Persuading trendwatchers that Peruvian purple-corn-based beverage chicha morada could the next big thing in the US beverage aisle might seem like a tough sell given that the concept of purple corn as a ‘super food’ is still pretty novel to most American consumers.
However, the speed with which Americans embraced quinoa - another Peruvian staple - shows that anything is possible, says Renato J. Varas, CEO of The Varas Group, who is a mission to introduce US consumers to beverages he enjoyed while growing up in Peru.
“I grew up drinking chicha morada [infused beverage containing purple corn, fruit juice and spices], and with all humility it really is an unbelievable drink," he told FoodNavigator-USA.
"I’ve always felt it is something that the whole world should taste.
“Purple maize contains higher levels of antioxidants than blueberries, pomegranate, and acai, and companies like Suntava [which sells purple corn-based ingredients ] are helping raise awareness of purple maize as a superfood, although though they are not using Peruvian maize, so the publicity is good for us.”
The Latino community drinks way too much soda, but they have very demanding palates and they won’t sacrifice taste
Varas’ best-known brand is Chicha Limeña, a chicha morada beverage made from non-GMO purple corn extract, pineapple, lemon, cinnamon, cloves, cane sugar and filtered water; while he has also developed another chicha morada product under the Simply Originals brand.
"Chicha Limeña is primarily servicing the Latin/Caribbean customer with some conventional market overlap, while Simply Originals was created for the natural/organic demographic," said Varas.
While the ingredients in each "are pretty much the same", the ratios are different, he said.
"Simply Originals has a much lower level of sugar/carbs and calories than Chicha Limeña, while the presence of spices (cinnamon, cloves) is more forward in the Simply Originals product versus the subtle undertone of them in the Chicha Limeña brand. So it all comes down to appealing to the flavor profiles common to each target demographic."
However, both are "super-refreshing", packed with antioxidants, and contain less sugar than a lot of other soft drinks, said Varas.
“The Latino community drinks way too much soda, but they have very demanding palates and they won’t sacrifice taste for health, so I wanted to provide an alternative that has less sugar but isn’t full of sweeteners and chemicals.”
But once people taste it, they love it, so sampling is key
Set up in 2005 to sell beverages based on Peruvian classics to the North American market along with sister company Simply Originals, The Varas Group has had most success in New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and other markets in the north east with a high number of Peruvians, but has also gained momentum in Florida, Atlanta and North and South Carolina, said Varas.
While the 2010 census only lists just over 530,000 people in the US identifying themselves as Peruvian (click here, p3 ), sources coming out of Peru indicate that the actual number is closer to four times that, although "the Peruvian embassy and consulates here don’t really have the “number” on Peruvians living in the USA due to illegal status", said Varas.
However, regardless of which figure is more accurate, he is not just targeting people of Peruvian descent or even necessarily just the Hispanic community, and recognizes that different consumer groups need a different approach.
"Chicha Limeña and Simply Originals are targeted to two different consumer groups/customers/channels. We’ve debated how to position them many times and it's still something we're working on. But once people taste it, they love it, so sampling is key.”
Quinoa-based beverage to launch in March
Other products in The Varas Group's stable such as VitaLina Flaxseed (in original, mango, guava, pineapple, and green tea flavors), and VitaLina Maca (containing Maca root), also have a lot of potential as US consumers continue to experiment in the healthy beverages aisles, said Varas, who develops the brands, recipes and specifications for the products, which are bottled in the US by a co-packer.
“I’m developing a lot of other products, but the most exciting is probably a quinoa based drink we’re launching in March under the VitaLina brand, which I am hoping will be a big success.”