PHILADELPHIA — Natural Products Expo East was an “entrepreneurial tour de force,” featuring many small and startup brands among the more than 800 exhibitors, said Mary Allen, president and founder of brand consulting firm Natural Brand Works.

More than 15,000 attendees gathered Sept. 22-25 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center to view and sample the latest in natural, organic and functional foods. Ms. Allen, who has attended scores of trade events as a retailer, buyer, merchandiser, product development manager and brand owner, described Expo East as “one of the most extraordinary shows” of her career, noting the “passion and enthusiasm of founders and team members for this first in-person event in some time.”

“Many of the enterprise and larger brands didn’t exhibit, leaving the event open to newer and emerging brands with more diversity than I had seen,” Ms. Allen said. “Based on conversation with exhibitors, buyers were few, with quality meetings over quantity as in past events.”

Ms. Allen is one of the industry experts on the team at Startup CPG, an organization dedicated to supporting early-stage entrepreneurs by providing free resources, services and networking opportunities. Startup CPG connects founders and industry partners at live and virtual events and on digital platforms, including Slack and Clubhouse.

Several members of the Startup CPG team attended Expo East and shared the top brands that stood out at the event. Ms. Allen said she noticed many food and beverage products promoting calm, energy or immunity, as well as plant-based formulations, non-alcoholic drinks, alternative and functional ingredients, and snacks incorporating global flavors.

Andy Kurtts, founder and creative director of Buttermilk Creative, discussed the packaging designs that caught his eye on the trade show floor.

“From a design perspective I saw a lot of exploration and category pushing visually,” Mr. Kurtts said. “New brands are taking more risks color-wise; I saw brighter, bolder designs all around.”

Click here for a slideshow of standout exhibitors at Expo East.