The natural products industry and natural CPG, which over many decades has grown into a big business that’s best exemplified by next month’s Natural Products Expo West show in Anaheim, California, began as a counter-culture movement and challenge to an industry that didn’t prioritise human health when it comes to the US food system.
Entrepreneurs unhappy with the status quo of the US packaged foods industry and seeing economic opportunity started developing healthier, cleaner and organic packaged food and beverage products which at first were sold near-exclusively in health or natural food stores before crossing the road to mainstream grocery stores.
Along with food and beverage products, nutritional supplements were advanced by entrepreneurs and other leaders of the natural products industry as part of the challenge to what was originally called big industrialised food or “mass,” as in mass market food, which included conventional retailers as well as large consumer packaged foods companies. Natural was the antidote to mass.
Finding a public stage
In the mid-1970s, Natural Products Expo West became the de facto launching pad and public stage for the natural products industry and the good or better food movement.
It was counter-culture all the way. ‘Big Food’ and alternative food were like strangers in the night.
The relationship started to change in the mid-1980s when some big food companies, such as Kellogg and General Mills, started seriously flirting with alternative food and Natural Products Expo West.
The 1990s saw the relationship between big food/mass and alternative food – natural CPG and the natural products industry – grow much closer. This included the normalisation of the acquisition process in which big conventional packaged foods companies began to routinely acquire smaller entrepreneurial natural products companies and brands.
A symbiotic relationship
Today the relationship between big conventional food, which doesn’t automatically prioritise human health in its business model nor claim that it does so, and alternative food providers, which publicly prioritise human health in their model, is symbiotic. The initial flirtation that began in the 1980s and which turned into a serious relationship by the early 2000s is today a full-blown marriage.
Conventional and alternative food are in 2023 largely part of a single industry. The two are joined at the hip because natural CPG and the natural products industry have become mainstream. Natural Products Expo West exemplifies this new reality.
At an inflection point
The natural products industry is at an inflection point because it’s gone from a counter-culture movement to mainstream.
For example, organic was considered radical in the 1970s and 80s. Today it’s accepted as a mainstream alternative to conventional. The same is the case with better-for-you food products, nutritional supplements, gluten-free and more. None of these once radical alternatives are considered radical today. Rather, Americans view them on the whole as mainstream alternatives.
Inflection points require new thinking and focus, which is what the natural products industry needs.
As an example, plant-based meat was an outsized focus by both the industry and at Natural Products Expo West in 2021 and 2022. US consumers though are rejecting plant-based meat despite all the industry focus and attention.
A new challenge to the status quo
Instead of singular or product-based focuses such as plant-based meat or even plant-based, the natural products industry needs to reclaim some of its counter-culture or insurgent past and once again challenge some of the status quo which to a large extent the industry has become a part of because of its mainstreaming.
Here are three things I think the natural products industry should focus on today.
First, champion truly healthier foods by advocating technologies and action that eliminate and significantly reduce sugar and salt in branded packaged food and beverage products.
Diabetes and high blood pressure, which are leading to way too many deaths from heart disease in the US, are approaching epidemic proportions, including among young people.
Packaged foods and drinks, including many that claim to be better-for-you but contain as much sugar and salt as similar conventional brands, are a major part of the problem.
There are very few if any issues more important to a healthier food movement, which is one of the things the natural products industry is, than the relationship between food, diet and human health.
Secondly, put the farm and farmers at the centre of the natural products industry.
One of the major contributions natural CPG brands and the natural products industry have made is to create a market for crops farmed in more natural (as opposed to industrial) ways and organically.
The next phase for the industry can be to make its mark by advocating for and helping to create a significant market for crops grown using regenerative agriculture, which unlike organic which is primarily a certification, is a more comprehensive and holistic farming system focused on soil health.
Key to this, though, is building stronger and more inclusive relationships with farmers, to include financial support from food companies and the natural products industry to assist growers who want to transition to regenerative farming.
This is about treating farmers like partners rather than as the enemy, which is how many farmers feel organic food and farming advocates view them.
The silo between the food industry and agriculture, particularly farmers, still exists and the more that can be done to break it down, the better for all, including consumers. The natural products industry can lead in this regard.
Lastly, the natural products industry and natural CPG have the opportunity to take the lead when it comes to increasing diversity and inclusion across the board in the consumer packaged goods industry.
Women and minorities have made great strides in the natural products industry – an industry that historically hasn’t put much of a focus on promoting inclusion and diversity – over the last two decades.
What we’ve learned from this is that diversity and inclusion equal innovation. Many – perhaps even the majority – of the most innovative and successful natural CPG brands over the last decade have women or ethnic minority founders. Diversity and inclusion is not only good, it’s also good business.
The natural products industry can become the leader in promoting diversity and inclusion because of its roots as a counter-culture movement and its status today as part of the mainstream.
What’s old is often new again. For the natural products industry that might mean combining its past challenging the status quo with its present mainstream status in order to remain relevant and at the cutting edge.
Just Food columnist Victor Martino is a California-based strategic marketing and business development consultant, analyst, entrepreneur and writer, specialising in the US food and grocery industry. He is available for consultation at: email@example.com and https://twitter.com/VictorMartino01. You can read more of his columns for Just Food here.