Retailers sell more artisanal products using a wider array of fruits these days, but the category “hasn’t really changed much in 50 years,” claims Anna Peck, a senior manager at Blue Apron and self-described foodie who has been burning the midnight oil over the past couple of years as she has tried to get her own business off the ground.
20-25 calories, 2-3g sugar per serving
Most jams and preserves, says Peck, contain a lot of sugar, typically around 10-15g per serving – indeed, if you want to call a product ‘jam,’ it must contain at least 55% sugar by weight – and while there are some reduced and low sugar products out there, they still contain around 5g sugar/serving, while zero sugar options contain high intensity sweeteners that some consumers are looking to avoid.
Chia Smash from Oswald - by contrast - looks and functions much like jam, but has a very different nutritional profile, containing just 20-25 calories and 2-3g sugar per 20g serving, with an ultra-short and simple ingredients list: fruit, dates, chia seeds, and lemon juice.
The challenge – especially in an environment where sampling and demos are off the table - has been communicating this, says Peck, who has recently refreshed the packaging to highlight attributes consumers find most compelling.
Strawberry Chia Smash: 20 calories, 2g sugar/20g serving. Ingredients list: Strawberries, date syrup, chia seeds, lemon juice.
Smuckers Strawberry Jam: 50 calories, 12g sugar/20g serving. Ingredients list: Strawberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, fruit pectin, citric acid.
‘The lightbulb moment for consumers is no added sugar’
The original design – test launched in a handful of stores in New York in late 2019 - was modern and clean, but wasn’t popping on shelf or helping consumers understand what made Chia Smash different, says Peck, who now sells the product in independent stores in New York, Thrive Market, and direct to consumer. She also has an online wholesale business (via Faire).
“We launched just before COVID-19 hit and we were doing demos and talking to people pretty much every weekend, and the lightbulb moment for consumers is no added sugar; it’s the main reason why some people avoid the category.
“So on the new packaging [rolling out now] we highlight 'no sugar added.'* We are also trying to promote the fact that it’s not just for ‘bread and breakfast’ occasions [eg. toast, PB&J etc]; it has a unique texture and works really well in oatmeal, yogurt pancakes, dressings and other recipes.”
The chia seeds (which are referenced on the front of the original packaging) are also less prominent in the new design, she adds, noting that while they deliver both nutrition, structure and texture to the product (they hold all the other ingredients in suspension as they gel when hydrated), they are not the primary purchase driver for consumers.
“We're looking to shake up the outdated and sugar-filled jelly aisle and create super easy wins with big health impacts in daily diets." Anna Peck, founder Oswald
US retail sales of shelf-stable fruit spreads, jams and jellies rose 14.8% in 2020 vs flat sales in 2019, 2018
So are consumers looking for new options in the jams and spreads aisle, and what’s the size of the prize?
SPINS data shows the jams & jellies category has been somewhat sleepy in recent years, with flat (+0.3%) US retail sales of shelf-stable fruit spreads, jams and jellies in 2018 and 2019.
However, COVID-19 gave the segment a significant boost in 2020 as consumers stayed home, with sales up a healthy 14.8% to $1.18bn, sparking renewed interest and higher traffic to the segment, says Peck, who is gearing up to raise her first round this year as she seeks to build distribution.
“We were in a lot of smaller, independent stores that were hit harder in the first few weeks of the pandemic, and we had this stalling period in the business, but we had started to build relationships with retailers like Thrive Market and Whole Foods before COVID-19, so once things started to stabilized at the end of the summer, and by September, buyers were much more open to hear from smaller brands, and we feel like there’s a lot of untapped potential.”
*Asked whether the date syrup (the second ingredient) counted as added sugar for the purposes of food labeling, Peck said: "The way date syrup is produced (heated with water, blended & strained to remove insoluble pieces), maintains the basic properties of the fruit it started with. The beginning set of dates used to make it has a very similar nutritional make up to the end result, it’s not concentrated / boiled down / removing moisture. Given all this, our food scientist felt it did not fall within the FDA's classification of being an added sugar."
'Don't call it jam...'
While you’ll see a number of recipes for ‘chia jam’ online, it’s a fairly new concept in the CPG world, says Peck (World of Chia has a product on the market, although it has more sugar than Chia Smash), which presents some marketing challenges (what do you call it, for starters?)
While Chia Smash looks like jam, meanwhile, you can’t call it jam, which must contain at least 55% sugar by weight. Available in three variants: Strawberry, wild blueberry, raspberry, it contains four ingredients: Fruit, dates, chia seeds, and lemon juice. Retail prices range from around $6.99 to $8.99.
Peck was one of several founders selected to pitch at the Startup CPG* pitch event in November 2020, which featured entrepreneurs selling everything from keto mug cakes and lower-sugar kids' lemonade to pickled lupini beans, plant-based cheese crackers and instant miso soups.
Startup CPG is a new organization that promotes and supports startups, founded by Daniel Scharff.