Food by VICE

I Witnessed Vegan Salad Dressing Cosplay at the World's Biggest Natural Food Expo

Consider the million-plus square footage of show floor space at this annual four-day event a crystal ball that will allow you to peek into the future of what will be on natural food shelves two years from now.

by Javier Cabral
Mar 15 2016, 11:00pm

All photos by Javier Cabral

So you think you're special with your shopping basket full of unsweetened kefir, organic brioche buns, and tub of pea protein-based Vegenaise? No one could possibly be as a well-informed about the benefits of probiotics, unprocessed foods, and good fats in a proper diet as you, right?

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Outside Expo West

Nope. You are actually just a minuscule cog in the extremely lucrative natural-food machine and you are doing exactly what they predicted you would do two years ago. And you would come to this conclusion if you had visited Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, California. It is the largest trade show of its kind, showcasing everything from natural foods and natural supplements to natural pet food and natural cleaning and beauty products.

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"Natural" is a key word around these parts.

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Here, you will find young women cosplaying as jugs of Daiya vegan creamy dressing and old men pushing everything from kimchi brine "belly shots" to Paleo hummus made with raw tigernuts. You will find people from other countries telling you a dozen reasons why camel milk is better for you than cow milk, and you will find others peddling birch tree water as the next coconut water. Consider the million-plus square footage of show floor space at this annual four-day event a crystal ball that will allow you to peek into the future of what will be on natural food shelves two years from now.

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It's a mini-SXSW of sorts. with more than 71,700 attendees and 2,700 vendors—except showgoers here worship vegan scrambled eggs made with algae and Kundalini-themed reggae over juicy BBQ and experimental punk rock. To give you an idea of how important this event is, this is where almond milk and the Greek yogurt trend made their international debuts.

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The name of the event may sound familiar if you saw Food, Inc., since there is a scene in the film in which the founder of Stonyfield Yogurt walks around and pokes fun at the blatant capitalism of it all. But if you've never been, it's less of a trade event and more of a freeloading free-for-all, with every single company in attendance giving away samples of their products. If you attend every day and have absolutely no shame in your game, it's totally possible to get upwards of $400 worth of natural products. After my first visit five years ago, I lived off the free samples for two months straight.

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To nobody's surprise, this year was just as ridiculous. It wasn't like last year, when things like savory yogurt, savory granola bars, and grasshopper flour-based everything were trending. The most exciting items of 2016 were sparkling coconut waters and cold coffee drinks on nitro taps; matcha was huge this year, too.

Based on what was on offer, you will soon see single-origin coconut waters from places like Sri Lanka, in addition to Thailand and Brazil. It looks like the Paleo trend is on its way out. Everybody is still obsessed with fortifying protein into everything. I tried whey protein-dusted popcorn, pea protein-fortified water, and whey protein-spiked yogurt drinks, just to name a few. Bone broths are holding on. I even saw a few packaged bone broths flavored with things like Szechuan peppercorns and pho spices ready to go for pour-and-eat noodle soups at home.

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Healthy, crispy things were also huge this year: jicama chips, flash-fried onion chips (kind of like young coconut chips but made from sharp, raw onions), granola cubes with beanies and backward caps all over the packaging called "Deez Nutz." And there were more gluten-free frozen things than you can shake a piece of cardboard at, including Padma Lakshmi's own brand of flavored frozen rice and enough pizzas to eat for the rest of your sad life. Naturally, there were plenty of ways to trick your sweet tooth, too; sweetened avocado mousse seems destined for greatness.

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But if I had to make any bold claims about this year's show, I would say that 2016 was the one in which natural foods crossed over in the normal, non-granola world. A lot of the packaging on this year's products looked like it was ready for Target shelves, right next to peach gummy rings. It's been incredible to watch how this event has tripled in size, vendors, and attendees in a mere five years. This year also made it very evident that the market for natural products is extremely saturated, but who could blame anybody for wanting a piece of this $153 billion juggernaut of an industry?

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We'll see what next year brings. I predict spider flour and 100-percent coconut flour-crusted pizza to make their breakthroughs.

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