Co-founders Charlie Bowker and Darcy Ogston traveled to Bihar in northeastern India, bordering Nepal, to understand how locals farmed the ancient seed from the water-growing lotus flower.
An ancient snack
According to the researchers from the University of California, the lotus plant dates back almost 135 million years and has been cultivated in parts of China for at least 4,000 years.
India considers the flower sacred, according to Eco India, and locals commonly add the seeds (called Phool Mukhana) to their cooking. They also consuming the tuber (which purportedly tastes like sweet potato), the leaf and leaf stalk as vegetables.
The uptake is now moving closer to home, with Bowker telling BakeryandSnacks that Whole Foods named it one of its top food trends for 2019.
The duo learned the seed was an ‘incredibly sustainable’ crop, grown in water near other crops and fish.
Compared to corn or soy, for instance, lotus seeds do not require additional water other than the ponds and rivers in which they grow.
Native sources its supply of seeds from the farmers in Bihar; however, harvesting happens only once a year.
The snacks are also currently manufactured in India – dried, then heated in large cast-iron skillets, and finally popped using pressure.
Native has partnered with the Bihar Development Foundation UK, a nonprofit formed after monsoons decimated Southeast Asia, to evaluate suppliers to ensure high working standards.
The organization also provides health camps for farmers, which includes protective gear such as gloves and goggles.
Native donates a penny to the foundation for every pack of puffed lotus seeds sold.
Native Snacks was borne from the realization that consumers were “moving away from slightly more traditional snacks like crisps and popcorn, craving new and exciting, different snacks,” said Bowker, noting the rise of lentil curls and puffed chickpea snacks like Hippies.
“Consumers, too, are becoming incredibly conscious with the process of how things are grown or farmed.”
Native are currently ‘in conversations’ with FairTrade India to explore a possible avenue to certifying the lotus seed supply chain.
The popped lotus seeds clock in under 100 calories, are vegan, gluten-free and free from artificial flavors and preservatives, and are available in three variants, including Himalayan Pink Salt & Black Pepper, Jalapeno (with a hint of red chili, garlic, basil and kaffir lime) and Cheesy, which uses nutritional yeast to create the vegan-friendly flavor.
Bowker told us the duo landed on these combinations by taking a familiar flavor ‘to the next level.’
The partners also decided to use a lotus seed that is smaller than what the locals in Bihar would typically consume to achieve the ‘right level of crunch.’
Dreaming of going global
Native is confident its flagship product has ‘huge potential’ in the UK and export markets.
“Our whole idea behind Native is to find new and exciting plant-based snacks from lots of different countries around the world,” he said.
“Part of the challenge in being a discovery brand is you’ve got to keep ahead of what’s happening and ensure you’re keeping your eye on what’s happening next.”
Native’s puffed lotus seeds are available across the UK in select independent grocers and delis, including Sourced Market and As Nature Intended, for a RRP of £1.20 ($1.57) for a 22g bag.
Selfridges will launch the brand next month, and Bowker expects a wider retail rollout through the rest of the year.