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Originally published Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 7:49 PM

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Natural foods: Eating up the trends

What was new at the Natural Products Expo.

Los Angeles Times

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LOS ANGELES — Remember chia pets? Rinsing your hair with beer? Food that's just food — no soy protein isolate, xanthan gum, red dye No. 40 or mystery ingredients from the Amazon rain forest?

Well, chia is back, big time (the seeds, not the chia pets). And so is regular old food. We recently spent hours plodding the floors — along with 60,000 others — at the Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif., the biggest health food trade show in the world. The overarching theme we saw: What's old is new again.

Your grandmother would recognize a lot of these hot trends: Foods produced by local farmers. Skin products with ingredients that aren't nine syllables long or start with prefixes like dimethyl or phenol. Products for sale in packages that can be recycled or composted. (Compostable baby diapers, anyone?)

In years past, the exhibit hall brimmed with bottles of vitamin, mineral and herb supplements. Now the supplement segment has shrunk.

"There is growing distrust" of all things synthetic, says Carlotta Mast, an editor at New Hope Natural Media, the company based in Boulder, Colo., that produces the Expo. "That is driving the idea of 'Just eat real food.'" She says the purification ethos extends to that shrunken supplement sector: The number of multi-nutrient formulas is shrinking, edged out by single-ingredient pills of vitamin D or omega-3s made from pond-scum algae.

Here's what jumped out at us:

COMING UP COCONUTS

Coconut flavor was popular back when kitchen appliances were harvest gold and avocado green. Now it's back. Among the many items we spotted: Jamaican musician Ziggy Marley's Coco'Mon, a coconut cooking oil, one of many coconut-based products in his food line, Ziggy Marley Organics. Other companies are making coconut palm sugar, coconut water, dehydrated coconut to make your own coconut water at home (no Earth-unfriendly plastic bottles to recycle).

HEALTHIER SNACKING

Natural products manufacturers want a piece of the grazing market. In place of the traditional NFL Sunday snacks of soda and cheese nachos, they are proffering more exotic flavored waters and chips. Some of our favorite beverages: mint-flavored water by Metromint and Blackwater — yes, it's pitch black and tastes, well, like black water — from Vancouver-based Blackwater Innovations Corp. The water's infused with fulvic acid, a supposed health-enhancer. (So clearly the miracle-supplement market isn't stone cold dead.)

To go with those non-sodas? Sweet-potato chips, kale chips, bean chips, banana chips — anything-but-corn chips, in fact, as corn becomes a new devil of the health food world. Consumers want traditional foods like chips and crackers to snack on at home but would like to feel less guilty about eating them, says Heather Smith, a spokeswoman for New Hope Natural Media.

They're salty. They're crunchy! And the bean chips have a pleasing (truly) lingering mouth feel.

TIME TO RECYCLE

Corporate consciousness is a big selling point in the natural-products biz. Naked Pizza's new frozen pizza not only has probiotics and agave fiber in its crust and zero sugar in its sauce, the box also comes from a manufacturer that uses only recycled materials.

And here's an odd one: Recent University of California-Berkeley business grads Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora are selling a "Back to the Roots" kit to grow your own mushrooms. They drive around the Bay Area collecting used coffee grounds as the medium for growing the mushrooms in a box. ("We diverted 1 million pounds of coffee grounds last year," Arora said, proudly.)

CHIA SEEDS

The same seedlings you spread on a clay figurine to make a green Shrek are now being used in food products because of the high levels of omega-3 fats they contain. We saw FruitChia bars, Mamma Chia beverages and Crunchy Flax With Chia cereal. One company is hedging its bets with Coconut Chia granola — that's two trends rolled into one.

NATURAL BABY FOODS

Today's parents are passionate about their offspring learning to like fruits and vegetables. Businesses are responding. Plum Organics has grab-and-go fruit and vegetable squeeze packs of puréed food (such as a blend of blueberry, pear and purple carrot) that babies can drink or be spoon-fed from.

"It's about introducing babies to flavors so they become foodies," insists Katie Sobel, director of marketing and communication for Plum Organics. Not to say plug into the hottest health trends: Plum is infusing some of its products with Greek yogurt (more protein than regular yogurt) and ancient grains like quinoa (fewer food allergy issues and easier to digest).

DRINK UP

What a smorgasbord. Just as well: A late afternoon energy shot gave us the strength to make another pass across the 24,300-square-foot exhibit floor. The yoga drink Bikram Balance, a blend of fruits and vegetables, aims to restore electrolytes after you bow and murmur "namaste." Fruitasia, a new fruit-and-veggie energy shot, is touted as having three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit in 3 fluid ounces.

STILL HOT

Some of the big fads are continuing strong. Probiotics are booming; gluten-free is growing; the Greek economy may be tanking, but Greek yogurt is making plenty of money for some businesses over here.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE)

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SKIN-CARE ITEMS SPOTTED AT THE NATURAL PRODUCTS EXPO

Sarah Pearsall couldn't find a natural shampoo that made her kids' hair look shiny and healthy. Then her mother-in-law mentioned that women in the 1960s, including Jackie Kennedy, rinsed their hair with beer.

"Ewww," Sarah said. "I don't want to smell like a bar."

She evidently got past her disgust. She and her husband, Brad, were among the 3,000 exhibitors manning a booth last week at the Natural Products Expo, the world's largest trade show for health foods, supplements, natural cosmetics and eco-friendly cleaners. Their product, Broo Craft Beer Shampoo, is "pure enough I can drink it," Brad said proudly.

The couple's quest began with handing a chemist a six-pack and asking him to turn it into a shampoo with natural ingredients, explained Brad, standing next to a vat of frothing, fermenting beer intended to show potential customers just how natural the product is. The company went through 53 brands of beer before they found the right formula (their product is on sale next month in select Whole Foods stores).

Other items we spotted at the Anaheim expo that are part of the booming $3.2-billion natural skin-care business:

Cruelty-free:

Cosmetics that don't contain parabens and are made with cruelty-free testing methods. Lavera is one of many eco-chic lines that contain ingredients such as herbs, flower extracts and essential oils. Remember rose water and mud facials from the mid-20th century? They're back too. Eliah Sahil's face fluid has rose hips, and 7th Heaven has a line of rejuvenating mud facial masks.

Safe for Baby:

Lines for babies that don't contain gluten, soy or synthetic fragrances (Dolphin Organics and Monkey Sea Monkey Doo), as well as for teen girls (Good for you Girls with organic teas and vitamin E). "It's intelligent skin care," said Good for you Girls founder Kimberly Grustas. "It's not hope in a bottle."

Fungus fighter:

Citrusway has a natural, topical solution for toenail fungus that is a blend of citrus seed extracts. But it takes at least nine months of applications to see the fungus disappear.

Body-mod care:

After Inked sells tattoo moisturizer and aftercare lotion infused with grape-seed oil that "naturally helps new tattoos to look healthier."

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