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5 natural products industry takeaways from a food awards judge

It’s natural products awards season at New Hope Network. As the newbie here, I jumped right in and learned a lot about the American natural products industry; here are five things I see as wins and misses.

As a recent addition to the New Hope Network content team, I am still easing into my new role as food business reporter. This means spending as much time as possible getting to know brands and retailers, constantly picking the brains of my fantastically knowledgeable colleagues and tasting everything that comes across my desk as I start to get swept up in the enthusiasm and preparations for my first Natural Products Expo East this September in Baltimore.

I was fortunate enough to do all of these things at once during my recent experiences as a judge for the early rounds of the NEXTY Awards and Natural Products Expo East Pitch Slam competition. While I felt like I couldn’t eat for a week after these nearly back-to-back tasting marathons (some 60 products one morning and 70 the next!), both judging sessions gave me invaluable insight into what’s going on in the natural foods industry and what I can expect this September.

And while I learned so much from my fellow judges, my fresh industry perspective gave me a different take on some of the nominated products—many of which I was experiencing for the very first time. In that spirit, here are five takeaways from my first encounter with these two amazing competitions.

1. Sweeter is not necessarily better.

I admit I’m much more likely to choose a salty, savory snack, but even the truly sweet-toothed have started scrutinizing the amount of sugar in products and looking for better-for-you alternatives to sugary snacks. Not using cane sugar, however, shouldn’t give brands carte blanche to pack in as many alternative sweeteners as possible—this means you, erythritol and stevia. Several of the natural products I tried—from cookies to jerky to beverages—impressed me as being almost gratuitously sweet, something that I think is becoming more and more of a consumer turnoff.

Natural sweeteners such as honey, dates and maple syrup can add welcome flavor nuances; it’s OK to stop there and not add more sugar alternatives.

2. Prioritize the message of your mission.

Entrepreneurs and brands know why their products are special, but consumers need (and want) to know, too. Brands need to offer more than just a pretty package. Too often during the judging, I found the only defining product difference in the ingredient list. Then, later I’d learn that the story behind the brand was as inspirational, innovative and interesting as can be. Consumers love a good story and sharing what is special about the brand can be the differentiating factor—not to mention the fact that companies deserve recognition for their important mission-based work.

3. Step up to organic.

I was pretty surprised by how comparatively few organic products were represented among the nominees. We’re all familiar with the challenges that can arise when it comes to going organic. It’s commendable that many uncertified brands use organic ingredients, but going that extra mile to get certification should be an industry goal. Smaller companies can get assistance through programs like the one offered by Quality Assurance International (QAI), which has a flexible pricing system for smaller businesses and a transitional program to incentivize farmers. Organic makes brands stand out.

4. Focus on packaging.

Convenience is key for busy Americans. Even so, the proliferation of single-use and non-environmentally friendly packaging in the natural foods industry can feel demoralizing, if not counterproductive. If we can’t do better than this, then who can? Fortunately, many brands are embracing the challenge to pursue new and better options. Ideally, this might take the form of seeking out compostable or recyclable plant-based packaging. It could also mean taking the first steps toward mitigating impact by reducing packaging waste. And by no means am I putting all the onus on brands–consumers need to follow through by making good decisions about purchases and how they dispose of waste.

5. Production comes full circle.

Upcycling. Recycling. Circular economy. Each share many of the same underlying philosophies even if brands might use different terminology or embrace varying aspects of these concepts. How can we become more sustainable, create less waste and have a more positive impact on the planet? How can we feed more people, support communities and families, and promote environmental and personal well-being? Whether it’s through finding uses for once-discarded byproducts or creating new uses for crops or ingredients that can contribute to healing the planet, the brands on a mission to manage waste wisely inspire.

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