a requirement for anyone looking to play in this space. Examining the trends in natural will better help identify what consumers are demanding right now and how best to deliver it.

At this year’s Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore, there was a noticeable energy on the showroom floor as new trends and innovative ideas drew the attention of attendees looking for the next best thing in food, dietary supplements and personal care.

After spending a day walking the show floor, here are our five key takeaways from Expo East that signal bigger trends we should all be keeping an eye on as we think about new ways to connect with consumers, most notably millennials, in 2016.

  1. Man StuffAll eyes on the guys: Across every category, companies are increasingly turning attention to a segment of consumers that has been somewhat ignored by consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies in recent years: men. From food, to personal care to supplements, there is a clear market for targeting men as consumers of these products. Not only are more products being marketed to men, but they are being designed specifically for them and only them (beard balm, anyone?). With male consumers making up 50 percent of the market, it’s no wonder we’re seeing companies moving focus to dude-driven products.

  2. bug foodNot your kid’s snack: It can be argued that we live in the age of the ever-evolving snack food. We now have a culture of snacking that is replacing meals. Spurred by flavor-seeking millennials, the definition of a snack has evolved from kid-focused food in recent years, with companies targeting more discerning adults with complex flavors and textures.
    • Meat: Protein is the must-have nutrient in the marketplace right now, so it’s not surprising to see jerky-style meat snacks making waves with consumers. This isn’t your dad’s jerky. These snacks are directed toward both women and men in a variety of complex flavors and are marketed as an alternative to high-protein, functional foods, such as protein bars. These are seen as pure-play snack foods, merchandised next to chips or crackers but positioned as a healthier option.
    • Nut butters: We’ve come a long way since the advent of almond butter. Companies are stepping up their nut butter offerings, specializing in sophisticated flavor profiles for adults. These aren’t just being marketed as allergy foods or for children with food sensitivities – they’re designed for savvy foodies looking for the next palate pleaser to pair with complementing items in innovative ways.
    • Flavored popcorn: Curry. Truffle. Jalapeno. Those are terms not typically associated with bagged popcorn. But more and more companies are rethinking a classic by creating intricate flavors infused with an international flair to appeal to snack lovers.
    • savory yogurtSavory yogurts: As more consumers look to cut back on fat and too much sugar, flavorful savory yogurts, with bold spices, fruits and vegetables (e.g., cucumber mint, mango chili) are making a push into the marketplace. Consumers don’t need to settle for something sweet or eat yogurt just for breakfast – they want rich, full flavors that keep them full and energized all day long.
    • Entofood: The World Health Organization has touted insects as having potential to alleviate global hunger and food insecurity. While they are years away from becoming mainstream, the first insect protein based food products are entering the consumer marketplace.

  3. food bagsA new way to package: While sustainable packaging is nothing new, just how widespread it has become certainly is. More companies are experimenting with repurposed packaging ideas used in fresh ways that are good for both consumers and the environment.
    • Squeeze pouches/packs: From the batter to the syrup, your favorite pancake breakfast can now all be delivered in the same easy-to-use squeezable packaging as baby food. Companies are increasingly offering liquefied foods – sauces, soups, syrups, purees  and much more – in these pouches and packs that are more eco-friendly than metal, glass or plastic and lead to less waste (no confusing recycling symbols) and lower shipping costs. Many of the types of foods now available in squeezable pouches/packs have traditionally had very recognized and well-known packaging but more companies are moving away from this in favor of a “greener” option.
    • Compostable coffee pods: As municipal regulations evolve and consumers become more environmentally conscious, there is increasing demand for compostable packaging. While consumers may love single-serve coffee makers, it can leave many feeling guilty about the daily waste they produce. Compostable coffee pods directly address that concern. This is also indicative of a larger trend we’re seeing with consumers who want to move more toward compostable packaging and away from recyclable.
    • edible packagingEdible cups: Packaging you can actually eat? That takes sustainability to a whole new level. Innovative companies are experimenting with different technologies and 7modalities to create novelty food items that will please consumers’ taste buds and ease their eco-conscious minds.

  4. Lame labeling: We saw a lot of bad labels while walking around the Expo floor. As recent regulatory issues with Hampton Creek’s eggless mayo have shown, proper product naming labeling is a necessity start-up companies just can’t avoid. If food start-ups want to be taken seriously they need to act like the big guys and become more sophisticated in how they address the regulatory requirements around labeling and recognize how the laws and regulations apply.
    • Misleading labeling claims: Unqualified health and nutrient claims that misbrand products, no matter how well-meaning or improperly formatted or miscalculated nutrition facts panels indicate a lack of seriousness and maturity. Yet many new food companies aren’t aware of (or ignore) the regulatory intricacies involved in label claims. Food startups need to be particularly mindful of these issues as it’s not uncommon for consumers or retailers to ask if a company can’t make a proper label, what else isn’t it doing right?
    • Category confusion: New companies seem confused when it comes to marketing their products as dietary supplements, foods or beverages. There are clear guidelines for the labeling and product claims in each of these categories. There needs to be a better understanding of how far companies can take a claim before it crosses over into a different category. The stakes are high in these categories and even seemingly innocuous, trendy products can face real consequences for misbranding. TTB (formerly known as ATF), has recently issued guidance to help kombucha producers determine if alcohol beverage regulations and taxes, apply to them.

  5. What’s for lunch: Amidst the calls for healthier school lunches, companies are taking notice and creating products moms and dads can feel good about packing each day in their kids’ knapsacks. As activist parents increasingly put pressure on schools to transform their menus with better options, companies may soon find themselves moving from just packed lunches or the cafeteria. This will be an interesting trend to watch, especially as pricing issues become part of the conversation.
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Melissa Musiker

Melissa Musiker, director, is APCO Worldwide's global food, consumer products & retail practice lead based in New York. Read More

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Lauren Cohen

Lauren Cohen serves as senior associate director, public affairs, in APCO’s Washington office. Read More