From coffee fruit–infused functional beverages to portable pellets that expand into baby wipes, the natural products industry once again abounds with innovation. Natural Foods Merchandiser editors selected 15 products and product lines from the food, beverages, grocery, supplements and personal care categories that wowed us with their unique functionalities, formulations and eco-attributes. Here, we highlight these innovations, along with the companies behind them—each of which exemplifies the industry’s core values of community, charity, sustainability and promoting wellness.
Coffee fruit (the outer skin of the coffee bean) has a shockingly high oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) value—4,000 units per gram. Compare that to blueberries (24 units) or açaí (100 units), and it’s a wonder that this antioxidant powerhouse is relatively unheard of. At least that’s how Ben Weiss, a former coffee distributor, roaster and wholesaler, felt after learning of the fruit’s remarkable nutritious qualities. “I knew that the indigenous people in the areas where coffee is grown would eat the fruit,” he says. “Then I started seeing it used in cosmetics for its apparent antiaging properties. I thought, Why not marry the two ideas?”
This year, after 18 months in development, Weiss launched Bai, a functional beverage that offers 400 mg of coffee fruit extract per serving. Though Princeton, N.J.-based Bai secured East Coast distribution, the product already has garnered national attention, including winning the Best New Functional Drink and Best New Beverage Ingredient awards at InterBev 2010, a leading beverage industry trade show.
In addition to delivering 1,600 ORAC units per serving, the fruit-flavored beverage offers 70 mg of caffeine from white tea extract. Four of Bai’s flavors are sweetened with organic cane juice, and another four deliver only 5 calories per serving by using stevia and erythritol, a natural sugar alcohol that ranks zero on the glycemic index.
“We’ve created a whole new category,” Weiss says. “A fruit that was basically thrown away during coffee harvest is now, in my opinion, the next big superfruit.”
Unable to find authentic aguas frescas at U.S. grocery stores, Arnulfo Ventura and his partner Jose Domene decided to turn lemons into lemonade by developing their own version of the traditional Hispanic beverage. “I felt a bit overlooked as a consumer and can imagine that other Hispanics felt the same,” Ventura says. “We saw this as a unique opportunity to create a new niche category.”
Aguas frescas—literally, “refreshing waters”—are alternatives to iced tea or lemonade. The beverages are popular in many Latin American regions not only for quenching thirst, but also for helping to naturally cool the mouth following spicy foods.
Los Angeles-based Cobá may be perfectly poised to attract attention from the burgeoning U.S. Hispanic and Latino market because the men behind the brand understand their customers’ values. Since the product hit shelves in May, Ventura has personally responded to every customer email. “It’s about creating a sense of community,” he says. The company also supports diabetes awareness events and college-funding programs for minorities.
Sweetened with organic agave nectar, Cobá is available in traditional flavors—tamarind, hibiscus, mango and guava. “I’ll admit, there’s no substitute for Abuelita’s aguas frescas,” Ventura says. “But we like to think we’re the next best thing.”
After his doctor advised him to address his high cholesterol levels by cutting dairy from his diet, Steve Verde, a natural products industry veteran and business consultant working with small startups, decided to take a closer look at the nondairy category. “Other than hemp milk, I didn’t see a lot of products made with seeds,” Verde says. “They’re known nutritional powerhouses for their good fats and high fiber content. I wanted to create a product that would capitalize on those assets and still taste great.”
He experimented with sesame seeds and pumpkinseeds before landing on an option that passed the taste test: sunflower seeds. With the help of a food scientist from the University of Nebraska, Verde nailed down a winning formula for the seed milk that includes water, sunflower kernels, organic evaporated cane juice, sea salt and natural binders. The end result was Sunsational Non-Dairy Sunflower Beverage, a shelf-stable milk alternative in Original and Vanilla flavors.
East Greenwich, R.I.-based Sunsational began East Coast distribution of its sunflower milk in April, and Verde is currently working to secure a West Coast distributor. In addition to 15 percent of the daily recommended value of folate and 20 percent of vitamin A, the milk packs some flower-power surprises—dietary fiber (4 grams per 8-ounce serving), omega-6 and -9, minerals and amino acids.
BaoBest Fruit Bars
and Fruit Powder
Africa’s iconic baobab tree is noted for more than its impressive size, fire-resistant bark and edible leaves. The tree of life, as it’s often called, also bears papaya-shaped pods filled with marshmallow-shaped seeds. The seeds are slightly tart, with a superb nutritional profile. According to a market brief presented at the 2008 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, baobab contains six times as much vitamin C as an orange, more potassium and magnesium than bananas or coconut water, and more iron than spinach or 3 ounces of chicken breast. It’s also a significant source of fiber, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorous and antioxidants.
After discovering baobab’s impressive health benefits, Riaan van Zyl, a South Africa native, decided to bring the fruit to the U.S. He contacted food industry veterans David Bruck and Stephan Broburg, who specialize in product launches, and Baobab Foods was born. The Bellevue, Wash.-based company’s BaoBestline of nutritional bars and fruit powders, which debuted at Natural Products Expo West in March, are rich in antioxidants and fiber. When mixed into water, the raw, whole-food powder has a slightly citrus flavor, making it a great option in smoothies. BaoBest Fruit Bars are low on the glycemic index, gluten free and available in Apricot and CherryBerry flavors.
Crunchfuls Premium Superfood Breakfast Cereal
Rather than jump-starting the day with coffee or a bowl of high-carb, sugary cereal, Deepa Shenoy, a molecular biologist turned functional food scientist, suggests consumers consider a bowl of Pulseeds—a trademarked combination of the pulse legumes beans, split peas and lentils. Sound like a tough sell? Not after a taste of Shenoy’s product, Crunchfuls, manufactured by Mountain View, Calif.-based Pul Foods. Crunchfuls cereals resemble and have a flavor and texture similar to Cheerios, but contain only five ingredients: Pulseeds, brown rice, white rice, salt and dehydrated raw cane sugar.
“Diet and health are intrinsically tied,” Shenoy says. “I knew that the snack and cereal category is the largest consumed retail food segment in the world, and wanted to create a truly healthy option.” Shenoy considered hundreds of combinations of peas, lentils and beans before landing on a blend that optimizes nutrition, taste and texture without relying on outside flavor enhancers. Aside from being sustainable crops that require little water, Pulseeds are a rich source of vegetarian protein, amino acids, iron, calcium and B vitamins. They have a low glycemic index ranking, meaning they keep you full longer, and offer more complex carbohydrates and fiber than whole grains. “They really are nature’s original health food,” Shenoy says.
Crunchfuls launched in April 2010, and has already been nominated for a handful of awards, including a 2011 NutrAward from Functional Ingredients magazine for best new finished product.
Green Valley Organics
Lactose Free dairy products
Lactose-free dairy that tastes like the real deal? NFMeditors weren’t believers either—until we discovered Green Valley Organics’ yogurts and kefirs last year.
After noting the popularity of her easy-to-digest goat milk products with dairy-sensitive customers, Jennifer Lynn Bice, owner of Redwood Hill Farms & Creamery, a goat dairy based in Sebastopol, Calif., realized there was a niche not being served. Bice decided to create an entirely lactose-free line, but instead of using goat’s milk, she contacted Certified Humane organic dairy farmers in the Sonoma area. “After receiving several calls from customers, we realized there are a lot of lactose-sensitive people out there who really miss cow’s milk,” she says. Green Valley Organics Lactose Free was created after Bice and her team discovered that adding the natural enzyme lactase to dairy products breaks down lactose into easily digestible sugars.
Green Valley’s 100 percent solar-powered creamery produces organic cow’s milk kefirs and yogurts that are not only lactose free, but also contain 10 strains of proprietary probiotics for digestive health and 8 grams of protein per serving. The company launched a lactose-free sour cream this year.
Blue Lotus Reusable Produce and Bulk Food Bags
Sure, your customers are in the habit of toting their own reusable grocery bags to the checkout stand, but they’re less likely to use cloth bags in the produce and bulk aisles. Turn them on to the idea by stocking Blue Lotus’ reusable 100 percent organic cotton bags.
The Soquel, Calif.-based company was founded in 1999, but the reusable bags came about after sustainable businessman Lorin Troderman returned from a trip to Belize, where he collected what he calls “endless plastic debris” along the seashore on his daily walks. Depressed by so much waste, he vowed to reduce people’s dependence on disposable plastic. “As long-time organic eaters, my wife [a cofounder of the company] and I were always perplexed by the contradiction of healthy organic foods being packaged or, even worse, placed by us in plastic bags,” Troderman says. “And then we saw where the plastic was ending up.”
Each machine-washable Blue Lotus bag displays a sketch of a food product, such as carrots or grains, or other fun prints. By moistening the bags, customers can keep leafy greens fresh in the fridge. Dry bags are perfect for bulk flour, rice, oats and more. And the mesh bags mimic the size of rip-off-the-roll disposable plastic bags, making them useful for fruits and vegetables that customers want to bundle together but that don’t need to be kept cool.
Green Sprouts by i play Disposable Compressed Wipes
We’re all in favor of anything that simplifies life for parents. That’s why the new disposable, compressed baby wipes in the Green Sprouts booth caught the eyes of NFM moms walking the aisles of Natural Products Expo West in March.
“Lugging around everything moms need for their little ones can be a chore,” says Noelle Brown, marketing associate for Asheville, N.C.-based i play, parent company of Green Sprouts. “We wanted to make these wipes convenient for moms and healthy for baby.” A lipstick-size, reusable travel tube holds 10 pellet wipes and takes up little more than a corner of a diaper bag or purse. The lid’s loop can also attach to a stroller handle. When it’s changing time, simply dab each pellet with water, and it expands into a naturally antibacterial, plant-based wipe. Hypoallergenic and free of chemicals, pesticides, alcohol and chlorine, the wipes are good for baby’s sensitive skin and easy on the environment.
If you think there’s no room in your baby section, let alone Mom’s diaper bag, for another product, consider this: According to Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm SPINS, baby product sales in natural and conventional stores grew 33 percent last year, from $51.7 million to $68.6 million. And because new moms are a top consumer group, the category shows no signs of slowing down.
Eco-Me Home Cleaning DIY Kit
When Robin Levine’s sister was diagnosed with cancer at age 35 with no warning and no family history, doctors pointed to the environment as a potential cause. “We looked at all the chemicals in our everyday household products and started researching,” Levine says. She found that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air can be 10 times more polluted than outdoor air in big cities on smoggy days.
To literally clean up her surroundings, Levine began mixing her own natural cleaning products. Before long, family and friends wanted samples of Levine’s homemade concoctions, and soon thereafter Eco-Me was born in Pasadena, Calif., in 2006.
Although Eco-Me is not a new brand, its Home Cleaning DIY Kits remain a unique concept in the marketplace and may be poised to take off as consumers grow increasingly interested in both self-care and self-made products. “Our success is in the honest labeling, the education and the empowerment a do-it-yourself product offers our customers,” Levine says of the plant-based essential oils that are mixed with simple household ingredients such as vinegar, olive oil and baking soda to make an all-purpose cleaner, wood polisher or scrub cleanser. The end result is a triple dose of benefits: health, environment and cost. “[Consumers] are able to save in many ways,” Levine says.
body care products
If you perused the personal care aisles at Natural Products Expo West in March, you likely spotted new company Andalou Naturals’ bright, inviting booth. The body care brand’s colorful, clean-looking signage and product packaging may have been the initial draw, but then if you picked up a bottle of hand cream or cleansing gel and scanned the label, you noticed a roster of quality natural ingredients, such as coenzyme Q10 and fruit stem cells. In fact, almost every single ingredient in the line meets Whole Foods Market’s strict Premium Body Care Standard—no easy feat, but one that Andalou founders Mark and Stacey Kelly Egide eagerly tackled to ensure the cleanest possible products.
Novato, Calif.-based Andalou is not the Egides’ first PC rodeo. Stacey launched wildly successful brands Avalon Natural Products, Alba Botanica and Sonoma Soap Co., while Mark propelled these and other natural brands’ success for more than two decades. After selling Avalon five years ago, the wife-husband duo took a hiatus to relax and recharge, but their passion for body care and the natural products industry was far from extinguished. “I simply love the people, products and optimistic spirit that have always been a cornerstone to our industry,” Stacey says. After launching at Expo West, Andalou debuted exclusively at Whole Foods stores before entering other chain and independent natural retailers in June.
With Andalou, the Egides set out to do more than just create clean, health-promoting PC. They wanted to base their company on an ethos of sustainability and social responsibility by incorporating a strong philanthropic element. For every andalou.com sale and new e-news subscription, the company donates $1 to one of four charitable organizations. Also, 100 percent of Andalou’s special-edition A Force of Nature Hand Cream’s net sales—both in-store and online—goes to charity.
Sir Richard’s Condom Co. condoms
Condom shopping often involves a swift scan of the selection, a hasty grab, a quick toss into the cart and then a sly positioning of the smallish rectangular box underneath other purchases before a red-faced shopper peels out of the “taboo” aisle. Boulder, Colo.-based Sir Richard’s Condom Co. aims to turn this scenario on its head by making condoms a shameless and more informed purchase.
To do so, Sir Richard’s knew it first had to de-masculinize condom packaging: “Most brands rely on starburst designs and promises regarding stamina,” says Mia Herron, director of marketing and communications. “And none were making attempts to appeal to women, socially conscious millenials or the gay demographic, so we incorporated tactful, irreverent humor and a refined aesthetic into our packaging to make condoms more accessible.” Then, to promote its products and mission, Sir Richard’s began rolling around the West Coast in a green-and-black-plaid-wrapped 1971 Volkswagen bus, visiting music festivals and community events.
Sir Richard’s condoms are made of 100 percent natural latex and contain no parabens, nonoxynol-9, glycerine or casein, a dairy protein common in condoms, making them vegan friendly and a hit with shoppers who may never have thought to buy condoms and organic avocados from the same store.
But what really sets the company apart is its belief that safe sex is a universal right. For every Sir Richard’s condom purchased, the company works with the nonprofit organization Partners in Health to donate one to Haiti, where condoms are expensive and not easily obtained.
Radius Pure Baby Toothbrush
Kutztown, Pa.-based Radius has been crafting top-quality, ergonomic and eco-friendly toothbrushes—such as the Source, famous for its detachable, reusable handle made from flax, wood or recycled dollar bills—for nearly three decades. Last year, Radius released Pure Baby, a bisphenol-A- and dye-free baby brush made of surgical-grade polypropylene.
“Since it goes into an infant’s mouth, we wanted to make the safest, purest toothbrush possible,” says Radius CEO Saskia Foley. “All Radius products use Food and Drug Administration–approved colors and materials, yet still we chose a completely dye-free, clear handle for Pure Baby because 6- to 18-month-olds chew on toothbrushes.” Plus, Radius fits all of its toothbrush models with wispy, infant-safe bristles made of castor bean–derived nylon. “They’re the softest bristles we’re able to work with—any softer and they’d fly off the bristling machine,” Foley says.
Speaking of machinery, Radius takes pride in its planet-friendly manufacturing methods, made possible because the company produces small batches of products. “We use low-energy, high-efficiency electric molding machinery rather than the standard power-sucking hydraulic machines,” Foley says. “Plus, our manufacturing facility is 100 percent solar powered.”
Natural Vitality liquid supplements
When craving an energy jolt, many consumers reach for Red Bull, 5-Hour Energy or Java Monster Loca Moca. But Natural Vitality president Ken Whitman wants people to get their zip from omega-oil-packed Golden Cholera microalgae, D-ribose and organic fruits and veggies that offer “real, sustained energy, not a quick nervous-system stimulant,” he says.
All this and more comes in quick-shot packets and 30-ounce bottles of Energy 28, the Austin, Texas-based liquid supplements company’s all-natural, caffeine-free mind and body booster. Energy 28 powers a growing legion of elite athletes and even helped a kid climb Everest: In May 2010, 13-year-old Jordan Romero downed Energy 28 each morning on his way to becoming the youngest climber to summit the world’s tallest mountain.
But Energy 28 isn’t the only Natural Vitality product athletes are guzzling: Magnesium-fortified Natural Calm formula thwarts muscle cramping, while Organic Life Vitamins lay the nutrient foundation for active lifestyles.
Whitman insists that everyone, not just sprinters, cyclists and sherpas, can benefit greatly from Natural Vitality’s whole-food- and herb-based formulas. He especially touts magnesium-packed Natural Calm, Osteo Calm and Kids’ Natural Calm Multi, since many people lack sufficient magnesium—calcium’s less-talked-about yet equally important sister mineral.“The body needs magnesium to perform over 300 biochemical reactions, including utilization of vitamin D,” Whitman says. “Too much calcium and not enough magnesium means cells don’t completely relax, and that can cause cramping, stress and other serious issues.”
Organic India Ayurvedic products
Bringin’ Ayurveda to the mainstream—that’s the objective of Organic India, an herbal tea and supplements company based in Lucknow, India, and Boulder, Colo. Organic India believes this ancient holistic medicine system that views health in terms of balancing three energetic constitutions, or doshas, can effectively promote wellness in today’s world. “Ayurveda focuses on creating a healthy terrain within individuals so they’re less likely to get sick or stressed,” says Matt McLaughlin, Organic India’s web business manager.
Tulsi Tea remains Organic India’s flagship product—top-selling varieties include Original, Sweet Rose and Lemon Ginger. But in 2010, the company relaunched its supplements line, bringing the count up to 18 formulas, with more on the way. So far, turmeric, ashwaganda and triphala have been big hits.
And while Ayurveda is the vein running through all Organic India products, consumers needn’t know their dosha to benefit from the supplements, McLaughlin says, because every formula is tri-doshic, and most are adaptogens.
Synchronous with promoting a healthy, holistic lifestyle through Ayurveda, “Organic India’s mission is to be a vehicle of consciousness,” McLaughlin says. Nothing exemplifies this better than Organic India’s birth story. McLaughlin explains: “While studying in India in the ’90s, our founder saw so many farmers committing suicide because they couldn’t afford crops or pesticides. We wanted to put an end to that. Initially, it took work to convince them to abandon conventional agricultural practices and go organic. But after one took a chance with us, news of his success spread quickly, and other farmers started to follow suit.”
Today, Organic India pays thousands of farmers fair market value for their herbs and even helps them attain health care and education. Best of all, “none of our farmers have committed suicide,” McLaughlin says.
BoulderCeuticals Nutrisqweeze liquids and Nutriscoop powders
When it comes to formulating health care products with top-quality natural, functional ingredients, Myra Michelle Eby is hardly a new kid on the block. After founding Louisville, Colo.-based MyChelle Dermaceuticals in 2000 and growing it into a prominent national natural personal care brand, Eby recently switched to promoting health from within, launching a supplements company, BoulderCeuticals. The Boulder, Colo.-based brand offers two lines, Nutrisqweeze liquids and Nutriscoop powders. BPA-free one-shot packets make the four Nutrisqueeze formulas—myHeart, myJoints, myEyes and myRejuvi-la—perfect for on-the-go supplementation, while Nutriscoop, available in myAlgaeTrim, myBerryBlend, myDetox, myMacaBalance, myVegetein and myVeggieVitale, is “organic, concentrated, whole-food powder that tastes fresh off the vine,” Eby says.
Why go from crafting personal care to concocting supplements? “I’d been tired of taking pills, capsules and tablets for at least a decade,” Eby says. “Since I was mixing up concoctions for my own nutritional needs, I decided to create a new wave of dietary supplements that are easy to take and loaded with patented, targeted ingredients.”
Eby says BoulderCeuticals supplements are made for “everyone from children who don’t get enough fruits and vegetables in their daily diets to athletes and senior citizens who need joint support.” They’re also good for people with food allergies and special diets. “All formulas are gluten free, vegetarian and vegan, except for myJoints, which includes a particular keratin from sheep’s wool that has proven to be exceptional for joint rehabilitation,” Eby says. “This keratin is a byproduct of the wool industry, so sheep are not slaughtered to harvest it.”