Just slapping ‘gluten-free’, ‘all-natural’ or ‘no artificial flavors/colors/preservatives’ on your snacks doesn’t make them healthy, and consumers are “wising up” to this, claims Breen, who left his role as VP of sales at Hain Celestial in 2010, launched his first Way Better tortilla-chips in 2011, and is now in 20,000+ stores from Walmart to Whole Foods, with ACV of around 90% in the natural channel and c.35% in mainstream grocery.
Red fife and spelt 'pita-ahh' chips have been equally successful, and new barley crackers will hit the market in six weeks.
“We are careful to make sure that our product could be classified as natural and we avoid ingredients that retailers like Whole Foods and PCC are very strict about," Breen told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We’ve also got gluten-free and non-GMO certifications. But the actual term ‘all-natural’ from a consumer standpoint to me is not really important. What really matters is nutrient density."
OK you took gluten out. Good for you. But what are you left with? A product that has no nutrition
He adds: “Companies have been pretty good at eliminating stuff. It’s like some of the gluten-free guys. OK you took gluten out. Good for you. But what are you left with? A product that has no nutrition. It would be better if you took the gluten out but made better choices with the grains you used instead. And for gluten-free consumers with absorption issues, that’s really important.
“Consumers want to see what you are putting into the product as well as what isn’t in there. So we’re a better for you product using real ingredients such as sprouted black beans, flaxseed, broccoli seed, kale seed, chia seed, and quinoa.”
Conventional as well as ‘natural’ retailers, meanwhile, have really bought into the Way Better Snacks proposition because they recognize that the kinds of products that used to have niche appeal are now gaining traction in mainstream channels more rapidly than ever before, says Breen.
“I remember [while at Hain Celestial] trying to convince retailers like Safeway to devote half an aisle to natural products. But now, buyers know that products like this are driving growth in the category, although execution is still a challenge. I also think it’s less about ‘natural snacks’ now than better-for-you snacking."
Consumers don’t necessarily understand why sprouted is better, but they know it’s a good thing
The fact that the seeds in Way Better Snacks are sprouted (where the germination process is started by adding moisture, and then halted just after the ‘sprout’ begins to grow by drying the seeds again) is not the sole purchase driver, but is a key part of his brand’s appeal, says Breen, who bought BioEssential Botanicals, the Canadian firm that was supplying his sprouted ingredients, in May.
“We did a nine-month qualitative and quantitative research project with the Natural Marketing Institute that also involved focus groups and found that almost a third of natural snacks consumers were interested in sprouted grains and seeds, and 20% of the general population, which was quite a bit higher than we anticipated.
“Consumers don’t necessarily understand why sprouted is better, but they think ‘Hey, sprouting, that's good for me’; they were just really responsive to our brand and to our products right from the start.”
But is sprouted better?
According to Breen - who retained the services of BioEssential’s CEO and sprouting guru Dennis Barker following the acquisition - the nutrients in germinated seeds and grains are more bio-available because the sprouting process eliminates or reduces components such as phytic acid which are designed to lock in the nutrients and stop the seed germinating before it’s planted.
Tests conducted by third parties also show that the sprouted seeds - which are used as ingredients in Breen’s snacks after being gently dried - are also higher in certain vitamins and minerals, beta carotene, biotin, choline and folic acid (depending on the seed/grain), and have higher ORAC scores, because they naturally increase during the germination process.
But even if this all checks out, doesn’t baking the chips, and then flash-frying them kill off half of the nutrients anyway?
It’s certainly true that processing has an effect, but many vitamins and minerals are not heat sensitive, says Breen, who notes that “many of the benefits brought about by the activation of enzymes such as the elimination of enzyme inhibitors, increased vitamin, increased antioxidant levels and their bioavailability remains after cooking”.
Meanwhile, processing a sprouted food will still yield superior nutrition than processing an un-sprouted counterpart, he observes.
Despite our success there are still loads of people that have never even heard of us
But did he have any idea when he started out just how successful the brand would be in such a short space of time?
Says Breen: “Every entrepreneur will sit on the couch at the beginning and visualize where they want to be in three years and they have this trajectory, this is where I’ll be in year one, year two and so on. But the reality is usually quite a bit different from that.
“But for us, what we were fantasizing about actually happened, which is pretty unusual. We were getting commitments from marquee retailers before we’d even shipped products.”
So what’s the game plan for the next three years, and does it involve acquisitions?
Most likely not, says Breen. “There is still so much runway on our current proposition in snacks. Despite our success, there are still loads of people that have never even heard of us.
“But we are looking into some related snack categories and we’re very excited about the launch of our new barley crackers, which are shipping in around six weeks. We’re also looking at some very exciting next-generation ingredients.”