KANSAS CITY — A little-known, Midwest-grown berry is poised to become the next big superfruit. Boasting immunity boosting benefits, aronia is the star ingredient in a line of wellness beverages offered by Kansas City-based Tohi Ventures. Emerging research, new innovations and brand partnerships are expected to expand consumer awareness in the year ahead, said Shari Coulter Ford, co-founder and chief executive officer.
Historically used for medicinal purposes, the aronia berry packs high levels of antioxidants and anthocyanins, which are linked to lower blood pressure and reduced disease risk. Plant compounds found in the fruit include flavonoids, which have a positive impact on cognition, according to research cited by the company.
Ms. Ford and co-founder Elma Hawkins, PhD, drew inspiration from successful single-ingredient business models such as POM Wonderful, LLC, the pioneers of pomegranate juice as a trendy health ingredient. Research led the pair to the aronia berry several years ago as an untapped market opportunity.
“I found all this clinical academic research about the magical health benefits of aronia because of its unique plant compound composition,” Ms. Ford said. “But then, you search for what consumer products have aronia in them, and there were none. That was the lightbulb moment to say, ‘Here’s this unique, native-to-North America superfood that’s totally under-commercialized yet has this growing awareness. There’s this core of growers right here in the Midwest.’ It was a perfect opportunity to say, ‘This is it. This is the ingredient we want to build this platform around.’”
Tohi’s first product line is a range of ready-to-drink, non-carbonated beverages that are lightly sweetened with monk fruit. Varieties include original, blackberry raspberry, ginger lime and dragon fruit. The products are available in about 500 retail outlets and a number of online platforms that were added last year.
“We’re trying to do consumer education around a new ingredient, so we didn’t want to hide the berry in an energy bar or granola or something like that,” Ms. Ford said. “That would not have helped us in terms of building consumer awareness for a unique new ingredient. A ready-to-drink beverage seemed like the best way to showcase and get a first product in market.”
Over the past year, the team at Tohi has focused on new product development. The brand plans to launch carbonated soft drinks and single-serve powdered beverage mixes featuring aronia berry. The stick pack formulations also contain additional functional ingredients to aid in digestive health, vitality and recovery, Ms. Ford said. Tohi is exploring additional opportunities for aronia berries, including gummy supplements.
“Consumer research shows that millennials and Gen Z prefer their supplements in the form of gummies,” Ms. Ford said. “Aronia is a perfect application for this.”
Another possibility is offering aronia powder as a colorant to manufacturers of meat alternatives, she said.
Interest in ingredients associated with immune health has exploded over the past year, supercharging demand for elderberry.
“We get compared a lot to elderberry, which primarily comes from Europe, and there has been a shortage of elderberry,” Ms. Ford said. “We have had inquiries from people looking for alternatives to elderberry for that reason.”
Research underway at the University of Connecticut is exploring the effects of aronia supplementation on human performance and resilience to stress. Tohi also announced a partnership with Brightseed, a San Francisco startup that uses artificial intelligence to study plant compounds. The collaboration will help predict the health benefits of the small molecules in aronia berries.
“We hope that will help us in how we message to consumers, but I think it will also inform product development, where we should be focusing with this science, around the types of products and making sure that validates what we’re thinking about the best and highest use for aronia-based products,” Ms. Ford said.
Additionally, the brand has forged partnerships with professional and collegiate athletes to elevate aronia’s profile.
For all its purported benefits, consumers may question why they’ve never heard of the aronia berry, which has a drying, sophisticated taste similar to wine, Ms. Ford said. One reason is a fragmented supply chain. Tohi sources from a number of small growers, Ms. Ford said. But that may soon change.
“With our success, we are finding growers who want to put serious resource and money behind it,” she said. “I think it’s finally its time.”