New Health Food Trends at the Natural Products Food Expo West

Natural Products Expo

This weekend I attended, for or the second year in a row, the Natural Products Expo West. At this massive convention, health food, natural supplement and cosmetic concerns pitch their products to retailers.

And, again this year, I did a lot of intemperate sampling. For the sake of you, our dear readers, I ate every known power bar, sports beverage and processed soy/hemp/chia meat substitute so you won’t have to. It was the human equivalent of being a fois gras duck, except instead of corn pellets coming down the funnel it was all the snack items from a health food store. I washed this massive amount of food down with a hundred different “natural” beverages, all variations on a combination of hemp or soy flavored with the latest, obscure rain forest berry. I may never have to eat again.

The Rise of Quinoa

Natural Products Expo Bag Dump

Phoebe helps sort through all the quinoa swag.

The main theme of Natural Products West this year is the rise of gluten free products. Gluten intolerance is a problem for many people. One out of 131 people have Celiac diseases and a great many more probably have some sort of wheat allergy. However, someone tell me why we have to label products like tomato sauce and raw chicken as being “gluten free?”

Most new gluten free products, everything from pasta to crackers to power bars, use quinoa. The Natural Products Expo’s own trade publication noted that the exponential growth of quinoa consumption in the U.S. has created a situation in which the indigenous people of Peru can no longer afford their own staple food. Peruvians are now eating cheap, processed crap so that we can eat, well, cheap processed quinoa crap.

And if a health food product doesn’t contain quinoa, I can guarantee it will contain either coconuts or chia seeds. Neither of these two products are easy to grow in the U.S. so you can forget about supporting local producers.

Of the hundreds of booths I went past, most were peddling heavily processed junk foods with a “natural” label. And we wonder why the U.S. has an obesity epidemic?

The Ugly
The bizarre booth spectacle award goes to the weight lifting supplement producer that had a scantily clad nurse, an examination table and a ultrasound machine. Retail reps with pot bellies could have themselves oiled up and examined to find their “hidden abs” that would, presumably, be revealed through consumption of a whey powder supplement beverage.

The Good
The good news is that the handful of cool things I found more than made up for all those quinoa power bars. I’ll share those discoveries this week.

Growing Your Own Food is Like Printing Your Own Money: Ron Finley’s TED Talk

Please take a moment and watch gangster/guerrilla gardener Ron Finley’s inspiring Ted talk. I first heard about Ron after he got busted for planting a vegetable garden in what used to be a weed strewn parkway. He’s gone on to plant many more gardens around Los Angeles.

The end of this talk really hit home for me, “Don’t call me if you want to sit around and have meetings. If you want to meet with me come to the garden with your shovel so we can plant some s**t.”


Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Dealing With the Crisis of Overconnection

Hamlet's BlackBerry

All too often in recent months I’ve found myself pulled into a vortex of emails, Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and just plain mindless internet surfing sessions.  Let’s face it, the screens in our lives are highly addictive and who among us actually feels better after an info-crack bender?

Published in 2010, William Power’s Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, is a reasonable, balanced and practical guide to navigating our hyper-connected age (and how ironic it is that the fast pace of technological change makes “BlackBerry” a quaint reference in 2013–the book, however is more relevant than it was in 2010).

Powers does not take a finger waving “eat your Brussels sprouts” approach. Rather, he acknowledges the immense potential and usefulness of computers and smart phones while offering sage advice on using them intelligently. He draws on an unlikely set of philosophers, inventors and writers: Socrates, Seneca, Johannes Gutenberg, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Henry David Thoreau and Marshall McCluhan, each of whom dealt with sweeping change in communication technology in their own times. Powers earns extra points for mentioning my favorite architect, Christopher Alexander.

Using these sources, Powers offers the following suggestions for avoiding technological overload:

  • Distance: it’s good periodically, to take a walk and leave all screens at home.
  • Developing inner peace: make time for meditation practices, working in the garden, working on your bike etc. Powers advocates something I’ve experimented with over the past few years–cutting off national news and letting conversations with friends and relatives fill me in on what’s going on.
  • Read books made out of paper! Even e-book technology can encourage mindless surfing. Reading an old fashioned book can help develop powers of concentration and focus.
  • Use old tools: Powers gives the example of note taking with paper and pen. Sometimes older tools can help reduce distractions–your paper notebook, after all, is not going to chime in with an incoming email.
  • Rituals: As Powers puts it, “Vow to finish all screen tasks by a given time, with a reward if you make it.” Don’t check email first thing in the morning–get some work or exercise done first. I have a disclaimer at the bottom of my emails stating that I check email at noon and sunset. I’ve found this works for me and I’ve trained people to call me if there is something important.
  • The Walden Zone: set up a screen-free area of your house, but don’t get puritanical about it. Your Walden Zone does not need to be quiet. In addition to a peaceful space you might want a fun, loud, party room (minus the screens). And don’t forget about the backyard–most Americans are so addicted to screens that they don’t ever go out there! Powers turns off his modem for the entire weekend. Powers claims that his internet “Sabbaths” have been very successful even with a teenage son in the household.
  • Use technology intelligently: Powers is not Amish! He acknowledges that the internet and cell phones are incredible tools. Understand how technology works and harness it for useful tasks while reducing unnecessary chatter.

Powers acknowledges that what works for one individual or family may not work for another. We have to be flexible in our approach to working with technology. Some of us may be able to ditch our smartphones (I’ve never had one and don’t plan on getting one) but others may need that connectivity for work. But the more important point is that we need to avoid becoming, as Thoreau put it, “the tool of the tool.” We need to use our new powers of connection with mindfulness: to build community, to educate and to inspire.

The Strange World of Artificial Plants

Ikea’s Fejka.

On a recent pilgrimage to Ikea, I ended up staring at a large display of fake plants while Mrs. Root Simple found a replacement for our kitten-shredded drapes. Viewed from a distance Ikea’s plastic plants were realistic, though seemingly outside of any known plant genus. I found myself pondering the question of what permacultural context in which these plastic plants would be an appropriate design solution. I couldn’t answer my own question. More plastic and less living things in our lives is probably not a good idea. But I am willing to consider a very limited use of artificial turf–neighbor Anne Hars once showed me Home Depot’s astonishing selection of fake grass–some that even has fake dead grass mixed in for realism. Perhaps in some ironic post-modern house this artificial turf could fit in.

It did remind me of the time a neighbor, who is a Hollywood art director, grabbed me late one evening to help her fake a vegetable garden for a movie. From her I that learned that their are businesses in Hollywood that do nothing other than provide fake plants. Not just flowers, but everything from corn to . . . hemp.

Having a bad year with your tomatoes? Green Set Inc. will set you up with some fake ones:

They even have a very large (and suspiciously shiny) fake zucchini:

But I think my favorite fake plants come from a company called New Image Plants, providers of  “The World’s Best Artificial Marijuana.” Customers? Marijuana dispensaries, the set decorator for Weeds and law enforcement! From their website:

Across the world law enforcement finds itself with the continuous dilemma of having to train new recruits to identify and find illegal marijuana plants . . . Our plants are used by many police departments across the world, the US Military and the Royal Mountain Police in Canada to name just a few.

Be forewarned that the bush above, complete with realistic buds, is a $325 gag gift for the gardener in your life. For some reason I would love to sneak one of these into my dentist’s waiting room.