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Natural Selection

Survival of the fittest at the Natural Products Expo

Photo by Tenaya HillsLike everybody else at the convention, I am the opposite of a hypochondriac: when I swallow something that's supposed to be good for me, I can absolutely feelrejuvenation flood through each of my body's 70 trillion cells. So when the man holds out a spoonful of sweet agave nectar and tells me it has vitamins and minerals, a lower glycemic index than honey, and is completely natural, I hook it and wait for the rush.

Some people get that feeling from shots of tequila, but I prefer my agave unfermented. Same with wheat grass, carrots juiced with a jigger of fresh ginger root, and spirulina smoothies. And like I said, I'm not alone. Americans looking for a natural high—that is, the high of being natural—spend $440 billion per year, and for four days every March, the natural-products industry invades the Anaheim Convention Center with everything from ear candles to vegan marshmallows to K-9 Carb Down low-carb weight-loss supplements for your dog.

"People [who buy natural products] are putting all their values together in a way that suits their lifestyle," says Walter Robb, co-president and COO of Whole Foods Markets, the nation's fastest-growing natural-products market chain. "They believe healthy products make a healthy planet."

But what exactly is the standard for "natural" products? Hard to say. Even the FDA's Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which is the standard by which all American consumables must abide, doesn't mention the word "natural." And yet that adjective appears on everything from toaster pastries to soda pops to Bellydance Fitness Fusion CDs.

If we're looking for a poster child for natural products, it might be soy. Soy comes from a bean, and beans come out of the earth—it's not artificial or manufactured; it's simply found in nature, like real boobs and spring water. Soy was there 25 years ago, when the first natural-products-industry convention consisted of a few hundred people in Birkenstocks, hawking tofu and tempeh as fervently as they had been protesting the war in Southeast Asia 10 years earlier. And in a blissfully nutritious kind of counterattack, soy milk from the East began showing up on select Western grocery shelves in the 1980s. Within a decade, soy was Americanized. It took the form of burger patties, wieners and chocolate soy milk, and eating and drinking these complex incarnations of the simple soybean became something that movie stars and athletes were doing.

Soy remains a barometer for the entire natural-products industry, and it keeps reinventing itself to stay current with the arbiters of cool, which is why today you can find soy-based toilet scrub, lubricant and beef-like jerky. And since it is a Darwinistic truism that nature corrects itself along the way, the poorer-adapted variants within a species or marketplace die off while a population explosion occurs among the better-adapted ones. That's why the chocolate-and-peanut-butter Power Bars have mutated into a whole aisle of nutrition bars at Trader Joe's.

I wander the aisles of the convention looking for that one thing that will make my life better: healthier, longer, cleaner, less allergenic and leaving no residue when I'm gone. Along the way, I sample taro burger that might pass for grilled drywall in a blind taste test, no-sugar cheesecake that tastes exactly like cheesecake made without any sugar, chocolate-covered organic tortilla chips, kamut and tofu lasagna, and red palm oil cookies.

I try some Juvo, a natural raw meal in a pouch that promises to boost energy, strengthen immunity, enhance metabolism and cleanse your entire elimination system while exemplifying "the joy of not cooking"; Amy & Brian Coconut Juice with Pulp, so much like human blood plasma "it was given intravenously to Pacific soldiers during World War II"; the paraben-free Oh! Warming Lubricant, a natural female sexual-enhancement product that is "part empowerment tool, part E-ticket ride, friendly conversation starter." It feels nice on the back of my hand.

I try some ginger chicken and shrimp that have no animal properties at all but taste like they do thanks to chemistry. There's yogurt in a tube, vegan cashew cheese and corn-crusted pizza. I wash it all down with a variety of hydration devices—peppermint water "to stimulate the nerves and settle the stomach," aloe vera water, coconut water, ionized water—"socially conscious" water. By the time I leave the natural-food aisles and begin making my way through personal care and supplements, I need my tongue scraped.

While collecting some birch cellulite oil to take home and rub on in private, I encounter Jeff Daverman. He is an exhibitor from Arizona with white-boy dreadlocks who looks to be about 26. Jeff has appropriated some classic hippie themes in the form of bumper stickers: "Simplify," "Plant Seeds and Sing Songs" and "What Wouldn't W. Do?" He's savvy enough to be wearing oxfords and a tie instead of Birkenstocks, lest he stand out too far from the crowd of corporate emissaries that have infiltrated the business. I ask him what he thinks I need most to live a "natural" life.

He hands me a sticker that says "We're All in This Together" but offers no oral or topical refreshment at all. Still, the thought makes me feel really good.

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