As a health-conscious vegan, Stephen Costello rarely gets snacks from supermarket shelves. But the long-time Hong Kong resident was shocked when he dropped into a shop a few years ago to buy some energy bars for his young son Sam to nibble on during a flight. He found that the selection was mostly junk.
"I couldn't find any bars that I would give to my son after I read the packaging labels," Costello says. Most of the energy bars he found were essentially candy, packed with sugar and cheap filler so that they could be sold in bulk for bigger profits, Costello says.
That was when he thought about creating his own bars for Sam. Together with his younger brother James, Stephen Costello started trying out different recipes at home. Their kitchen experiments have turned into a much larger project: in 2008, they set up a company, Stephen James Organics, to supply healthy, energy-filled foods in convenient packages.
Both dentists, the Costellos came to Asia in the 1980s. They say they have seen the health of many children deteriorating in Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand, where they also spent a considerable time.
"We found a lot of reasons for kids' health becoming poorer. But of course, everybody knows that kids are eating more junk food. When we started looking at various foods, we realised that some items people think of as healthy are not. People are guided by the information that they get in advertising, which isn't a very good source."
The brothers began researching which foods were really healthy for people. They tapped into Chinese medicinal concepts, in which they have long held an interest, including the theory of five elements or phases as a guide to maintaining balance.
Their research led them to adopt the ancient practice of pre-sprouting raw nuts and seeds. This entails soaking them in water until just before they germinate. After that, they are combined to make various healthy snacks.
"The ancient Chinese have many longevity techniques. This is one of the powerful ones that enabled them to survive many winters, because they were keeping a lot of energy-giving nuts and seeds," Costello explains.
"These are soaked until they are ready to pop a sprout out. Different times are needed for different types of nuts and seeds. The energy inside is at its fullest then, and that's the point when you capture it [by dehydration]," Costello continues.
It took two years of trial and error to develop snack bars that were ready for market. "When we first tried to do it ourselves, it was a mess," Costello says. Happily, they found their chef in one of the assistants at their clinic, who turned out to have a real knack for food.
"We discovered that she had a particular talent for culinary things. We tell her what we would like in the bar, and she takes the idea and comes up with something lovely."
Even so, there were many failed attempts before they came up with some winning combinations. Among the spectacular flops was a tiramisu bar, which served as a lesson on how careful they had to be about sourcing their ingredients.
"We thought we were on to a real winner. We've got coffee and chocolate, and there are a lot of people who love tiramisu," says Costello. Unfortunately, the bar they made using an organic coffee from Thailand wound-up tasting like socks. Worse, the batch was found to contain various moulds and fungi. ("We send all our bars for mould, bacteria and fungus testing to make sure they're safe," he says.)
They later realised that the organic coffee beans had not been properly stored in transport. "We realised that we had to be careful. So we threw out the idea of the tiramisu bar and never went back to it."
Stephen James Organics now has a workshop in Macau with more than 20 employees. The pre-sprouting takes a day, and dehydrating takes two.
The drying has to be done at a low temperature so it takes a while. To retain the vitality of the pre-sprouted seeds, James Costello explains, ovens are maintained at about 50 to 60 degrees Celsius and so the heat never rises to a point where the bars become cooked,
"The dehydration has to be even, steady and balanced," he says. "It's got to be hot enough to kill bacteria, but slow enough to leave the enzymes alive. The problem with cooking is that it knocks all the enzymes out of the food, and these are its life force. It also changes proteins and oils that would otherwise be pristine."
Pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, bran and walnuts are all processed in the same way, and made into bars with different benefits. The range of whole-food bars has expanded from the Smart Bar - packed with walnuts and omega-3 rich flax seeds - and the Brownie Bar to include the Berry Bar, Beauty Bar and Apple Pie Bar.
Recognising that most children love something sweet, they used carazuc - a sweetener derived from coconut flower nectar - in their bars, as a much healthier alternative to white sugar, which gives them a hyperactive spike.
The Brownie Bar uses raw cocoa mixed with carazuc for flavour. This is healthier than regular chocolate. "Chocolate has got great antioxidants, but when it is made into a bar, it has been heated to a such high temperature, and combined with so much milk and sugar, it's no longer healthy," he says.
The duo have even come up with pizza and veggie sushi bars for those who prefer savoury snacks. But as much as the brothers try to make their bars tastier, it may be hard for the products to compete against the number of highly flavoured crisps and chocolates on the market. That's why they have created more attractive packaging with cartoon characters.
The Costello brothers are also adding different products to their catalogue to appeal to more consumers. One new item is pili nuts. A creamy, buttery nut from the Philippines, it makes for a delicious party snack. It's available at several cinemas, as an alternative to the usual popcorn. The pili nuts come in an original version, as well as a cocoa-flavoured one. A chilli-flavoured nut will roll out soon. The company also plans to launch an organic drink in the summer.
Although being organic is one of the selling points of their products, the Costellos are careful not to abuse a buzzword that may confuse consumers.
"One thing we identified early on is that we need to be careful about using the word 'organic' to mean that it's always good for you. There are people out there who are making organic cola and organic potato chips, things which we would not consider healthy. The message our company sends is that we create healthy food for people."
"It all comes down to what constitutes healthy food," Costello adds. "Organic can be a way to bring healthy food to a menu, but it's not the only way. The dialogue has to be more about whole foods."