BeyondBrands: 'The future of the natural products industry is about conscious products. Natural is almost so yesterday it’s embarrassing...'

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

BeyondBrands co-founders Marci Zaroff and Eric Schnell: 'Millennials want brands to live their values'
BeyondBrands co-founders Marci Zaroff and Eric Schnell: 'Millennials want brands to live their values'

Related tags Whole foods Brand management

While the word ‘natural’ still appears on the label of 11% of new food and beverage introductions in the US according to Mintel data, brands that are part of the so-called natural foods industry need to embrace a new form of conscious capitalism if they want to stay at the cutting edge, says BeyondBrands co-founder Eric Schnell.

Schnell, who co-founded organic green tea brand Steaz and the I AM brand of liquid supplements and aromatherapy mists, has worked with scores of innovative brands in recent years as founder of the MetaBrand consultancy (which he launched in 2010 and left in late 2015).

In early 2016, Schnell and his wife Marci Zaroff - also a serial entrepreneur - launched BeyondBrands​, a full-service consultancy designed to help entrepreneurial brands in food, beverage, fashion, beauty, supplements/nutraceuticals, and cannabis realize their potential.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after welcoming three former Whole Foods Market executives - Derek Sarno, Chad Sarno and Errol Schweizer – to the BeyondBrands team, Schnell said that consumers want to buy from brands that truly live their values, so they can feel good about their purchases and enact social change via the choices they make as consumers (click HERE​).

And being ‘natural’ is just one small part of that, he said: “We all still talk about the natural products industry, but it’s not really about ‘natural,’ anymore, it’s organic, it’s fair trade, it’s gluten-free, it’s s many things.”

And with large food companies increasingly ditching ‘artificial ingredients’ and adopting more sustainable sourcing practices, the ‘natural foods’ industry has to move into new territory, he said.

 “To me the future of the natural products industry is about conscious products​. Natural is almost so yesterday it’s embarrassing, today brands have to think about being a quadruple bottom-liner, or a B-corp, or a good corporate steward, a good corporate citizen, you’ve got to be all these things beside just offering ‘clean’ ingredients. And our job is about helping the young brands of today market themselves with all that in mind.”

Whole Foods San Francisco

New BeyondBrands team members include Derek Sarno, Chad Sarno and Errol Schweizer, who will co-chair its food, beverage and conscious cannabis verticals.           

Schweizer was formerly VP Grocery at Whole Foods Market, while Chad Sarno held leadership positions from 2009-2013 including Global Healthy Eating Coordinator, Senior Culinary Educator and Global Media Spokesperson for Healthy Eating.  

His brother Derek – formerly Whole Foods’ Global Executive Chef of R&D - is now working with Chad on the launch of the ‘Wicked Healthy Cookbook’ and preparing to unveil a new brand called Wicked Healthy. 

Not everyone can source their ingredients from indigenous tribes and save the rainforest...

Now some brands very clearly embody a ‘conscious capitalism’ approach – such as guayusa leaf fueled beverage RUNA​, where the mission and brand are intertwined (the more bottles RUNA sells, the more it helps guayusa growers in Ecuador), while rivals cannot easily copy what they are doing because the founders spent years building a supply chain around a core ingredient.

RUNA bottles new
Eric Schnell: "RUNA was ‘authentic’ from day one."

Other mission-driven brands such as This Bar Saves Lives​ (strapline: Buy a bar, feed a child) also come to mind.

But what if you don’t give starving children access to life-saving nutrition or source your ingredients from Amazonian farmers?

“We talk about five boxes or five P’s – passion, purpose, people, planet and prosperity – and a brand like RUNA obviously ticks each one,” ​explained Schnell.

 “RUNA was ‘authentic’ from day one. But not everyone can source their ingredients from indigenous tribes and save the rainforest, so our goal of conscious products to help us identify how many of the P’s can you be authentically.”

Baobab… Over hyped or worthy of all the attention?

Businesses/entrepreneurs BeyondBrands is working with include Bonga (chews and powders utilizing the African superfood baobab); chaga mushroom RTD tea brand ChugaChaga​; Yogi Cameron​, ​who selected BeyondBrands to help conceive and commercialize a new line of ayruvedic consumer products as well as consult on fund raising; and sparkling, cannabinoid-fueled botanical tea brand Loft​, added Schnell.


“Bonga ​[which means gratitude in Zulu] is a really exciting brand founded by Nancy Nehoray and Mary Grace that have created a supply chain that gives back to women in Africa [10% of profits go to a foundation​ they set up to support baobab harvesters and to protect baobab trees]. I’ve been watching baobab for five years now and the reason why the category has not taken off is that people have just been putting it in products as another ingredient, instead of building a whole brand around it with easy to access products, which is what Bonga is all about.  

"You typically need three leading brands to create a new category and I think Bonga is going to be one of them.”

Novel vegan meat alternatives

Schnell is also very focused on plant-based foods and beverages, particularly vegan meat alternatives, and is collaborating with one private equity fund on “a very disruptive vegan plant-based meat alternative brand.”

He added: “It’s extremely exciting as it’s a white space, it’s a category that the other chicken and beef alternatives aren’t addressing yet, so we’re talking about a completely new category.”

He is also looking at innovative ingredients suppliers in the animal product alternatives space as well as finished products brands: “We are interested in innovative processing and technologies.”

And cultured meat is also on the menu, he said: “If it gets people off factory farming and it’s more humane, I’m totally interested, while sustainability is also a huge push for us.”

Meal kit category is ‘on fire’

Finally, direct-to-consumer meal kit and fresh prepared meal delivery services are also an area of interest, says Schnell, who acknowledges that the costs - and risks - are high, but says the explosive growth in the market just demonstrates how many consumers want to prepare meals with fresh ingredients but lack the time and energy to do what it takes to make this happen on a regular basis.   

“This category is on fire. I’ve got a friend down in Florida that runs DeliverLean​ and I’ve watched them grow 1000% in the last six years delivering fresh prepared meals to people homes. It’s on fire, on the go fresh prepared, gourmet, and I love this category.”

Beyond Brands landscape

BeyondBrands​: There are 14 co-founders at New York-based Beyond Brands, each of whom has an equity stake, but the business can also tap into a ‘collective’ of 70+ entrepreneurs, consultants and industry experts to assist clients.

While BeyondBrands can put clients in touch with a series of angel and institutional investors, it has also taken equity stakes in several early stage brands directly, says Eric Schnell, who launched the business in early 2016 with his wife Marci Zaroff, who co-founded the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York, followed by Under the Canopy, a sustainable apparel, home and spa products brand, and MetaWear, an organic, sustainable fashion manufacturer.  She is also a board member of the Organic Trade Association.

While there are lots of consultancies – and an increasing number of incubators – targeting early stage food companies these days, BeyondBrands stands out because it is run by people that have created, grown and exited successful consumer brands, and because it offers a one-stop-shop service for clients spanning everything from business development, branding, packaging, and design to product R&D, in-house lab formulation, operations and management, marketing, sales, and distribution, says Schnell. 

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