“Roasted pinto beans deliver the same value proposition as nuts: high protein, quick, convenient and portable but with a better nutritional profile,” says Liz Myslik, CEO at Fresca Brands and chief “bean” at Snack Out Loud. “Crunchy Bean Snacks are tasty, portable, grown here in USA and a sustainable crop. They’re the perfect foundation for a snack category that we believe will continue to grow.”
Myslik leads the team that developed the bean-based snack and Snack Out Loud brand within Fresca Foods, a 20-year-old Colorado-based contract manufacturer and investor in second-stage natural and organic snack brands (which include Justin’s Nut Butter and Plum Organics).
The nut analog
The brand leaned heavily on the bean expertise of researchers at nearby Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences to formulate Crunchy Bean Snacks.
“We looked at soy and other plant-based protein sources but were uninspired until we found the bean,” Myslik says. “We worked with the researchers to understand the health benefits of beans and which varieties deliver the best benefits. We also went to school on the best way to cook the beans to get to process we have today.”
Crunchy Bean Snacks offer the same amount of protein per 35-gram serving as almonds, with around half the calories (150), half the fat (6 g) and twice the fiber (7 g). The gluten-free, non-GMO snacks are formulated with locally grown pinto beans that are roasted with sunflower oil and then mixed with natural seasonings such as sea salt and garlic powder.
The team opted for familiar instead of “funky” when selecting the five flavors—tomato basil, sea salt, ranch, jalapeno cheddar and smoky chipotle BBQ—looking above all else to make pinto beans as approachable as nuts, Myslik says.
The initial formula contained two additional types of beans: myacoba and black, which were phased out following extensive consumer testing. For one, pinto delivers (marginally) superior protein and fiber on a gram for gram basis, compared to the other two. But the ultimate deal breaker for the other two bean varieties was their lack of snackability.
“When we roasted the other two types, they got to be a very small size. We want to deliver on the nut analog, a similar size to a peanut or almond,” Myslik says.
7-Eleven distribution ‘proves there’s a market for healthy snacking’
It took just six months from developing the concept to rolling out Crunchy Bean Snacks in January 2014, which Myslik attributes to Fresca’s “grassroots” approach of working closely with retailers such as Whole Foods as well as consumers.
“We started with retailers and consumers right here at home,” she says. “We started with Whole Foods on the retail side to bring the product into stores. We also spent a lot of time in front of consumers to understand where to merchandise, feedback on seasoning, packaging, how consumers used the product, learn what people liked and how to do better—whether through telling our story better or explaining the benefits in a more meaningful way.”
Crunchy Bean Snacks are now sold in about 200 stores throughout the west representing a mix of retail channels—from natural foods stores to mainstream supermarkets and even convenience store giant 7-Eleven. Myslik expects to add “many hundreds more” stores in the coming year, noting that the goal was always to be in the mass market.
“For us, it was important from a mission and value standpoint to deliver snacks to the already healthy food consumer, but we also wanted to prove to ourselves and the world that you don’t have to be a yoga mom to want to eat healthy,” she says. “Folks shopping at 7-Eleven, which generally sells indulgent snacks, are buying our product. We’re proud of that. It proves there’s a market for healthy snacking and that we achieved our goal of making taste first.”
A sustainable future
Another big part of the mass appeal and viability of beans as a snack category is the inherent sustainability of beans as a crop—as they naturally introduce nitrogen back to the soil, Myslik says.
“They’re a natural fertilizer and improve yield for other crops. The bean is a virtuous circle in terms of the benefits to itself, our bodies and the earth. So we’re passionate about bringing that to different snack categories.”
Not only that, but introducing beans as a finished snack removes the time- and labor-intensiveness that has put so many consumers off from making them at home (even despite their affordability).
“Most people are only getting 20% of the legume nutrition they need on a daily basis,” Myslik says. “And part of that is because it takes hours to soak and cook beans at home. We’re proud to make beans snackable and easy to eat while also delivering on taste.”
The next set for a bean takeover? Innovation- and inspiration-starved puffed snacks, Myslik says. Snack Out Loud rolled out Power Puffs, a puffed bean and brown rice snack, at Expo West this month with the goal of injecting a little variety and better nutrition to the category.
“Existing puffed corn snacks—while free from a lot of fat and other bad things—are usually free from a lot of good things, too,” she says. “We created a puffed snack with beans and brown rice to deliver a complete amino acid profile; plus the brown rice and beans create a light, airy snack that appeals to adults and kids.”
Flavors such as sweet tangy BBQ, sea salt and vinegar, and white cheddar with organic cheese (designated “Boom!”, “Pow!” and “Crunch!”) offer exciting options beyond the standard “cheese” variety. Outfitted in vintage comic book-style packaging, Power Puffs will particularly appeal to parents “who often look to puffs as a convenient, nut-free snack,” Myslik says.
And for all those secretly wondering: “All our snacks are toot-free,” Myslik laughs. “People do ask.”