The plane was full of whispers about gluten, Whole Foods, new products, "going raw," UNFI, and non-GMO food items. People quietly rejected the bags of artificial cheese-coated Doritos offered by the flight attendant and opted for those natural blue potato chips. Something smelled like nutritional yeast on board. It was like every passenger on the flight—JFK to Long Beach—was on their way to the health food convention.
I was actually on my way to the health food convention, technically known as 'Natural Products Expo West,' one of the biggest trade shows for the natural products industry, with around 60,000 attendees and 2,500 booths. Companies rented these booths to showcase their products while buyers browse in search of new items to purvey, like any other trade show.
I read Journey to the End of the Night on the plane and thought about how banal my trip was compared to the relative scale of world travel. There would be no intense WWI times ahead for me because I was going to a health food convention in Anaheim, California, to help sell organic dried fruits and nuts. My trip wasn't remotely titilating compared to other work trips my friends were involved in that week, at both SXSW and CPAC.
But I was excited about it because there's actually a lot of amazing food products to look at around these things. Health food is kind of like the garage band of regular food; it's where a lot of stuff starts before it 'goes mainstream.' Yogurt was considered a weird hippie food like ten years ago. Going to these trade shows, I tried Purell when it was a small company, and was one of the first to be disappointed that Pirate's Booty was made from neither real treasure nor actual pirate's booty.
A lot of weird shit has happened at health food trade shows. Once, I reluctantly took what I thought was a bullshit herbal aphrodisiac from a pushy salesman just to be polite—then found it was most certainly not bullshit—and had an extremely uncomfortable meeting while the herb took full effect. At a different health food convention, I drank too much of an innocuous-looking herbal tea and ostensibly tripped, losing my sense of perspective as my body felt as though it was rapidly shrinking and growing. I laid down in bed and waited it out; it might have been fun if I was expecting it. Both of those times are the only instances where I accidentally drugged myself, but that's not the goal of these conventions.
But for people who should theoretically care about their health, there's a tendency to party at these things. I took shots with vitamin executives at a convention-sponsored Ziggy Marley concert in 2012 (which, at 23 years old, I think I was the youngest person there) and smoked weed in a hotel room with a guy who had to step into the bathroom to close on a deal for a few truckloads of his non-cannabinoid product.
While doing this seven figure deal, he shoved a towel under the hotel door like a paranoid college kid.
Two years ago, I was out with some colleagues and met a woman way out of my league who felt obligated to hang out with me all night because I was a Sagittarius, and our potential astrological match could be 'fiery.' We drank gourmet organic 'real quinine' tonic mixed with plastic-bottle gin inside my hotel room. She sold superfoods and as an awkward compliment, I said that her products were "definitely working for her." Nothing happened between us.
When the opportunity came to refresh the slate for this year's convention, my initial hopes were not disappointed. I got to meet a woman with the job title 'Herbalist/Huffington Post Blogger,' who dropped by our booth. She kept emphatically talking about her daughter 'Rainbow,' so I looked her up: turns out it's spelled Rainbeau and she's Rainbeau Mars, a celebrity yoga teacher who was involved in a Bridezilla wedding scandal involving (supposedly) forcing her guests to go on a draconian three-week vegan cleanse to prepare for her wedding.
The convention-sponsored concert on the green was an all-white cover band who, in between shout-outs to their massive corporate sponsor, churned out Bob Marley songs to the awkwardly dancing businessmen who continued to dance even after the music ended.
I stood at my booth and handed out samples for a long time, often interacting with a lot of guys with top knot hair buns.
Two new products I really liked inside the convention center were an energy drink made with coca tea and Chapul, a protein bar made from cricket flour. I wondered if either of these products will transcend the health food store universe and be sold in Duane Reade any time soon.
These tacos were actually pretty good.
Beyond Meat, a company making an admittedly delicious plant-based protein out of soy, peas, flour, and fiber that "looks, feels, tastes, and acts like meat," put together a display area to implore Taco Bell to fill their tacos with Beyond Meat. Their point was that they like Taco Bell, but they don't want to eat animals, which is weird because I'm pretty sure Taco Bell 'meat' contains no actual meat.
When I returned to my booth, my boss was arguing with a foreign man about some type of Kosher certification. The foreign guy was wearing a belt buckle that just said "JEANS."
The procession led to his throne where he sat like a Colonel Kurtz/Santa Claus/God King.
But I became distracted from this scene when an entire marching band came my way, led by none other than the man himself, Bob of Bob's Red Mills, a health food legend and the dude from the label of the muesli sold at bodegas sometimes. I could have reached out and touched him, but I didn't because that would be socially unacceptable. People lined up to get his autograph.
The man of the hour: Bob.
Bob wasn't the only celebrity that I ran into at the health food convention. I also met one of the major players from Breaking Bad, this giant drop of Stevia:
I eventually ended up walking around the show with Adrian Grenier because his mom owns the company I was working for; he came to check out the show. He was accompanied by a model friend and her mother, along with a young woman who I was told was a deposed Syrian princess—a refugee or house guest of sorts. She's only allowed to see Muslim men, but she definitely had eyes for Adrian. The former Entourage star spent the afternoon politely rejecting people's photographic advances and the quinoa samples that were shoved in his face. People really wanted him to try their coconut water.
Even though Adrian came to support his mom, the Natural Products Expo West often has sponsored celebrity guest appearances. Last year, Elisabeth Hasselbeck came to speak at a lecture on gluten-free living; she considers her gluten allergy as an integral part of her identity. When the news broke that she was going to be fired from The View, she was at the convention. She promptly disappeared.
At some point throughout walking around the space, I noticed a woman who was dressed in a skin-tight suit with censor bars over her breasts and genital area. She offered me a sample of Bare Snacks (get it?) apple chips. These weren't the only booth models at the show. At places like Comic Con, 'booth babes' used to fit in and make sense to me, but when they're selling drinkable yogurt, the marketing comes off as a little obscene.
Before I knew it, three days had passed and it was time to clear out to make way for the Scrapbook Expo, which takes place from March 20–22. On the plane I could feel MSG and artificial cheese deficiency starting to kick in: I called over the flight attendant and asked for a bag of Doritos.
Follow Sean Morrow on Twitter.