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What’s Hot in Plant-Based? Natural Products Expo West 2023 Has Clues

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With thousands of exhibitors across the natural products space and tens of thousands of visitors, the annual Natural Products Expo West, better known simply as Expo West, is among the top must-see shows in the industry. This year’s event, held in Anaheim, CA, March 8-11, was buzzing with energy and new product activity. Here are key plant-based product subcategories to keep an eye on:

  • Whole muscle meat alternatives have been the holy grail for the industry, which to date focused primarily on plant-based ground products. Canada-based Urbani Brands recently introduced its ribeye steak product manufactured from a combination of soybean protein and oil, tapioca, konjac root, and other ingredients. At Expo West, Konscious Foods featured a variety of sushi rolls with whole-muscle fish produced from seaweed, konjac, and pea protein. Current Foods tuna and salmon products are created from pea protein, potato starch, and algal oil and are designed to be consumed “raw” in sushi, sashimi, poke bowls, and other applications. unMEAT offers plant-based canned luncheon meat and tuna and is introducing canned chunk chicken, chilli with beans, and roast beef alternatives.
  • The battle of the burgers continues. Despite a highly saturated marketplace, plant-based burger brands continue to emerge and differentiate themselves from the competition. Nobull brands itself as the “true veggie burger” that is “not meant to be a meat imitator, but a true, whole-food, real food veggie burger” made from lentils, brown rice, quinoa, chickpeas, and vegetables. The ingredient list for burgers from Dr. Praeger’s is almost entirely vegetables, along with starches and flours for binding. Actual Veggies and Big Mountain also focus on their vegetable content rather than trying to recreate a meat-like burger.
  • Global plant-based products offer cultural diversity in authentic recreations of traditional dishes. Triton Algae Innovations, a San Diego-based food startup, launched its “Too Good To Be” Pork dumpling with algae, cabbage, onion, and plant-based pork. Funky Fresh offers a sweet potato and black bean vegan spring roll in addition to its conventional product line. Italy-based Mia Green Food produces a line of Italian-style plant-based deli slices, including protein-rich alternatives to turkey breast, carpaccio, pepperoni, and prosciutto. Wheat gluten is the primary protein; pea and chickpea flour may also be used depending on the variety. Mozzarisella creates its vegan mozzarella and Parmesan cheese alternatives using brown rice sprouts, along with oils and thickeners. Somos has a full line of plant-based classic Mexican dishes – refried beans, black beans, burrito bowl kits, and main dishes. Pea protein is widely used to the brand’s dishes containing plant-based ground meat.
  • Dairy alternative drinks are coming closer to replicating the protein and calcium profile of dairy milk by adding protein and calcium to a base that tends to be low in both. Oat continues to stand out as the most prominent base for dairy alternative drinks, although choices have broadened to include pistachio, macadamia, sesame, and the newly introduced mushroom milk. Animal-free milks made with whey from Perfect Day are trying to win over a consumer base among flexitarians who are interested in dairy alternatives and animal welfare but are not necessarily committed to a vegan diet.
  • Next generation cheeses are incorporating traditional cheesemaking techniques to recreate the texture, flavor, and performance of dairy cheeses. Climax introduced vegan blue, brie, feta, and chevre cheeses that are “high in protein, at parity with dairy, and with better fats and other nutritional properties.” The company website notes that it explores combinations of plant-based ingredients that can be optimized to “produce indistinguishable alternatives to animal-based products.” Mia Parmegan plant-based Parmesan is similar in appearance to a wrapped Parmigiano wedge, can be grated, and also melts. Bel Brands featured its Nurishh plant-based cheeses and its green wax-wrapped Babybel Plant-Based, each with added calcium and vitamin B12.

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  • The keto diet is a variation on the age-old meat-rich, high fat, high protein, low carbohydrate diet. This current iteration has fully adapted for the plant-centric consumer, with plenty of nuts, coconut, and non-caloric sweeteners. Super Fat Keto Nut Butters are made with a base of coconut, almond, and macadamia; they are sweetened with erythritol and stevia. Super Fat also offers keto cookies. Madly Hadley markets a keto friendly, gluten free, soy free plant-based coconut bacon. Carbonaut breads and buns are fortified with protein and fiber, raising protein content to up to 12 grams per serving and lowering carbohydrates to 2-3 grams of net carbs. Sola breads, buns and bagels, all labeled keto-friendly, are an excellent source of both protein and fiber. Their high fiber content reduces net carbs significantly. Keto-friendly Catalina Crunch Cereal gets its protein from pea protein; fiber from potato, corn, and chicory root; and fat from sunflower oil, coconut oil, and almonds. Stevia provides sweetness without carbs or calories.
  • Noodles and pasta naturally are plant-based, unless they are made with eggs. Today’s plant-based pasta trends include a broader range of flours, use of vegetables for color and nutrition, and low carbohydrate options. Pastabilities formulates and markets its pasta products for different types of diets: high protein, high fiber, and low calorie. The Wildfare line of organic, vegan pastas are flavored and colored with a range of vegetables, including beetroot, broccoli, olive, sweet red pepper, tomato, spinach, and black carrot. Andean Valley produces pasta from quinoa grown sustainably in Nicaragua. Miracle Noodle plant-based noodles have close to zero calories and carbohydrates as a result of their konjac flour base.
  • Mushrooms loom large in product launches. Functional mushrooms have been added to supplements, beverages, and food products. The company Meati uses mushroom root protein as the base for its product line of cutlets and steaks. Big Mountain offers its Lion’s Mane Mushroom Crumble that supplements lion’s mane with shiitake and portobello mushrooms. The product is high in fiber and protein. Bravo Tea promotes a Mushroom Wonders line with a choice of lion’s mane, reishi, turkey tail, chaga, maitake, cordyceps, or blended mushroom.
  • Soy-free products are becoming more common across a broad range of categories, including burgers, dairy alternative drinks, snack mixes, and even tofu, where one company sampled a tofu made from fava beans rather than soy.

Expo West is nearly back to its pre-pandemic energy and innovation and likely will continue to be among the go-to shows for plant-based innovation.


Mindy Hermann
Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN is a food and nutrition communications consultant in metro NY. She enjoys following trends in the food industry and is a frequent contributor to publications such as Today’s Dietitian and The World of Food Ingredients. Mindy also writes trends reports for Innova Market Insights, a global food and beverage market research firm based in Arnhem, Netherlands, as well as articles for professional journals.