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When the Natural Products Expo West trade show was first held in Anaheim, Calif., in 1981, a mere 3,000 people attended to see what was new in natural and organic foods. It has been said the show had a hippie feel to it, which may have something to do with the way natural and organic foods were perceived almost 40 years ago.

Last Sunday, the 38th annual Natural Products Expo West concluded after attracting a whopping 85,000 attendees, a record for the show. The show had a full-of-life feel to it, which probably has something to do with the way natural and organic foods are perceived today.

Natural Products Expo West is billed as the world’s largest natural, organic and healthy products event. After strolling the show for a few days, I will not argue with that. And I’ll bet you a bag of organic lentil with turmeric crackers that the show hits 90,000 attendees next year.

In its early years, Natural Products Expo West attracted plenty of mom-and-pop companies as exhibitors. It still does, but several large corporations including General Mills, Cargill and Tropicana Food Products and Clif Bar and Co. have seen the light that is natural and organic and are now exhibiting at the show.

This was the first time I attended the show. I’ve been to many trade shows throughout the U.S. in my career, but this show is by far the largest and most crowded show I have ever attended. This year’s show featured 3,521 exhibiting companies, including more than 600 first-time exhibitors. It was difficult to navigate at times, considering the large crowd, and the show floors (it was held in two different buildings) seemed infinite. But it was an intriguing show that commanded your attention. Even though it was 70 degrees and sunny outside, it didn’t seem like many attendees were playing hooky.

For retailers of store brands, Natural Products Expo West is surely a place to find products to help them differentiate. That said, some of the products might be too ahead of their time for private brands.

Unless you’ve been living under a tall row of organic corn stalks, you know that natural and organic products have been a boon for private brands. The Kroger Co. recently announced that its Simple Truth line of natural and organic products became a $2 billion brand. The Albertsons Cos. recently stated that its O Organics line reached $1 billion in sales. And, of course, there’s Whole Foods Market’s popular private brand line of 365 Everyday Value Products.

What’s great about Natural Products Expo West is seeing the spin that companies are putting on natural and organic foods. Considering they are natural and organic, the products are already different and regarded as upscale. But when you consider the ingredients (plants, plants and more plants), flavors (curried sweet potato anyone?) and other twists (“nutrient dense” and “packed with super foods”) attached to these products, many take differentiation to a new level. And guess what? They taste good.

So if I’m a retailer looking to spice up (pun intended) my store brands program, I’m down with this show next year. Yes, some products (lime-flavored roasted seaweed) might be a little out there for store brands, but there are plenty of companies offering distinct products for private brands that just might help retailers stand out from their competition.

If you want to upgrade your store brands and haven’t been to this show, you should consider attending. Just wear your walking shoes.

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