Coconut, almond, oats, ginger and flax are among the hottest ingredients in the food and beverage marketplace, signaling a safe bet for product developers, said Sarah Schmansky, vice-president of growth and strategy at Nielsen.

"These are established ingredients; they have made their way into many products across the store and in many different departments as well," Schmansky said during a presentation at the Natural Products Expo East show. "These really are no-risk options for companies that are trying to catch on to that latest trend and try to fit in."

Other companies may choose to use such emerging ingredients as moringa or algae to stand out, said Eric J. Pierce, vice-president of business insights, New Hope Network.

"Coconut, for example, is still a place where one can innovate, but it's important to recognize that if you're looking to innovate with coconut, that's a more mature ingredient," he said, noting that nearly 1,800 products on the show floor last year at New Hope’s other event, Natural Products Expo West, featured coconut. "While it may be a safe bet for some companies, it might also not be innovative enough for others."

Using a combination retail sales data and a database of products featured at both Natural Products Expo shows, Pierce and Schmansky mapped a few dozen ingredients on a trajectory of birth to maturity.

"As an ingredient arrives on the scene, it’s pretty low in terms of growth and in terms of breadth — few categories, few sales, it’s not growing very fast," Pierce said. "As an ingredient moves toward the mainstream, gets more attention, more awareness, more innovation, we see the breadth increase… but over time as the ingredient becomes a little more saturated and well known, the sales growth slows down.”

Several ingredients, including collagen, teff and lentils, may show a different pattern, with slower growth and lower breadth, suggesting products featuring the ingredients haven't yet reached mainstream consumers, Schmansky said.

"It’s really in this area where ingredients either become something and move up into the mature stage or they ultimately die off and you may never hear from them again," she said. "For an established brand that is playing it safe, collagen might not be a necessary bet that they want to invest in, but for those that are category disruptors who are willing to build the overall collagen market and at the same time build their brand, this might be the right time to do so."

Pierce highlighted a pair of sweeteners at different stages in the trajectory: stevia and monk fruit. Stevia, a mature ingredient, represents a strong opportunity for established suppliers and manufacturers, he said, as nearly two-thirds of American households have purchased stevia or a stevia-sweetened product in the past year. 

"Stevia is growing in more categories across the store," Schmansky said. "Obviously products like ice cream or chocolate or fruit drinks are turning to stevia... but we’re also seeing it make its way into health and beauty care aisles as products like toothpaste and supplements are posting significant growth featuring this mature ingredient."

Conventional brands also are experimenting with stevia, Pierce said, citing Coca-Cola and Yoplait as examples.

Carving a much smaller niche in the market is monk fruit, with only 7 percent of households purchasing products formulated with the sweetener in the past year. Monk fruit may be found in lactose-free milk, ice cream, nutrition bars and shakes and cereal, Schmansky said. 

"The opportunity is there, but it’s about knowing where to invest and what products to invest it in," she said.

Other trending ingredients tap into principals of ayurvedic medicine. Adaptogens such as ashwagandha and moringa are relatively small but growing; overall dollar sales of products with ashwagandha, for example, are less than $1 million but grew more than 200 percent over the latest 52 weeks, Schmansky said.

"Superfoods are finding their niche in this self-care environment," she added, pointing to turmeric, which may be found in 97 percent of households.

Overall growth of turmeric has slowed to about 3 percent from the year-ago period, but across the grocery store the ingredient is driving double-digit gains. Salty snacks and soups featuring turmeric grew 27 percent and 18 percent, respectively, in the past year.

"Turmeric is dominating from an overall revenue standpoint at upwards of $11 billion," Schmansky said.

Innovation is slowing, however. The number of new products featuring turmeric at both Natural Products Expos grew 22 percent over the past three years, compared with 144 percent growth for ashwagandha and a whopping 460 percent growth for moringa.

"Whether you’re an investor, a distributor, a retailer or a manufacturer, you might find yourself walking the show here and looking at all the incredible things, all the innovation… asking yourself where do you invest?" Pierce said. "Where do you put your time, money, and effort next?"

Ingredients aligned with health and wellness are driving growth within a challenged retail environment, Schmansky said.

"We see categories such as mandarin oranges, salads, sparkling waters and lactose-free milk all driving growth...," she said. "Ultimately, it's the products that promote convenience, healthier alternatives and good-for-you ingredients that keep winding up in our baskets, stealing share of wallet, and helping brick and mortar maintain that slight growth rate of 0.7 percent."