Functional foods, health foods, organic foods…. Raw ingredients, herbal supplements, personal care products…. You couldn’t accuse last month’s Natural Products Expo Asia of being too narrow in focus. But was it worth the journey? Bruce Hoggard was there – and as usual he doesn’t hold back if he doesn’t like what he tastes….

Last month Hong Kong hosted the third annual Natural Products Expo Asia, at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. The site of the 1997 return of Hong Kong to China, this magnificent building is on the waterfront of the island side of Hong Kong nestled in between the multitudes of towering skyscrapers. Unfortunately, the show seemed to get “lost” as it only filled Hall 5, which was tucked away on the upper floors of the Centre.

The show’s broad focus included natural and organic foods, functional and nutritional foods, vitamins, supplements, natural personal care products, spa products, raw ingredients, herbal products, contract-manufacturing and supply-related equipment and services. With approximately 200 exhibiting companies, small in comparison to BioFach and the Natural Product shows in the UK and USA, the show was well attended and the general mood from the exhibitors seemed positive. Once again close to 5,000 buyers from around the world attended the show, although the predominant buyers (95%) where from Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In all, buyers from approximately thirty-eight countries attended this year’s show.

This year Canada, Sri Lanka, India and Korea joined the countries of Thailand, the United States, China, New Zealand and Malaysia with national pavilions. These national pavilions ensured the number of participating companies remained high. Also of note were the Thai Spa personal care area, where a person could have the rigours of the day massaged away, and the Tea Forum, the epitome of tea sampling.

Stimulating conference programme

The conference programme, one of the show’s stronger attributes, was very well attended as daily attendance surpassed 150 people during each of the first two days. Fifteen sessions were hosted covering regulatory issues, the global and Chinese nutrition industries and retailing in Asia. A special round-table on regulations and business opportunities in the global market for nutraceutical and functional foods was one of the better-attended events.

However, the most significant and best-attended presentation came from Xiao-yu Xie the Deputy Director of the Department of Drug Registration for the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) from the People’s Republic of China. She discussed the most recent changes to China’s regulations for healthy and nutritious foods. This is a very important issue for companies expecting to enter the Chinese market as it opens up following its entry into the WTO. With a growing population concerned about health issues and the ability to purchase, China is shaping up to be the next growth market in the area of healthy foods.

Hong Kong the way into China?

This was the key reason for many of the companies at the show. They were there to explore Hong Kong as a market itself but more importantly to determine what interest may exist in China and if Hong Kong could be the entry point.

Peace donations and upfront on organic compliance

One such company was Golden Temple, Inc, a US-based company, representing and promoting several of its branded products in the organic and natural food categories. One product line was a range of cereals, which itself is not a unique product, but was branded as Peace Cereal. The uniqueness and selling point of Peace Cereal is that a portion of the sales from each box is used to help foster peace in the world. As for the cereal, the organic Wild berry is full of fruit and has a pleasant taste, making it an enjoyable breakfast choice or as a snack during the day. 

The company also promoted its Sweet Home Farm Cereal. It too is similar to many other organic cereals in its classification but the product’s uniqueness is in its packaging which the company claims “keeps their (cereal) down-home taste fresh”. The box is designed like a milk carton, making it stand out on the shelf as well as making it more compatible with smaller shelf space. Another interesting labelling difference was that the packaging indicated the cereal was not always 100% organic. The organic materials used in the cereal ranged from a low of about 73% compliance to full USDA certification.

Golden Temple’s main product over the past 30 years has been the Wha Guru Chew. This natural nutty candy bar comes in five flavours and provides parents with a healthy alternative to other snack foods in lunches or during the day. Of the choices, the cashew almond in maple caramel and the cashew vanilla were deliciously addictive. Good thing they are healthy for you! However, the almond ginger was too sharp, leaving a bitter aftertaste meaning you really have to enjoy ginger to eat this bar. To help celebrate its 30 birthday the company has given the product a total makeover, improving the taste and redesigning the packaging to be more colourful, vibrant and attractive.

Triala Foods goes gluten-free with Eskal

Trialia Foods, a company from Australia, was promoting its Eskal brand of gluten free products at the show. Although the brand is 50 years old, the gluten free range of products is less than eight months old. The first products, wafer fingers, were launched in March 2004 and directed at the vast population who are coeliac, allergic to wheat. The demand has been so great in Australia that the company’s wafers are the #1 health food choice in Australia.

These wafers come in three popular choices and the lemon-flavoured cream is also milk-free. The other two choices are the milk chocolate-coated wafer fingers filled with chocolate flavoured cream and the third is a chocolate-covered wafer filled with vanilla cream. The lemon variety simply melted in your mouth, offering a wonderful lemon flavour. For chocolate lovers the two chocolate-covered varieties will also satisfy the chocolate craving while offering a great taste as well.

The company’s other two new products, launched only in October 2004, are the gluten free Pretzels and the Koala peanut snack. The pretzels taste as good as the regular variety and provided the same crunch and texture as their regular counterparts. The Koala peanut snack uses corn as the gluten-free alternative to produce a peanut snack; however people with an allergy to peanuts can still not eat it.

Realising the market demand it has happened upon, Eskal already has several new products in the development process. Due out in February 2005 are two new cakes, a marble cake and a chocolate cake using potato flour to make the cakes gluten-free. The company had samples at the show for consumer testing and feedback and they were as moist and delicious as any home-baked cake. The other new product, also being launched in February 2005 will be Eskal’s version of the very popular and famous “Kit-Kat” chocolate bar. Eskal’s entry is a natural extension from its wafer fingers and fills another gap in the growing demand for gluten free snack items.

Canadian investment in healthier chips

There was a large delegation from Canada at this year’s show but the most interesting product, because of its great taste and market positioning, was Naturally Homegrown Foods’ “Original Hardbite Potato Chip”.

For all those people who enjoy snacking on potato chips but feel guilty about the additional trans fats and other additives found in many regular potato chips, these chips offer a healthy alternative without sacrificing the taste or enjoyment. They are currently ranked as the number one selling natural potato chip in the premier Organic and Natural Food Retail Chain in British Columbia, Canada and are expanding their reach to Asia and Europe.

Hardbite refers to how the chip is kettle cooked by hand in pure Sunflower oil one batch at a time. This is one of the reasons the company has chosen to market itself as a premium snack food and has resisted the pressures of mass marketing chains to drop the price and become a commodity. It was indeed refreshing to find a company that understood its product’s value and was prepared to uphold its quality and uniqueness.

These all-natural snacks come in several flavours. The All Natural continues to be a leading pleaser while the Wild Onion and Yogurt chip made eating just one (bag) not enough. The combination of flavours really provides a unique and captivating taste that left you wanting more. The other current flavours in the line include Smokin BBQ, Sea Salt and Vinegar, Jalapeno, Honey Dijon, and Cheddar and Onion.

Some products bombed

However, not all the products at the show were hits or popular with the attendees. A company from the United States, GDS Group, a distributor for numerous USA-made products, had a variety of its item on display during the show. These products included several low-carb candies ranging from chocolate bars to gelatine candies. Although the “citrus slices” candy variety was acceptable and tasted good, several of the other choices were less than enjoyable, in fact even terrible. On more than one occasion, several people, after being given a small paper cup of products, deposited the cup and product in the garbage at the end of the row. The least pleasing were the low-carb chocolate-coated peanuts, the candy-coated chocolate and finally the gummi-bears. The chocolate bars were okay but really lacked the taste associated with the regular chocolate bars.

Supplements on show

Along with what are considered standard foods there were numerous dietary supplements and nutritious foods on display at the show. One of the more interesting items was a product produced by BeeVital, a UK company started in 2002 and now the world leader in propolis products and research. The word propolis literally means “defender of the city” and is the resin collected by bees from trees and plants. This is then transformed in the hive into one of nature’s most powerful anti-bacterial substances as well as a potential natural fighter of many other ailments.

BeeVital produces an extensive range of propolis products designed to assist in the areas of dental, immune systems, joint problems and skin problems. A few of the more interesting areas of current research are in the positive effect of propolis in countering heavy metals absorbed by the human body and its positive effect on reducing radiation poisoning. This latter benefit will be of interest to those people who spend a lot of time flying as they are subjected to higher levels of radiation at the higher altitudes. With the growing concerns worldwide about health and the increasing failure of conventional drugs to cure problems, products such as BeeVital’s propolis will take on a growing role in the maintenance and preventive measures of our health.

As 2005 gets underway there are numerous shows on the horizon. As usual, 2005 promises to be another busy year on the trade show circuit for organic and conventional food companies. Companies should be preparing to attend, exhibit at or read about them in our articles from the shows and stay abreast of the new and innovative products as well as the changing market.

In closing, for both the article and the end of 2004, I and my family wish all our readers and their respective families a very Merry Christmas, a wonderful and safe holiday season and a happy and prosperous new year.

Canadian Food and Beverage      February 20-22    Toronto
Biofach                         February 24-27    Nurnberg
Fi Asia-China                   March 1-3         Shanghai
FoodEx 2004                     March 8-11        Tokyo
Hostex                          March 13 -16      Johannesburg
IFE 2005                        March 13-16       London
Food and Hotel Korea            March 16-18       Seoul
Nutracon                        March 16-18       Anaheim
Natural Products Expo West      March 17-20       Anaheim
Food and Hotel Korea            March 16-18       Seoul
Food and Hotel Indonesia        April 6-9         Jakarta
SIAL Montreal                   April 13-15       Montreal
Natural Product Europe          April 17-18       London
Organic Product Europe          April 17-18       London
IFE Poland                      April 19-21       Warsaw
IFIA Japan 2004                 April 26-28       Tokyo
All Things Organic              April 30-May 3    Chicago
HOFEX                           May 10-13         Hong Kong
SIAL China                      May 18-20         Shanghai
Natural Products Europe         June 15-16        Amsterdam
Natural Products–Organic Asia   June 28-30        Singapore
FHC Beijing                     June 28-30        Beijing
SIAL Mercosul                   August 23-26      Buenos Aires
BioFach America                 September 9-11    Washington
IFHS                            September 11-14   Bangkok
Food and Hotel Malaysia         September 20-23   Kuala Lumpur
BioFach Japan                   September 21-23   Tokyo
Fi Asia                         September 27-29   Kuala Lumpur
ANUGA                           October 8-12      Cologne
Health Ingredients Japan        October 5-7       Tokyo
IFIA Osaka 2005                 November 9-11     Osaka
Food and Hotel China            November 15 -17   Shanghai
BioFach America Latina          November 16-18    Rio de Janeiro
Fi Europe                       November 29-Dec 1 Paris
The Natural Health Fair         November          Hong Kong
Natural Products Expo Asia      December          Hong Kong
IFE India                       December          New Delhi
Food and Hotel Vietnam          December          Ho Chi Minh