Among the hundreds of food and beverage exhibitors at Natural Products Expo West, many likely hoped to catch the attention of Don Clark, global vice-president of non-perishable at Whole Foods Market, where a number of leading brands and hot trends first debut. To land shelf space at one of the retailer’s more than 400 stores, Mr. Clark said, a product must meet certain quality standards.

“We don’t allow anything in our stores that isn’t free of artificial flavors, colors and preservatives and so forth,” Mr. Clark said during a panel discussion at the event, held March 9-12 in Anaheim.

Beyond that, he added, Whole Foods seeks brands that “are seeking to make a difference in the world,” driven by a mission or purpose. One such start-up is Oakland, Calif.-based Back to the Roots, a maker of cereal and snacks using organic and biodynamic ingredients. That company recently announced its better-for-you breakfast cereals will be offered to 254,000 students in New York City public schools.

“I think we are now entering this third wave of food that’s all about radical transparency,” said Nikhil Arora, co-founder and co-chief executive officer of Back to the Roots, during the presentation. “It’s not just about not spraying nasty chemicals on ingredients but knowing exactly who grew it, why they grew it and where they grew it.”

His company’s trademarked mission to “Undo Food” was echoed by Miguel Garza, co-founder and c.e.o. of Austin, Texas-based Siete Family Foods, as a top trend in the food and beverage industry.

“Everybody here is creating real food products… and everybody is trying to figure out how we can utilize what we have,” Mr. Garza said. “Technology is not a bad thing, but how can we utilize it in a way to make a positive impact? I think you’ll continue to see real food, less processed… Just making food that the consumers need and that provide a holistic benefit.”

An example of a company centered on holistic health benefits is REBBL, Berkeley, Calif., which makes ready-to-drink organic beverages featuring adaptogenic herbs, such as turmeric, reishi mushrooms, maca and ashwagandha.

“Super herbs are flowing up,” said Sheryl O’Loughlin, c.e.o. of REBBL. “You’re going to hear a lot more about adaptogens. Its time has come.”

Another leading trend, she said, is plant-based dieting.

“The whole idea of a plant-rich diet… people need it, our planet needs it, it’s huge, and that’s why we embrace it,” she said.

Vincent Kitirattragarn, founder of Dang Foods, agreed. His company makes coconut chips, onion chips and a recently launched line of sticky rice chips.

“I’m of the school of thought that Americans eat too much sugar and not enough fiber, so plant-based is definitely on my mind,” he said. “In terms of ingredients, I love mushrooms. I tried my hardest to make a mushroom chip. It turned out to be a really expensive raw ingredient.”

Bringing more diverse plant-based foods to the American consumer is a vision of Shane Emmett, co-founder and c.e.o. of Health Warrior, which introduced the first-to-market chia seed bar and recently introduced a line of pumpkin seed bars.

“I think we’re just getting started,” Mr. Emmett said. “I think it’s still before sunrise for all who are doing it, and I think as a culture and as brands, as companies, when you start to see more bankers and investors walking around shows than grocery buyers you think, ‘What the heck is going on?’ but… it’s going to get even more exciting.”

Another trend gaining traction in the natural and organic marketplace is sugar reduction, said Alexia Brue, co-founder and c.e.o. of Well+Good, a wellness website.

“Stories like our beginner’s guide to cutting sugar are seeing constant traffic,” she said. “It’s really exciting to see all of the inroads there.”

Jeff Church, co-founder and c.e.o. of Suja Juice, agreed that reducing sugar is an important topic, particularly to consumers who are younger.

“The millennial generation uses food as a solution to illness; it’s a changing mindset,” Mr. Church said. “When we launched Suja, we had a bunch of s.k.u.s (stock-keeping units) that were higher in sugar, and our consumers told us over time they wanted lower sugar products.”

Justin Gold, founder of Justin’s, predicted packaging waste as an emerging focus for the food and beverage industry.

“Where I hope the next trend is going is around packaging waste,” Mr. Gold said. “We’re really working hard to find solutions to packaging waste. How can we close the loop on things like plastic? How can we find a home for non-compostable packaging material? How can we create environments where we can get more than 3% of people to recycle in the U.S.?

“I hope that’s where the next wave of entrepreneurship and thought leadership is going to go because that affects everyone.”