Founder of the London-based start-up Supertreats, Virpi Venho-Jones, was inspired to create her own range of healthy snacks after noting a lack of suitable products following the birth of her son.
The range of bars uses "minimally processed" superfood ingredients such as chia seeds and blueberries for a nutritional boost.
But the bars' main health halo is down to the cocoa-free ingredient list, she says, which means they are free from the stimulants caffeine- and theobromine.
“Most kids love chocolate, but it’s simply not that good for them. An average 50 g bar of milk chocolate contains up to six teaspoons of refined sugar and the same amount of dark or raw chocolate contains the caffeine equivalent of a shot of espresso. Cocoa also contains substantial amounts of theobromine."
The energy spikes and crashes associated with caffeine are “even more pronounced in children due to their smaller bodies”, she adds, meaning carob makes for a good cocoa replacement.
Supertreats bars cannot call themselves chocolate – this term is protected by EU regulation, which stipulates that chocolate must contain cocoa – but the principle ingredient is cocoa butter with the chocolate-like flavour coming from organic carob powder.
As well as being free from stimulants, carob has additional nutritional benefits, such as calcium and potassium, and according to the United States Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database, a 100 g serving provides almost 40 g of fibre.
The bars are sweetened with coconut blossom nectar, which Venho-Jones says releases energy more slowly than refined sugar and contains inulin.
‘Carob for a new generation’
Carob (Ceratonia silique) is native to the Mediterranean region.
According to data from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), European countries are the biggest global producers of carob, with Portugal in the number one spot, growing over 40,000 tonnes in 2016, followed by Italy (around 29,000 tonnes) and Spain (26,000).
With a mildly sweet, rich taste, it is used in powdered, chip or liquid (syrup) form as an ingredient in baked goods and confectionery.
From a food industry perspective, however, carob’s most important function is as the water-soluble hydrocolloid, locust bean gum. Listed as E 410 in Europe, locust bean gum is used as a thickening and gelling agent by manufacturers.
Venho-Jones acknowledges that ‘healthy confectionery’ can be a difficult sell as chocolate is an indulgent category while healthy can be associated with a bad taste.
“It’s true that some ‘healthier’ snack or treat alternatives don’t always deliver on taste and certainly carob has previously had a reputation for being cocoa’s poor cousin. However, we set out to challenge that view and have reinvented carob for a new generation.”
A closer look
A 40 g bar retails for around £2.10 (€2.41) and the start-up currently offers three varieties: Silky Milky with carob and Madagascan vanilla; Merry Berry with carob and blueberry chunks; and Cheery Chia with carob, chia seeds and orange oil.
Ingredients: organic cocoa butter, organic coconut blossom nectar, organic whole milk powder, organic carob powder, organic chia seeds (5%), organic orange oil, organic Madagascan vanilla, emulsifier: sunflower lecithin.
Supertreats’ carob bars have the same “shine, snap and silky smooth texture” that one would expect from conventional Swiss milk chocolate, she told FoodNavigator.
“There’s certainly a fine line you need to balance when selling healthy indulgence. The challenge is particularly how to communicate about both indulgence and health benefits on the packaging so that it convinces people to pick up the product from the shelf.”
Double marketing challenge
On top of this, foods that are targeted towards children face a double challenge – appealing to both the parents, who are paying, and the kids, who are eating the products.
“You need to communicate the health benefits to parents, but at the same time the brand and packaging need to appeal to children too," says Venho-Jones. "That’s a challenge for a new brand, as we’re competing with many mainstream sweet treat brands but, unlike them, we don’t have the budget for heavyweight marketing campaigns that may appeal to kids.”
Since launching, however, Venho-Jones says the product has proven to have a much wider appeal than she initially expected, with "adults of all ages" buying the bars for themselves.
“More and more adults are becoming aware of the disruptive effects on their body and mind caused by not only refined sugar but also caffeine and increasing numbers of people have started to reduce or avoid caffeine containing food and drinks altogether, especially in the evenings.
“We believe great growth potential lies in adapting our brand to also target the rapidly growing number of adult consumers who are health-conscious and socially-aware.”
It currently has listings on Amazon, Ocado, WholeFoods Market and As Nature Intended as well as Spinneys supermarket in the UAE, and is looking to expand to Denmark, Germany and the US.
Venho-Jones said the London-based company was looking for equity investment to support its growth plans and had some “delicious” new product development in the pipeline, including a dairy-free, vegan bar and additional superfood ingredients.