Niche No More - Report from the Canadian Health Food Association Show

By Nourish President Jo-Ann McArthur

This month I’m sharing my key takeaways from the CHFA East Trade Show. With over 1,000 exhibiting companies, it is now a show no one can afford to miss, as health food has become mainstream food. I was glad for comfortable shoes and stretchy pants to accommodate all the walking and sampling!

The evolution of carbs and portable snacking

Keto continues to grow with more and more new products entering the market. Coupled with that are more low-sugar products. But, I also saw “no carb” keto being potentially replaced with “SLOW carb” products. Are marketers beginning to recognize that the keto regime is tough to follow for an extended period? Many products were calling out their GI (glycemic index) numbers on the front of the packaging.

For those that don't know, the glycemic index is a scale ranging from 0 to 100, with 100 being pure glucose, to represent the relative rise in blood glucose level two hours after consuming a particular food. You can learn more about it here:

The number of protein bars exhibited continues to grow due to their portability. I’d love to say this is because we’re more active as a society than ever, but a report released by The Lancet last year tells a different story: one-in-three women and one-in-four men in North America don’t get enough physical activity. Instead, this trend towards food-to-go is driven more by our increasingly busy lives. What I noticed at the show is protein bars are becoming more specialized, focusing on consumer need-states.

For example, Woods Wild Bar incorporated different mushroom adaptogens like chaga and lion’s mane into a line of products, each with its own functional benefits. There are four bars in the line, including one for recovery, one for endurance, one for defence, and one for focus.

Another player in this field is Mid-Day Squares, a high-protein, chocolate-based boost to get you over that afternoon sweet craving and power you through to dinner. This product ticks all the trendy boxes, calling itself out as organic, vegan, non-GMO and gluten-free. The ingredients list includes stuff like maca powder, hemp protein, and pink salt.

There were, as you’d expect, lots of smoothies (in many formats including frozen pucks, powdered, and bottled), and lots of coffee products (MCT, bulletproof, cold brew). But, the next big thing may be elixirs like those from Harmonic Arts, where smoothie culture meets coffee culture. Again, we see a product line aimed at a variety of need-states, including Activate, Elevate, and Kickstart.

Plant-based is here to stay!

The array of plant-based products continues to grow as they make the jump to mainstream consumption. Some of the goodies on display included gourmet plant-based “seafood” made with Konjac root, and cauliflower in pizza crusts and tortillas. I noted that some vegan protein powders are now using mainstream athletes as endorsers, and adopting more of a masculine edge. Case in point, Iron Vegan, a Canadian company that’s shattering preconceived ideas of who vegans are and how to market to them.

Pulses were everywhere and in everything. Chickpea butter, protein puffs and chips, pasta, and even frozen novelties made from chickpea water (aka aquafaba) were all available for snacking. I couldn’t resist trying an edamame bean trail mixes, that paired sweet and savoury. Clearly, the better-for-you snacking category is still going strong.

The variety of seed-based products was remarkable. I saw sesame “milks”, cultured sunflower seed cream “cheeze”, sunflower seed chocolate spreads, and sprouted seeds. Could seeds be the next superfood trend?

Cassava, that highly versatile root vegetable, was present in the form of chips and flours. Bob’s Red Mill has added Cassava Flour to its line-up, and it seems to be an excellent gluten-free baking substitute based on the samples I tried. The sacrifices I make for my job!

Functional foods for a better you inside and out

A highly visible entrant in the functional ingredient market was collagen. I found it everywhere, in products for skin, hair, gut, and joints. Buzzwords on display included ‘grass-fed’, ‘grass-finished’, and ‘marine-based.’ And there was no shortage of bone broths, coffee creamers, and functional mix-in powders.

Echoing the shift from heart health to gut health we called out in the 2019 Nourish Trend Report, probiotics, prebiotics, and gut health and microbiome products were plentiful. There were lots of kombuchas on offer, and I can’t help but feel like we’re reaching peak kombucha. In fact, we’re starting to see more drinking vinegars entering this space. Many of the drinking vinegar products at the show had a bit of added sugar and carbonation and were packaged like pop. Drinking vinegar, or shrub, can be an acquired taste; these sweeter formulations should make it easier for consumers to get their daily dose.

Are CBD and insect-based losing their buzz?

Hemp products were out in full force, but there were noticeably fewer CBD products and cannabis information booths. Also, the excitement about bugs seems to be waning, with a smaller range of insect protein products present than at the previous show. There has long been resistance to eating insect-based foods in North America, and many growers are now targeting the animal feed industry. Has the enthusiasm for this once-hot alternative protein source abated?

And finally, a few words for the marketers out there and anyone planning a tradeshow activation: can we find another giveaway other than the swag bags? They may be better than a single-use plastic bag, but I’m guessing we all have more than we can use in two lifetimes by now. I did appreciate the bamboo straws, though!

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