Unilever enters organic snacks aisle via Growing Roots, plant-based snacks with a social mission: 'People want to vote with their wallets'

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever: "People want to choose products that do good, but they also want to see clearly how their purchases are contributing..."
Unilever: "People want to choose products that do good, but they also want to see clearly how their purchases are contributing..."
Unilever USA’s first foray into the organic snacks category – via plant-based clusters and bites under the Growing Roots brand - is underpinned by a social mission, with half of the profits to go to expanding urban farming initiatives in the US.

The organic and gluten free certified snacks, which hit stores this month, put their message of conscious capitalism front and center, with the wording ‘every purchase supports urban farms’​ written in bold on the front of pack, marketing director, foods, Ryu Yokoi told FoodNavigator-USA.

Our mission is to offer food that tastes good, does good and doesn’t cost the earth. ​People want to vote with their wallets and choose products that do good, but they also want to see clearly how their purchases are contributing."

Growing Roots​ was "inspired by a local initiative we started in New York City a couple of years ago about expanding access to nutritious food through urban farming," ​he explained. "It was really driven by our own employee engagement program.

“We have a public private partnership with the city of New York as part of its building healthy communities initiative​ and we’re also partnered with an organization called Green City Force​ which trains young people on urban farming and green economy jobs because we wanted to support the creation of urban farms in the city.”

He added: “Employees at our North American Headquarters have put in thousands of hours volunteering at the farms and our chefs have done cooking classes to show people how to utilize the organic product that they are growing, and it became really personal for our team, as it’s right in our backyard.

“People involved tell us they are cooking more and eating more vegetables so we really wanted to find a way to create a sustainable funding model so we can scale this up to something that can work across the country, not just in New York.”

Time will tell as to whether this is the start of something

Given the slim margins many smaller players operate with in order to retain an affordable price point without big economies of scale, however, is giving away half your profits a model many other companies could potentially emulate, or only something companies the size of Unilever could hope to sustain?

It’s early days, but the hope is that Growing Roots can be a win-win, said Yokoi.

“Time will tell as to whether this is the start of something, and this is a new model for us, but we need to find ways for these things to pay off for our business, for customers who buy the products and for communities we’re working with so we can build a sustainable model for the long term.”

growing-roots-cocoa
50% of the profits from growing roots will go to organizations that support urban farming in the US

If Growing Roots takes off, there are lots of organizations involved in urban farming initiatives across the country with which Unilever has started to forge partnerships, he said.

“We’ve started doing pilots Whole Kids Foundation​ putting edible gardens into schools in Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago, and we’ve also partnered with the Stone Barns Center​ for food and agriculture to help train teachers to explore ways to cook with their students and learn how to use local farms as a teaching tool. As we build Growing Roots as a business, we can build on these partnerships.”

Bold and adventurous flavor profiles

The snacks (MSRP $4.49/4oz bag) – which have a base of coconut or corn meal, coupled with on-trend ingredients including quinoa, flax, sesame and chia seeds – feature “bold and unique​” flavor profiles including coconut curry, maple bourbon, cocoa chipotle, and pineapple coconut rum, he said.

“They’ve got a really nice crunch and texture, but we’ve also tried to be very flavor forward with unique combinations of sweet and savory, and when you open the bag there is also a strong fragrant note.”

The snacks, which contain 2g protein, 2-3g fiber, and 5-7g sugar per serving, will roll out first in Shoprite stores this month, and later on Amazon.com and FreshDirect.com, he added.

“We're starting locally in New York City area where the urban farms are, and we'll also have a big push in e-commerce, and after that we'll grow our distribution from there."

Growing Roots​ will debut this month at Natural Products Expo West, Booth #N134

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