Last week thousands of visitors descended on Natural Products Expo Europe in Amsterdam, where many European and international manufacturers showed off the latest nutritional and functional foods. As usual there was a host of low-carb and organic products, but there was also an opportunity to learn more about the little-known herb industry, as Bruce Hoggard reports.

The city of Amsterdam played host on 16 and 17 June to Natural Products Expo Europe and Supply Expo 2004. This annual show brings together buyers and sellers as well as leaders and innovators from Europe's €50bn (US$60.4bn) health, food and nutritional products industry.

Over two days the event featured an interesting collection of "new" products from various parts of the world, a free education programme covering many current and relevant trade and business issues, and numerous networking and new business opportunities.

Although there were more than 150 European and international suppliers and manufacturers displaying health and nutritional products and ingredients, the show was small in comparison to several others held on an annual basis in America, Asia and elsewhere in Europe. As for visitors, although it may have been busier than last year's 2,700 attendees, the overall impression was that attendance was also lower in comparison to other shows. Furthermore, many of the "new" products were replicas of existing products with different brand names and packaging, but no less interesting or important for consumer selection.

The show marked a first this year as it was the first trade event following the accession of ten new European Union members: Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. However, this seemed to have only a minimal affect on the show, if any, as the larger players in the functional foods sector still control the overall market. In fact, smaller companies in the new countries may be pushed aside as they compete against imports from the established EU members and are forced to adjust to stricter regulatory issues regarding ingredient formulation, safety of functional compounds and product claims.

As with all shows, education plays a valuable role in contributing to its overall success. An addition to this year's show was the Manufacturing and Supply Forum. This two-day educational seminar appealed to product developers, brand managers and senior executives wanting to remain on the cutting edge of new product development. Topics covered dealing with the latest ingredient science; product formulation; EU regulatory trends; market case studies; and exclusive technology transfer presentations. However, the most interesting and important to the food industry was the Thursday panel presentation dealing with organic and natural foods opportunities in Eastern Europe.

Following the trends

Not to be outdone by the conventional food and drug industries, the low-carbohydrate  diet trend has jumped into the organic and natural food industry with a big splash. This fact was driven home at the show by the dramatic increase in companies offering low-carb food and drink items. Or better yet, we say companies re-marketing themselves and promoting already known and generally accepted facts and claims - such as advertising the low carb value of water - as new and exciting.

Leading the low-carb onrush at the show was Atkins International with its diverse range of products and the very essence of the trend itself. Its products included the Atkins Morning Shine Breakfast Bars in three flavours, and Atkins Advantage Ready-to-Drink Shakes, also in three flavours, offering convenience as well as a low carbohydrate content to those people on the run and/or looking for the latest diet trend.

Carbolite, the top selling low-carb confectionery brand in the US, was another company at the show offering a range of low-carb confectionery and snacks. The company claims to sell 10,000 bars every minute and is the market leader in the US. The products, including seven varieties of chocolate bars, bacon flavoured snacks made with pork rind, and breakfast bars, although good products, were versions of similar products available throughout the show. One of the significant statements was that Carbolite products are also suitable for diabetics, an important factor given the growing number of diabetes sufferers. 'New' products coming soon and carrying the Carbolite brand will include Chocolate Coated Peanuts, Shakes and Gummy Bears. Once again versions of these "new" products are already available in Europe; just ask any German about Haribo golden gummi bears.

Catering to specific dietary requirements

Controlled Carb Gourmet Inc. also had an interesting array of low-carb products, although repetitive, including eight popular flavours of cheesecakes (my favourite two selections being Blueberry and Cherry), zero carb bagels and bread, and a wide assortment of muffins, brownies and buns. In addition the company also markets products suitable for diabetic, kosher and wheat/yeast free diets, and a full line of refrigerated frozen, snacks, and confections/desserts.

One of the 'true' organic companies at the show, not selling pills, tablets, liquids or capsules, was Glutano with its line of gluten-free products. The company has three cereals, including the market favourites cornflakes and muesli, as well as pasta and bread. The company also offers private labelling for companies wishing to create in-store brands.

Nairn's Oatcakes and Biscuits, an award winning Scottish company, was also at the show promoting its range of oat-based, wheat- and yeast-free processed and packaged organic and natural food selections. The company's variety of oatcakes was impressive and they get full marks for producing excellent items in a narrow product line. Although the oatcakes may be good for you they are still an acquired taste for some people, even with all the wonderful "toppings" that can adorn the products for parties or snacks.

A warning for the herb industry

With the abundance of herb, spice and essential oil companies at the show and the phenomenal growth this industry is experiencing, an important topic being discussed was the World Health Organisation's warning that many of the world's most popular herbs may be in danger due to harvesting and collection methods.

Given the impact this topic would have on this $60bn-a-year global industry and the devastation, if the overall process remains unchanged and uncontrolled, there was some lively debate. The predicted devastation, although not a forecast shared by all in attendance, would include the extinction of endangered spices and the destruction of natural habitats and resources.

This poses new challenges for leading companies such as ISIS, a new Germany company selling organic herbs, spices and essential oils, and others such as Cobeco Pharma BV, First Nutrition, Forest Herbs Research, Ayush Herbs Inc., Herbapol and J&P Pharma International Limited.

To combat and head off this potential catastrophe, WHO released several guidelines providing alternatives to address the dangerous dilemma resulting from the poor harvesting and replanting methods, as well as the over-harvesting caused by increased demand. The WHO document, a comprehensive paper with input from Canada, Japan and China, recommends the development and implementation of regional Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) as well as giving guidelines for post-harvest operations.

Although directed mainly at developing countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Turkey and China, sources of the world's herb and spice raw materials, there are more far reaching implications. The most affected herbs include ginseng, goldenseal, Echinacea, black cohosh, slippery elm, kava, and devil's claw. However, other natural and organic products such as several types of wild mushroom grown in Canada, China, Japan and Korea are also subject to the same harvesting situations and therefore similar concerns.

In many of these countries wasteful harvesting and careless damage to the plant's surroundings is commonplace. The problem is further aggravated by the low-skilled manner in which harvesting is done and the fact that there is no strategic business or development plan.

Accepting responsibility

To address these concerns raw material buyers like ISIS are playing a more active role in what is being grown and how it is being grown. With long-term supply and quality issues playing a more important role, ISIS founder Herbert Lulay is expecting to see the trend move towards more sustainability and stewardship of the resources. This sentiment is also echoed by Terry Helary, general manager of the Saskatchewan-based Northlights Mushrooms.

It will be interesting to see if other buyers accept the responsibility and acknowledge the need to protect the very "hand that feeds them" by taking a more active and involved role in the managing of the resources.

Overall, the show was more suited to the nutraceutical and functional food industry instead of the organic food industry. There were millions of pills, capsules and potions designed to make you healthier, more vigorous and solve the world's current health issues. Although organic and natural foods can play a role in this admirable goal as well, this show, when compared to the multitude of others, was not the best medium for them to reach their specific target market.