I just returned from the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo where registered dietitians have a chance to get some of their continuing education requirements met and also learn about new foods and products coming into the market. It’s a large conference, with about 11,000 in attendance this year.

Food Product Expo

In addition to attending lecture sessions, I always enjoy walking the Product Expo floor because it’s a chance to see what’s new, and get immediate information about the emerging product market. As I walked through the Expo, it appeared that like years before, products touting protein and gut health benefits (probiotics and prebiotics) were hot, but drinkable products were taking up a large portion of the floor.

Tropicana® orange juice with 1 billion live probiotic cultures per serving

Good Belly® probiotic drinks contain live and active lactobacillus cultures.

A few years ago, activist groups were up in arms that “Big Food” was on the Expo floor, and put pressure on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to remove those brands as sponsors. The result was definitely apparent this year where many smaller, Certified Organic brands with “free-from” labels were showcased. This doesn’t mean however, that this made the Expo any better, especially since so many of the brands showcased are only available online or at Whole Foods Market (which only serves metropolitan areas), and at a high price point. After all, it’s not nutrition until you eat (or drink) it. And if foods aren’t available to a large part of the population, they don’t help improve health.

Fairlife Smart Snack® – milk with added oats and honey, boasting 15 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.

Like so many other issues we discuss in our country today, food goes to extremes.

  • On the one end there are many animal-free products fashioned to meet the “plant-based philosophy” and vegan markets, while on the other there are high protein products meeting the Paleo market.
  • The Organic packaged food space is definitely expanding, with more processed and individually-packaged products than ever. Many of these are marketed as “alternatives to Big Food” brands, but most are no better nutritionally, nor for the environment.
  • The liquids, probiotic products, and supplements, in the Expo definitely outnumbered the whole foods or beverages that support the DASH Diet market (dairy, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, a few whole grains, and unsaturated oils).

Folks Want Convenience

There were some interesting products designed to make eating healthier easier. The drinkable oatmeal from Fair Life? Quick oats are pretty easy, and while I love Fair Life milk, I don’t see the appeal of this oat product. I also sampled these frozen sweet potatoes and cauliflower products. The Caulipower® products are serving the market who is either gluten-free or trying to reduce carbohydrate in their diet. The sweet potato toasts (slices) are to be served as you would a cracker (topped with something), and the cauliflower pizza crust is self explanatory. However, I can also see the sweet potato slices serving as a time-saving way to add vegetables to your diet, even if you still also want to eat crackers or crostini on occasion. I sampled a bottled soup product, that tasted good, was low in sodium and high in vegetables – another on- the-go, and drinkable, nutrition item.

Pureed soup in an on-the-go bottle.

Drinking Your Diet

The number of bottled products was astounding. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to drink my diet. I have teeth, I want to chew. Supplemental foods in liquid form can have their place (people with poor dentition, people who can’t eat and need nutrients for illness or recovery), but to replace sitting down to regular meals with drinking food from a bottle?

Some of these liquids tout themselves as supplements in the “functional foods” category, and others just alternative beverages. The “dairy alternative” category continues to grow.

All of these products, in my opinion, add to the confusion of “what’s good for me”, or as some may perceive it, “what’s good for the planet”.

Let’s start with dairy alternatives. Unlike cow’s milk that is a high protein, high calcium, high potassium nutrient-dense beverage, most plant alternative are not (but may be fortified – or have nutrients added to them). Have you been to the dairy case lately? It’s mind-boggling. Almond milk. Soy milk. Coconut Milk. Cashew Milk. Hemp milk (stay tuned – the dairy industry is fighting to maintain the identity of cow’s milk, and feel they have dibs on the term “milk”).

And now, enter Banana milk.

Banana milk? Well it’s not milk. And it’s not nutrient rich. But it’s only 60 calories a cup and it’s certified organic. 

Many brands continue to use the term “milk” when marketing their products, but this product really had me asking myself “Why?”. It’s nut-free, organic, and dairy-free, yet calls itself “milk”, even using the term “mooala” (aka, cow sounds). They even use a cow-look-alike image on their packaging.

I’m not sure who the market is for this product. They take a high potassium banana, dilute it with water, and serve it as a drink (milk substitute no less) in a plastic bottle. But since you’ve diluted it, there’s less potassium per serving. I even asked if they use brown bananas (perhaps this product helped reduce waste?) but she said no, they use bananas that are yellow but just slightly green (in other words – perfect bananas!).

This isn’t banana-flavored milk. This would be better termed “Banana Water” because it’s basically pureed bananas with water added (and a few sunflower seeds). Not only does this water dilute the nutrition of the banana, but it also doesn’t taste great. I asked the vendor representative if this drink would benefit those who need more potassium (like those with high blood pressure), or if could act like a potassium supplement. Since it’s been diluted, the answer is – no. Interestingly she said the company was considering fortifying the product with potassium next year. Are you shaking your head yet?

(You may be asking yourself – Why not just eat bananas? I’m pretty sure they are a universally tolerated food, and if you don’t like bananas because of taste, you probably aren’t going to like banana water either).

Maple Water?

Another product that left me scratching my head was Drink Simple® Maple Water. This is a product that takes the water (maple sap) from maple trees and purifies it and bottles it. This water claims to offer some electrolytes and minerals including manganese. I think it’s a waste of good pure maple syrup ingredients.

How’d it taste? Like water, with a teeny tiny drop of maple flavor. Oh and yeah, it’s non-GMO (because they want to be in Whole Foods stores. There are no GMO maple trees FYI).

Maple water. Yeah, it’s a thing.

Both the dairy industry and milk-alternatives were present at the Expo. Chocolate milk is still popular and marketed as a sports recovery drink (which works well for many athletes). There were some goat milk products, and many types of yogurts featuring probiotic cultures.

Dairy free milk alternatives

Artisan goat milk kefir and yogurt. I don’t know why, but at a glance this graphic appeared as a unicorn to me.

What About All of the Plastic?

What really impressed me was the sheer number of beverages in single serving bottles. Remember the environmental crusade to reduce plastic by producing reusable, BPA-free water bottles? While there may be a market for them, we need to consider reducing single-serving product packaging.

Is it Nutrition?

It appears to me that we are replacing whatever plastic we’ve saved with more single serving beverages touted as functional nutrition. I find it interesting that there seems to be a “cool hipster factor” when it comes to being drawn to these types of products. For instance, it’s ironic to me that so many who would purchase all of these single serving bottled products, yet may also feel that reducing animal agriculture (hence, milk-alternatives) is an answer to controlling climate change.

Often those who are drawn to milk alternatives (dairy-free, plant-based products) or the health halo of the Certified Organic and GMO free labels, are also interested in the environment, reducing food waste, and conserving resources.

Something to think about.