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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

There was no in person Natural Products Expo this September, but Natural Products Insider announced the finalists in a range of annual awards that would have been showcased had we been able to walk the booths, sniffing, scooping, popping and sampling the wares. I was most interested in walking the "bleeding edge" defined by the benefits and features of the new natural foods and beverages.

When you think of natural products you think first about healthier products. Foods and beverages that don't have all the bad stuff; the artificial flavors and colors, the unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce stuff, and unnecessary additives. Or foods and beverages fortified with good stuff. And products with short lists of ingredients. As well as products that are minimally processed; foods that are not so manufactured that they you couldn't make them yourself. That's what the finalists in the food categories are all about. And more.

Three Wishes Unsweetened Cereal is a stand-out in the clean label category. As kids, almost every one of us loved, even subsisted on sweetened cereal. The sweeter the better. A good number of us still do, which is why the more popular cereals aimed at adults contain a good amount of added sugar hiding behind the marketed whole grains, fiber, protein-rich nuts, dried fruit, and naturally sweet honey. Three Wishes aims to treat us to childhood cereals without the added sugar. Not sure how they accomplish this using ingredients like chickpea, pea protein, tapioca, and salt, and without wheat, dairy, soy, rice, oats, corn, and peanuts. And without sugar.

Functional foods continues to be a focus area for new natural products. Several functional beverages were lauded, including Energy + Focus Shots and So Good So You Sleep Shots. One to pick you up and one to bring you down. Shots are hot.

A 2 oz. shot of Energy + Focus promises not just a full-throttle pick-me-up like a Red Bull or Monster drink but also mental alertness and concentration. The ingredients are interesting. I know about green tea, ginseng, and turmeric (but not cold-pressed turmeric root). What is ashgawandha? What about lion's mane? There's 250 milligrams of each of these last two. Seems like a lot when there's only 75mg of tea. Hopefully the blueberry and lemon juices mask the funkier notes.

So Good So You Sleep gets insomniacs to sleep with the help of cold-pressed honeydew juice, lavender, California Poppy, and butterfly pea flower powder. For sure. Flower Power. I feel hypnotized just reading the ingredient list. As a bonus, this stupefying shot features a probiotic with the strength of 1 billion colony forming units to support your digestive and immune systems also working their magic while you sleep.

The NEXTY award finalists go beyond a clean label and newly-discovered, natural, functional ingredients that do more than add flavor and texture to your food. The word "natural" is taking on more meaning. The twin themes of social and environmental justice run through these showcased foods and beverages as well. Increasingly it matters to us where and how ingredients are sourced and transported to where they are combined to make the final products we buy.

The importance of a "clean" supply chain is reflected in a new item from Icelandic Provisions called Fruit & Nut yogurt. I can vouch for the product because I've tried it. It is thick, rich, smooth and tasty. I know a bit about it because we did the consumer research for the innovation team. It is high in protein and relatively low in sugar, and is minimally processed. I didn't know, though, that the milk comes from 300 family farms in upstate NY or that their fruit supplier only sources from coconut growers who don't use forced monkey labor...

Pulp Chips' reason for being centers on reducing waste in the food supply chain. These chips are made from by-products of food and vegetable processing, like pomace, which is what is left over from juicing, and okara flour, which is a by-product of tofu production. Pulp Pantry claims that their chips have five times the fiber of a traditional chip. The company is an avid supporter of circular economy initiatives to reduce plastic waste, and is striving to become "plastic neutral." The company's founder teaches kids about sustainability in urban food deserts. Seems like the passion for environmental justice runs deep at Pulp Pantry.

You can see in several of the products up for a NEXTY award an effort to address everything; clean label, special ingredients and/or formulations, and do-gooding. Serenity Kids Bone Broth Meals is another good example. The meals feature pasture-raised meats (sourced from small, American farms that use regenerative agricultural practices) and organic vegetables. These meals are cooked in a nutrient-dense bone broth and provide the right ratio of carbs, fat, and protein for toddlers. The meals are free of the usual allergens, and are packaged in upcycled and recyclable material. Additionally, the brand supports small farmers through the Farm to Consumer Legal Fund.

A couple of final thoughts as I read through these NEXTY awards finalists again. First, "natural" doesn't seem as simple, straightforward, and unadulterated as I expect it to be. When you pile on all the benefits these branded natural products feel more complex and more like concoctions. Mindful concoctions, but far from a handful of nuts and an apple.

When you pile on all the benefits taste also seems to lose its prominence. The Fruit and Nuts yogurt sounds tasty, and many of us enjoy yogurt to begin with. The bone broth meals might be palatable - although to a toddler - because the broth conjures savory notes. The others, I'm just not so sure. Breakfast cereal with no sugar at all? Even my Grape Nuts and Cheerios have a bit of added sugar.

Image courtesy of Cruelty Free Brands

  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

A light-hearted take on a less serious topic, for a change. Apples. Cherries. It's the beginning of the season for one and just past season for the other, so they're top-of-mind.

I just read a piece featuring on the longstanding, successful apple breeding program at the University of Minnesota. We owe the Honeycrisp variety to this program. The article offers an overview of the process of inventing a new apple hybrid that everyone in the value chain, from grower to consumer, values. It's an arduous process. Finding the next Honeycrisp (first marketed in 1991) requires patience and perseverance. It took 24 years for daughter of Honeycrisp, SweeTango, to hit the produce aisle. I admire this commitment to a long-term objective. But I also wonder if they're working on what I think most of us really want from an apple. Another apple variety is not on my list.

I'm already overwhelmed by the number of choices when I shop for apples at our local, upscale supermarket. Do I really need another option? The president of the U.S. Apple Association claims that they need new varieties to keep the apple category fresh and exciting. But for whom? Really, it's for the supermarket chains. Apples are competing for space in the fresh section of the store with other fruit, and other produce. Finding the next great apple variety seems to be more about market share than about meeting a consumer need.

What I really want is to be able to bite into any apple and expect a crunch most of the time, not half the time or less. I don't care about the color, or the shape, or how thick the skin. But I want my apple to be crisp, and to not get mealy within a few days either. It's hit or miss with fruit as much hit or miss with breeding the next, great apple variety.

I had a similar reaction to a story about Pairwise, a biotech start-up, that, among other things, is working on developing a cherry without a pit. Pairwise is banking on using CRISPR to edit the genetic sequence of some variety of cherry to render it pit-less. I'm not averse to editing fruit genes per se - we've been creating genetic hybrids since wild apples were first domesticated in what is now Kazakhstan - but the pit is not my primary problem with cherries.

First of all, the cherry season is too short. I bought them twice this crazy summer before they were gone. Even when I'm top of things, I buy them infrequently because they're too expensive except for maybe two weeks in the year (on sale one week in one store and on sale the next week in another store). They were $7.99/lb at the more upscale store in our area for most of the season this year. There's a reason cherries are called the "beloved of kings" (rough translation) in Arabic. I'll take a perfectly ripe, dark cherry over any other piece of fruit, pit or no pit. But, I wish for cherries to be affordable enough to be in our fridge all summer.

The quest for the next, glorious apple variety and the work to remove pits from cherries are not misguided, but they could be a bit more focused on more salient gaps in MY needs, wants, and desires. The initiatives are not as consumer-centric as they could be.

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Growing up, what made summer vacations in Morocco particularly memorable was the communal meal. Especially dinner. Four homes took turns hosting a family gathering just about every day for weeks. There could easily be twenty mouths to feed, between the uncles and aunts and cousins, distant relatives, out-of-town relatives from another germosphere, or a cousin’s free-loading best friend. There were two sittings when there were that many of us; one for the adults and one for the kids. It wasn’t fancy food. Most of it was hearty and tasty. Tajines laden with fatty lamb chunks and a rotating cast of in season veggies, swimming in broth. There was always plenty of bread so we could sop it all up. Simple salads. Carrots, shredded with lemon juice and sugar, or diced with olive oil and cilantro. Salted cucumber rounds. Sweet pepper and eggplant salads too. Humble stuff most of the time. But a lot of it. I learned later that my dad helped bankroll these dinners. He had the means, and we were the visitors from overseas who imposed on the clan every other July or August. It was an imposition. But I think we all relished these mini family reunions, crowded around the table, struggling to eat and laugh and impress and retort all at the same time.

My thoughts traveled back to one such rowdy dinner after reading a series of micro-essays at The Counter, a nonprofit, independent, nonpartisan newsroom investigating the forces shaping how and what America eats. They asked folks to contribute stories about how food is figuring into the changes foisted on us by Covid-19. I read one, then another, and another. Each one made me wince with empathy, joy, or sadness. A grandmother writes about creating a ritual out of making oatmeal every day for her grandchild, born the third day of quarantine, and sheltering with her...Instead of focusing on how the pandemic is creating food-related memories for me and my family, my mind wanted to remember food gatherings of social un-distancing.

I don’t know the whole truth about what happened that night. The story is that one of my aunts laced a small section of the tajine with "h'shisha." My mother swears she got a little high because she was sitting next to the man for whom this narcotic was meant. It didn’t matter whether there was or wasn’t hashish in the food. The mere suggestion that the food might have been tampered with set the man off. I happened to be at the adult sitting that night. The guy has been a family friend for decades and a willing target of teasing and pranks.

He pushed away from the table when the fruit was brought out, and started hooting. He tried to tickle each of us under our arms as he rounded the table. My uncles egged him on. He yelled and spoke incomprehensible words. It was as if he was in a trance. Then, he leapt on the table. Someone swiftly removed the large bowl of sliced, ripe honeydew and cantaloupe just in time. Mr. Honey, as I like to call him because of his disdain for honey (and okra), started pounding the wooden table with his heels. Needless to say, it was side-splitting, pee-in-your-pants entertainment.

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