Pep & Lekker’s clean label answer to processed vegan food: ‘I was horrified by the number of ingredients I’d never heard of’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Pep & Lekker offers minimally-processed vegan snacking
Pep & Lekker offers minimally-processed vegan snacking

Related tags vegan Snack healthy snacking

UK start-up Pep & Lekker launched in 2016 in response to the overly processed nature of vegan alternatives on the market. Three years on, we hear from co-founder Susan Gafsen on her motivation for starting the business and where she sees the market moving.

Pep & Lekker is billed as a ‘premium-leaning brand’ that ‘values health and convenience in equal measure’. The company produces seed snacks that it says are ‘packed’ with fibre and protein and aim to solve the ‘tricky problem’ of how to snack healthily and reduce reliance on sugar.

For co-founder Susan Gafsen the primary inspiration for the business was witnessing her vegan son’s unhealthy diet. “I was shocked by how much vegan food was processed and then when I started to read back-of-pack I was horrified by the numbers of ingredients that I’d never heard of,”​ she recalled.

Seed snacks were not Pep & Lekker’s initial focus. The fledgling company first dabbled in soups, securing listings in Ocado and Whole Foods Market. But the ‘very hot’ summer of 2018 put pay to this, when sales ‘plummeted’.

It was at this point that Pep & Lekker decided to turn its attention to seed snacks ‘due to the seasonal nature of soups and cost of chilled production and distribution’, Gafsen explained. The food entrepreneurs devised three flavours of seed snacks, a cracker-like product, that were picked up by Ocado, Planet Organic and As Nature Intended.

Pip & Lekker soups
Pep & Lekker's range of vegan soups ©Pep & Lekker

Nutritious and tasty vegan food

Pep & Lekker is focused on developing vegan foods that also pack a powerful nutrition punch. According to Gafsen, many of the vegan foods currently on the market – which may lean on salt, fat or sugar to provide appealing flavours – are ‘not good enough’. This is where Pep & Lekker differentiates.

“One of our key drivers is to produce vegan food that tastes great and is nutritionally beneficial. There is still a great deal of vegan food that is processed or loaded with sugar and fats to make it tasty and this simply isn’t good enough. If you are vegan or on a gluten free diet you shouldn’t have to compromise your health and wellness.”

But while Pep & Lekker firmly backs nutritious food, for Gafsen this is not about calorie counting. “I’m not too focused on calories as I think it’s more about eating the ‘right food’ and if you reduce your reliance on sugar, and salt for taste you can develop completely different taste buds. You can enjoy food so much more and find ‘indulgence’ in so many plant-based and low sugar or salt alternatives,”​ she claimed.

The company’s offering – which Gafsen would describe as ‘minimally processed’ – also feeds into the mounting consumer backlash against foods that are views as ultra-processed. “Most of our production is done by hand and we use all-natural ingredients,”​ Gafsen stressed.

‘Small brands are taking the lead’

When it comes to plant-based innovation, Gafsen believes that small, innovative brands are outperforming both large established players and private label suppliers

“I think small brands are definitely taking the lead as they have the agility and daring do to take the next big stride - even sacrifice ‘bottom line’ from time to time.”

She has seen the benefits of being a small brand first-hand and highlighted that this has proven and advantage when it comes to speed to market and innovation.

“Being a small brand, we were able to be agile, quickly making step change improvements following consumer or buyer feedback. We had some feedback that our seed snacks were a bit dry on their own so we added chicory root fibre (this also helps with gut health as it’s a source of inulin). To enable our seed snacks to be more tasty on their own (rather than needing hummus or nut butter) we increased the natural flavourings.

“Our previous recipes were just below the thresholds for low sugar and high protein so we reduced the apple puree and added rice protein so that we could achieve the high levels. Our old recipes did not include nuts, and were loaded with seeds anyway, so it was an easy adjustment for us to make to remove ‘sesame seed’ and make them allergy-free.

“We’ve had fantastic feedback from the new recipes and our sales have increased by over 200%. We are still waiting to list the new flavours on Ocado."

Pep & Lekker seed snacks 2
Pep & Lekker's seed snacks are certified by the Vegan Society ©Pep & Lekker

This responsive approach to the innovation process also enabled Pep & Lekker to expand its portfolio to include sweet as well as savoury options. The new products, Gasfen believes, will expand the appeal of the seed-based crackers to a younger audience.

She elaborated: “The sweet proposition was again in response to customer feedback as many prefer a sweet rather than savoury profile but also to open our seed snacks up to our younger audience. Many parents are looking to reduce their children’s reliance on sugar. Bear in mind that many well-intentioned healthy children’s snacks are fruit-based and foster a sugar habit.”

Standing out in a crowded market

Gafsen said that Pep & Lekker’s proposition is ‘genuinely unique’ thanks to its ‘nutritional prowess and allergy-free identity’.

She did concede that the healthy segment is something of a crowded market in which to operate. “There are so many brands in the ‘healthy plant-based snack’ category,”​ Gafsen noted. “Graze are justifiably the market leader and then Bounce, Ape Snacks, Deliciously Ella… to name but a few. With this category growing 20% per year, it’s not surprising that there are now so many bandwagon jumping brands invading this space.”

But Pep & Lekker remains unconcerned: “It’s not an issue, more of an invaluable necessity that keeps us on our toes.”

Looking to the brand’s future, Gafsen said there is ‘a lot’ still to do in seed snacks. But that doesn’t mean soups are permanently off the menu.

“We have got a lot planned for our seed snacks before we move on, but one day we’ll revisit our soups because we’ve some amazing recipes waiting in the wings with fantastic nutritional credentials – and I miss them.”

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