Health-minded entrepreneurs fill gap in market for vegan, raw food snacks

A handful of entrepreneurs committed to healthier eating are filling a gap in the market for vegan and raw food snacks, writes Jeanette Wang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 9:20am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 5:19pm

After Calista Goh had surgery to remove a 6.5cm-long benign tumour on her intestinal wall in 2008, she found that she could hardly stomach any food.

A law school freshman at the University of Bristol at the time, she stumbled onto London's first raw vegan restaurant, Saf. Her meal there was the first after surgery that didn't bring pain, bloating or diarrhoea.

"The food was so good, I didn't think about meat," says Goh, 29, a Singapore native who admits to eating everything and anything in the past.

So inspired was she by her new plant-based diet that she went on to take raw vegan food preparation courses and worked at vegan cafes.

Armed with a law degree, at the end of 2011 she moved to Hong Kong to join her then-boyfriend. But she found it difficult to stick to her diet due to the lack of healthy options here. In forums online, she read of similar challenges others were facing.

Goh decided to ditch her law career and start her own raw vegan health food company, Anything But Salads. "Working as a lawyer would pay well, but after having my health issues, I realised that money wasn't everything," she says.

Initially offering food catering and delivery meals, the company last August moved into snack manufacturing. All the products are made by Goh in a small industrial kitchen at Shek Mun. Demand has been "incredibly good", she says, with bestsellers being the Cheesy Kale Crisps and Sicilian Pizza Flax Crackers.

In February, she had a booth at the Lohas Expo health foods trade show, which attracted many inquiries. "We're in talks with Japan Home, Watsons Group and Dairy Farm to sell our snacks," she says.

Goh's popular online store, has customers from Singapore, Beijing and even Canada.

Interest in raw vegan food has been picking up in Hong Kong in recent years. But while health food cafes had been sprouting up around the city, packaged snacks - convenient, portable and accessible - still were an untapped market. Brothers Stephen and James Costello realised this and decided to start Stephen James Organics in 2008.

"We saw that a lot of people ate a good diet, but when we really drilled down, we found out that they had a ridiculous snack regimen," says James. "So we thought, let's make the best snacks in the world."

In 2011, the brothers introduced their organic whole food bars made from pre-sprouted seeds and nuts in a facility in Macau. From being stocked at only a small health food store run by a friend, the bars eventually proliferated in major mainstream retail outlets.

"Sales have been good, up 100 per cent year on year since we started," says Stephen.

Hong Kong distribution rights for their products - which also includes pink Himalayan salt, volcanic pili nuts and Carazuc coconut flower sugar - has just been handed over to Classic Fine Foods, a local importer of luxury European dairy, meat, seafood and deli products. Stephen says this is a "great sign that raw health food snacks have become part of the mainstream realisation".

Increasingly, local snack products stand shoulder-to-shoulder with imports on supermarket shelves.

"There sure is a growing demand for local health food products," says Shima Shimizu, a raw food chef who started selling her own range of raw food snacks called Raweggie last August.

"People are aware it makes sense to buy and eat local. Local products are fresher and I think they taste better than those that have travelled for miles."

Shimizu works with Green Vitamin to make snacks such as flax crackers, kefir, kale chips and yogurt from a kitchen in Sha Tin. "The inspiration to make my own products was simply the demand," she says. "I was getting requests to sell these products.

"The variety in Hong Kong is not as much as in other countries, but the more support we get from local consumers, the more we will be able to produce. I'm sure we will be having more and more new players in the market as well."

Raw vegan chef Moises Mehl also started selling his Nood Food raw living snacks and ready meals last August at Pure Yoga studio in Central. His most popular items are raw granola and maca bars.

"There has been a growing awareness of health food snacks in Hong Kong over the past six years," says Mehl, who operates from a kitchen in Chai Wan. "In the beginning, there was no awareness of the benefits of such products and the way they were manufactured to be considered as raw and healthy."

The foundation of a raw food diet is the belief that food in its most natural state is at its healthiest, containing all the enzymes the body needs for digestion and nutrient absorption. When food is cooked, heat is said to destroy these enzymes and nutrients, and create toxins, and the body works harder to digest food.

In the early days, followers stuck to mainly greens, but they soon realised that good fats, oils and proteins are important, too. "If you ignore those, you're going to shrivel away," say the Costellos, who adopted raw foodism in the 1990s.

Nuts and seeds hence form a key part of a raw food diet. They are usually eaten pre-sprouted by soaking in water and then dehydrated in a special low-temperature oven.

This process is said to neutralise enzyme inhibitors that interfere with the body's absorption of proteins and nutrients, and encourage the production of beneficial enzymes, which increase the vitamin and mineral content of the nut or seed.

Because of the relatively tedious process for the average person to make his or her own raw food meals and snacks, raw foodies often turn to ready meals and packaged snacks.

Each bag of Goh's Rawnola, for example, takes about three days to make: buckwheat groats, almonds and pumpkin seeds are pre-sprouted overnight and combined with amber coconut nectar, dried cranberries, cinnamon, vanilla and Himalayan pink salt and left in the dehydrator for 48 hours. She has invested more than US$40,000 in her industry-standard dehydrator.

Goh studied raw cooking at the Matthew Kenney culinary school in Santa Monica and tweaks recipes to suit local tastes. "The Western products tend to be too salty or too sweet, or very heavy in oils. Cantonese cuisine is lighter and more delicate in flavour," she says.

Business has been so good that's she's set to expand: this month she will open an Anything But Salads store in Tai Ping Shan, where she'll sell not only packaged but also freshly made snacks, such as fermented nut cheeses, mycotoxin-free coffee, yogurt and superfood ice cream.


Raw power

Anything But Salads - vegan snacks

Lokali - Cafe at 82a Stone Nullah Lane, Wan Chai

Mana! Fast Slow Food - Vegan cafe at 92 Wellington Street, Central

Nood Food - Snacks and food bar at Pure Yoga, 2/F Asia Standard Tower, Central

Pure Swell - Superfood blended drinks

Rawthentic Food - Private dining, catering and cooking classes

Raweggie - Vegan snacks

Stephen James Organics - Whole food bars