When it comes to natural foods and beverages, consumers continue to fill their carts. Natural products store shoppers spent nearly $33 billion on natural grocery items in 2009, up 5 percent from 2008, according to Nutrition Business Journal. "Early estimates for 2010 showed that numbers would likely increase throughout the year, surpassing 2009 growth levels," said Carla Ooyen, director of market research for NBJ.

If Natural Products Expo West 2011 is any indication, the natural-grocery trend shows no signs of slowing. “Hall E, which primarily includes food exhibitors, is full for this year's show," said Adam Andersen, Expo West conference manager. "The increase in booths represents more than 25 percent growth for this year—absolutely fabulous." Grocery themes likely to flavor Expo West: Hispanic, low-sodium, allergen-specific, satiating and healthy snack foods.For a preshow aperitif, dig into the following stories for more on these trends.

As the Hispanic population continues to grow much more quickly than the overall population in the U.S., Latin foods have gained popularity among all consumers. Current annual sales of Hispanic foods in the U.S. are $7 billion and expected to hit close to $10 billion by 2014, according to Rockville, Md.-based market research firm Packaged Facts. Compare that to 2005 when sales were $5.4 billion. Attend the Expo West education session, The Future of Wellness, Friday, March 11, 9:30 to 10:45 a.m., or the session on Marketing to the Hispanic and Latino Populations, Friday, March 11, 9:30 to 10:45 am (room 207B) for more information on this burgeoning demographic.

Expect to find scads of packaged foods stamped with low-sodium labels, as consumers are looking to decrease the amount of salt in their diets and more manufacturers are participating in the National Salt Reduction Initiative. While conventional companies can cut salt and then turn to synthetic ingredients to compensate for flavor loss, that's not an option for natural products manufacturers, said Kantha Shelke, principal at Corvus Blue, a Chicago-based food science and research firm. Shelke suspects naturals manufacturers will rely on spices and natural umami notes to make up flavor.

Expect products that address specific dietary concerns to be prominent on the show floor, Andersen said. "Allergen-related foods, such as gluten-free and dairy-free items are still huge trends that are not going away. Products in these categories are getting more refined and better tasting, and manufacturers are becoming smarter about how to package, market and sell these types of products,” he said. Learn more about merchandising gluten-free products at the Expo West education session, Gluten Free on the Menu: Expanding Your Customer Base and Uncovering Opportunities, Friday, March 11, 9:30 to 10:45 a.m.

Low-fat labels are old news. Instead, claims to manage weight or keep you fuller longer are hitting store shelves, according to data from Chicago-based market research firm Mintel. Currently in the U.S., the foods that claim to stave off hunger are primarily weight-loss products like diet shakes and bars, but plan to see a broader variety of foods bearing these claims debuting at Expo West. "As our culture shifts its focus from weight loss to overall health and wellness, the food industry is taking notice—adding fiber and protein to everything from cereal to frozen dinners," said Doris Piccinin, RD, director of Seattle-based Bastyr University’s master’s of nutrition, didactic program in dietetics. 

Healthy snack
Who’s going to argue with a tasty snack? Not American consumers, apparently. The snack-foods category—including healthy options like pretzels, non-potato chips, energy bars, jerky and other waistline-friendly treats—is seeing huge growth. Total units of natural candy and individual snacks sold in the naturals channel was 40 million for the 52-week period ending October 2010, up 11.9 percent from the previous year, according to SPINS, a Schaumburg, Ill.-based market research firm.