NNFA - Nutritional Foods and You - or something...
One brave soul's tongue and cheek journey into the pit of the National Nutritional Foods Association / Natural Products Association annual convention - by Dan Dreifort
I NPA Infiltration
"Your odyssey to the future begins here," read the headline on the official program for the National Nutritional Foods Association - Marketplace 2001. Over one hundred degrees of grueling Las Vegas heat throbbed into every pore of my being on the short walk from my hotel to the convention center. If you asked me to describe my odyssey, I'd surely have mentioned something about the gates to hell's ovens and a pit stop at Gamblers Anonymous.
The National Nutritional Foods Association (NNFA) coordinates Marketplace every year, uniting "natural product" manufacturers, retailers and suppliers under one roof, ostensibly to tweak their collective marketing mojo. Over 500 exhibitors lined up to peddle their wares to each other and other registered contemporaries.
Sounds like fun if you're a Grape-Nut.
Grape-Nut that I am, I called ahead and gleaned the unusual extent of their elite gate policies. Neither my associates Eeyore and The Gentile nor I were part of their elite club. The public was not welcome at this event. This was no Mint 400. No health food groupies allowed.
Unthwarted, my associates posed as Internet consultants to the nutritional food industry, presenting clearly suspicious and somehow persuasive credentials. I flung my trump card to the trolls in the press tent: a specious "UncoolCentral Press Pass". Hook, line and stinker - they bought it.
II First Thoughts + Juicer Attack
As Las Vegas, conventions and nutritional supplements have become more familiar to me than my own backyard these past few years, it wasn't the impression of the scantily clad spokesmodels or the imposing selection of protein bars and energy drinks teetering uncomfortably in my head. No, it was the resounding, unanswered, "Why am I here?"
The minions of the Samson Juicer Company descended upon us before I was able to satiate the needling inquiry in my head, whirring blades and tortured precut veggies ready to strike. Unfamiliar with the archetypical convention tactics of juice machine manufacturers, I allowed them to give me the whole demonstration - and a four-course snack of grass and root juice. I even snapped juicing-action pictures and agreed to write about their great product in my article if they'd just let me leave.
It wasn't until much later after the fourth or fifth collection of juicer company reps anxiously yearned to challenge my palate, explaining how their wheatgrass juice actually tasted good that I caught on to their clandestine grifter-ish ploys.
My juicer naiveté, somehow still whimpering after the umpteenth shot of coarse green liquid vanished completely that night. Wasn't it Montaigne who first said, "Even a wise man can learn from a colon?"
III Rockefeller & Carnegie vs Natural Foods?
Though given, most Marketplace attendees weren't wearing their keen analytic writing caps, (I bought mine at Wal-Mart for a nickel,) I thought it odd that more folks weren't using their cell phones to consult their personal nutritionists about the products on the convention floor. Old feelings of uncertainty and doubt of natural foods began to well up inside of me. I had the fear.
Quick perusal of the aforementioned program, with its heartening bolded seminar titles ("How to Get More Customers Who'll Pay More Money More Often" and "The Political Future of the Natural Products Industry, ") and a quick reassuring glance at beguiling products like "Diet Water" and "Testosterone Enhanced Horny Goatweed Libido Lift Cream" quickly assuaged my concerns.
Or the calm came from the soothing memory of that old frame tale about the Carnegie Foundation, J. D. Rockefeller and the America Medical Association my mom used to tell me as the Natural Foods Sandman lulled me off to sleep. You know the one
"Long ago, in the early twentieth century, with compelling support and wherewithal from the wicked wizard Rockefeller and that old sinful sorcerer Carnegie, the evil fledgling American Medical Association cast a terrible spell upon the friendly flourishing homeopathic medical.. er uh magic school, conversely protecting the soon-to-be incumbent allopathic school."
Homeopathic schools couldn't compete. AMA, state and federal licensing laws force physicians to practice according to prevailing standards. (*true story)
Wise old men and women at the local juice bar often tell the youngsters how herbal, alternative, or otherwise natural remedies caught a bad rap in the resulting maelstrom - guilty by association. (These are the same oldsters I like to pester with incessant questions about the gum and Skittles food groups.)
IV Kill a shark for the WWF
You suddenly want to go to Cabo.
With those grains of salt percolating through my mind, the frequent lack of an M.D. or R.D after the resident specialists' names was of less concern. After all, the AMA and the feds are the slackers, who after 1968 subjectively stopped christening new vitamins after "E" because they were lazy and uninspired. (To this day nobody can explain the baffling designation of vitamin K.)
Wiping the sweat from my brow, I got my bearings and reunited with Eeyore and The Gentile who had been lost in a maze of herbal teas and powdered supplements. Their tales of the Horny Goat Weed dancing girls eased my troubled mind as we skirted the edge of the exhibits in aisle 1500. And then the shark ladies came.
Like a swarm of bats they were upon us. Several foreign women dressed in jeans and World Wildlife Fund panda t-shirts eagerly placed free samples of shark liver oil pills in our hands. In broken English they conveyed that their panacea would indeed cure all that ailed.
I thought out loud, "How the hell am I supposed to be able to tell which one of the countless free sample pills I've taken is the one that gave me the rash?"
The language barrier held strong as the nice ladies raised their arms to the convention center ceiling, perhaps to assure me that their product was indeed a cure from the heavens.
"Why," again I wondered out loud, "are you wearing WWF shirts while peddling oil from the livers of potentially endangered animals?"
Maybe their bewildered looks lingered a few moments as I wandered away in a disgusted daze. Maybe not. My mind was elsewhere. In a stupor, I wandered past the Margo's Mixtures booth where proprietor Margo McIntosh extolled the virtues of her scented Dead Sea Exfoliation Treatment to a curious distributor. She snagged my arm as I walked by and proceeded to rub in the pungent oily salt. I oohed and ahhed as she continued to pitch her product to the mark.
I was beginning to understand.
V The Other Athens Vegas Contingent
Clarity hit me like a corn-fed walrus when I saw the familiar logo on the Barlean's booth. (I regularly swallow their omega 3-6-9 fatty acid pills to stave off cancer, the consumption, bad skin and Jehovah's Witnesses.) When I noticed Farmacy store manager Vic Kallay inspecting their display, my lucidity was complete. (The Farmacy is a natural foods store in our author's homeland -ed.)
Vic was not without his convention battle wounds. The Hair-No-More woman had recently used his forearm to showcase the amazing hair removal properties of their organic depilator. I had him smell my oily arm as we shared war stories.
Vic told me how he'd won a return trip to the convention while at last year's get-together. He'd spent most of his time this year scanning the exhibits and touring three Vegas natural foods stores, performing non-covert surveillance of the distant competition; always ready to catch the wave of the next healthy trend.
"Low carb foods are hot this year," he explained, "Some stores devote almost a third of their space to them."
"What about all of these arm-related products we've found and the Horny Goat Weed Girls?" I goaded.
"Those salts and hair-rippers are nothing more than pricey vanity products," he replied, "there's not much of a market for them in Athens."
"But," he continued, "the horny goat weed creams are on their way to Athens. We just ordered some."
Interesting I asked Vic about several of the other products I'd encountered on my odyssey. He knew of them all, and even recommended a few. Others, he didn't.
We parted ways with the secret Athens natural foods handshake.
Seeing Vic reminded me that I'd promised Leslie Schaller of AceNET that I'd look into a few of their concerns while covering Marketplace 2001. Tops on their A-list were alternates to the two big SE Ohio distributors (Tree of Life and United Natural Foods) and information on spirulina food products for a promising local nutritional bar upstart.
At a near-cautious pace I scanned through the rest of the exhibitors and my nightmarish memories of the previous few hours - to no avail. Neither distributors nor spirulina interests were represented.
VI Escape from Las Vegas
Though my official report to AceNET suggested spirulina might have been too old hat for such a progressive convention, and that distributors were perhaps too busy recruiting exploitees to set up shop in the crowded Marketplace, I suspect a more devious and dark design.
Utterly defeated, I snagged a few bottles of colloidal silver from an otherwise unoccupied display on my way out the door. The huge lettering on the front label proclaiming, "nontoxic" "harmless" and "France's favorite colloidal silver" ameliorated the swallowing process as I downed their contents.
Eeyore and The Gentile were waiting by the gates, their complimentary branded canvas bags brimming with freebies and product literature. As both rationalized their purchasing $200 massage machines, I set myself to sink a flurry of three-pointers into a distant trash receptacle with the now empty colloidal silver bottles.
"Aren't you going to recycle those?" exclaimed Eeyore passionately, interrupting his self-affirmation.
"Isn't that what this whole conference is aboot?" he persisted in a faux-Canadian accent.
I paused briefly, deep in thought, before making only one of the three shots. 33% isn't too bad for an unsigned amateur, I thought to myself.
"No Eeyore, it's not. This town and everything in it revolves around money. Besides, I'm tired, I finally found proof that Geddy Lee is an alien, it's over a hundred degrees in the shade and I've yet to see a recycle bin in this hole. Let's shoot some craps."