PHILADELPHIA — Hundreds of brands are exhibiting this week at Natural Products Expo East. New products launching at the event tap into consumer trends that have emerged or gained traction during the pandemic.

Plant-based innovation continues to explode and evolve. New applications take meat substitutes beyond burgers, into items such as shawarma and bacon, as examples. In the dairy category, ingredients such as oats, chickpeas and pumpkin seeds star in alternatives to yogurt, ice cream and milk.

Functional beverages are spilling into additional categories, including immunity and sleep or stress relief. An example is Leilo, which incorporates kava extract and l-theanine, providing "a clinical dose of calm in each can." The product is positioned around promoting relaxation, a much-needed benefit particularly during the past two years.

The ketogenic diet shows no signs of slowing in new product development, as companies tout offerings with no added sugar and low carbohydrates. Existing brands are adding new keto-friendly items to their portfolios, and while nutrition bars appear to be the most popular format, products such as beverages, baking mixes and breads are now available for followers of the lifestyle. A new brand called Carbonaut makes gluten-free bagels with 2 or 3 grams of net carbohydrates. 

This year, Expo East includes an online component allowing brands to showcase innovation and interact with attendees at virtual booths, in addition to the in-person gathering Sept. 22-25 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Among the many trends that stand out on the live or virtual show floor, here are three to watch.

Restaurant brands come home

As the pandemic broadly halted indoor dining, consumers began pining for restaurant-quality meals at home. Several foodie destinations are bringing signature items to the consumer packaged goods market.

New York City’s Levain Bakery has launched its famed cookies in the freezer aisle of select grocery stores. Carbone, an upscale Italian restaurant in New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Hong Kong, is rolling out premium pasta sauces. The chef behind Chicago-based Girl and the Goat, Little Goat and Duck Duck Goat restaurants has introduced a line of condiments for home cooks. The unique flavors popularized in chef Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar dessert shops are featured in packaged cookies and a line of ice cream pints.

All four brands had booths at Expo East.

Another exhibitor, Laoban Dumplings, specializes in Chinese dumplings formulated with no preservatives and premium ingredients such as free-range chicken and Berkshire pork. The business began as a dumpling shop in Washington, DC, and is now expanding to grocery store shelves.

Booze-free boom

Alcohol sales skyrocketed last year as consumers turned to wine, beer and spirits for comfort during uncertain times. A renewed embrace of health and wellness may have marked a return to the “sober-curious” movement that began prior to the pandemic.

Many non-alcoholic beverages in this category may capture the essence of classic cocktails and spirits without the booze.

Ritual Beverage Co., Chicago, offers Ritual Zero Proof gin, whiskey, tequila and rum alternatives that contain no calories or alcohol. Canadian startup Partake Brewing Company offers a range of canned beverages inspired by pale ale, peach gose, dark stout and more.

A new Denver-based brand and Expo East Pitch Slam finalist, Grüvi produces non-alcoholic stouts, lagers and ales, plus wines in such varietals as bubbly rosé and prosecco.

Mingle Mocktails, Philadelphia, creates non-alcoholic, low-calorie sparkling beverages including blood orange elderflower mimosa, cranberry cosmo, blackberry hibiscus bellini, cucumber melon mojito and Moscow mule. Founder Laura Taylor launched the company after she stopped drinking several years ago and felt left out at social occasions.

Better baby food

Startups are introducing baby food options crafted with cleaner ingredients. White Leaf Provisions, Mount Pleasant, SC, promotes its line of regeneratively farmed, biodynamic, organic baby food. The products are certified free of glyphosate residue, a small but growing claim.

Serenity Kids, an Austin, Texas-based brand, markets a portfolio of shelf-stable savory vegetable baby food, toddler purees with bone broth, and grain-free puffs. The company uses ethically sourced meats, organic vegetables and healthy fats. Married co-founders Joe and Serenity Carr launched the business shortly after the birth of their daughter, Della. Adopting healthier diets years ago helped the pair resolve chronic health conditions and drove them to seek nutrient-dense baby food for their newborn. Unable to find options in the marketplace that met their nutrition and ingredient standards, the couple set out to rattle the category with products that are free from antibiotics, added hormones, pesticides, fillers, genetically modified ingredients and major allergens.

The Simple Starters line from New York-based FoodieKid LLC contains flash-frozen organic ingredients that may be served as mashed, purees or as finger foods. The company claims it is filling a gap in the market for products parents may adapt to a child’s needs.