NEW YORK — Shane Emmett knows a hot ingredient trend when he sees one. Before the chia seed’s recent rise to supermarket stardom, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Richmond, Va.-based Health Warrior launched a line of snack bars with chia as the main ingredient.
Rich in fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids, chia has become a dietary darling in the natural and organic channel as an ingredient in snack chips, nut butters, pastas and pudding. Health Warrior’s flagship line of 100-calorie Chia Bars debuted in 2013 and is now sold in 10,000 stores nationwide. Varieties include coconut, chocolate peanut butter, acai berry, banana nut, apple cinnamon, coffee, mango, and dark chocolate cherry.
The company is currently launching a line of protein bars with 10 grams of protein and 190 to 210 calories per serving. Featuring a blend of chia, quinoa and pea crisp, varieties include dark chocolate coconut sea salt, honey almond, peanut butter cacao, and lemon goldenberry, “which is quickly becoming a crowd favorite,” Mr. Emmett said. The line took about a year to develop and is set to roll out nationally over the coming months.
“We like to think of it as the original Chia Bar’s older sister,” Mr. Emmett said.
During an interview with Food Business News at the Summer Fancy Food Show, held June 28-30 in New York, Mr. Emmett discussed the brand’s latest innovation, the challenges of health-driven product formulation and how his company spots the next hot ingredients.
Food Business News: What was the inspiration behind the new product line?
Shane Emmett: It was really based on customer demand for a clean, plant-based, bigger bar. We have a lot of people who have the Chia Bar in their purses or backpacks as that perfect little snack bar. We wanted to do something that was a little more substantial. If you forgot breakfast, it could really cover you.
And also (we wanted) to try to make it without any fake sugars, which you don’t see much of, and keep nutrient-dense, whole foods as the first ingredients, not the last ingredients (on the label). The first ingredient in this bar is a blend of chia, quinoa and oats.
What are the challenges of formulating a product with those nutrition credentials?
Mr. Emmett: It’s really hard to make what we call “radically convenient real food.” We went through a lot of variations and a lot of trial runs, but eventually we were able to do it. It’s an extruded bar, just like our original bar, and what that means is the ingredients are really just squished together, so we like to think it’s the closest you can be to real food as possible.
How did you come up with the four flavors?
Mr. Emmett: We did an internal survey and an external survey, and then we tried to look at some flavors that are really trending in the high-end natural food markets that you don’t hear much about yet. So that’s where goldenberry came from. It’s a really neat, unique flavor that we think is going to be a big deal a few years from now.
When you first launched, chia wasn’t the phenomenon it is now. How has that changed your efforts to educate consumers about the ingredient?
Mr. Emmett: We really thought from the beginning that we were going to have to tell everyone what chia seeds are.
What we like to say is, chia is not a fantasy. It’s not a cure-all. It’s a great paradigm of what a nutrient-dense whole food can be, and it happens to have properties that allow us to make shelf-stable food with it. If we tried to make a bar out of carrots and kale, it probably wouldn’t work out very well.
Chia happens to be neat in that respect. There are other things that are neat in that respect as well that are genuinely good for you.
Are you exploring those other ingredients as well?
Mr. Emmett: We have all kinds of exciting R.&D. going on.
We purposefully kept the name “chia” out of Health Warrior. But we did understand that as a new brand you have to go so deep before you have permission to sell your consumers innovative new products.
We’d like to do other lines; we’ve had to practice self-restraint, which has been a challenge, but we’ve managed to keep it pretty simple and keep focused, which is really the goal for the first three years.
Your original line of bars includes eight flavors. Are there plans to continue to expand on that line?
Mr. Emmett: We have some interesting flavor ideas and unique distribution models where we want to do some philanthropy with them. So we’re toying around with that a bit. But we’re hoping to have some true innovation in another 12 months as well.
Are there other food categories you envision Health Warrior entering?
Mr. Emmett: The neat thing is we think the name Health Warrior is extendable into a lot of different categories, but we really want to be deliberate about it and make sure we don’t go too far too fast.
How did you discover goldenberry and some of the other unique flavor ideas you have?
Mr. Emmett: We spend a lot of time in Whole Foods Market and top UNFI independent stores. We find that talking to consumers in those stores, aside from doing the desk-side research with the data, is a neat thing to identify the trends like chia before they actually explode.
There is a fine line between creating something familiar for consumers and innovating something so unique that’s not already out there. How do you approach that?Mr. Emmett: That’s the exact balance we’re always trying to find. That’s actually why we originally launched the Chia Bar because the thinking was, what is the American public so familiar with that (adding) a really novel, unique ingredient would not scare people away and be accessible? And the bar was the obvious answer.