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04/24/2022

PuraVida Meets Consumer Demand for Nutritionally Superior Food

CEO Lauren Watkins talks to Progressive Grocer about her mission to revolutionize the food industry
Gina Acosta
Editor-in-Chief
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PuraVida Meets Consumer Demand for Nutritionally Superior Food
PuraVida Foods President Lauren Watkins

The pandemic has caused health-and-wellness trends to accelerate across the grocery industry, and consumers are taking a second look at their foods. Specifically, plant-based, organic and holistic foods that heal are red-hot. Shoppers are demanding high-quality ingredients that are ethically sourced and packed with vitamins and nutrients. Food entrepreneur Lauren Watkins explains how her company, Etobicoke, Ontario-based PuraVida Foods, is stepping up to meet the expectations of grocery shoppers looking for nutritionally superior food. 

Progressive Grocer: Lauren, why did you decide to become a food entrepreneur?

Lauren Watkins: Well, my background is actually in psychology, but the job that I ended up getting right out of school was selling food, selling ingredients. And I didn’t necessarily love sales initially, but as the role grew and as I grew, I realized that I was really passionate about selling high-quality ingredients that helped customers build better meals. I grew up in a household of medical professionals. Both of my parents worked at a hospital for sick children in Toronto, and pretty much every night, we would talk about health and the importance of not only eating nutritious food, but also being proactive with healthy choices. So when I started working in the food industry, I really opened my eyes to the quality of ingredients that manufacturers use. 

PG: You started reading labels more carefully?

LW: Yes, I started looking at ingredient decks, nutrition fact panels, and seeing what the food I was eating on a daily basis was made of. And a lot of the things that I thought were healthy were packed full of preservatives and things with really complicated names that I wouldn’t even try to pronounce. These were foods that I thought were healthy that were labeled as being healthy and good for me, but were not. So that is really what sparked the idea of PuraVida. 

PG: How did you come up with the name “PuraVida”? 

LW: A lot of work went into designing the brand, and I wanted it to be something that people really connected with. I am not only passionate about health, but also passionate about our planet and being connected to the whole process. I love being outside, which is kind of where the little leaf on the logo came from. We wanted our logo to speak to what we do and that we’re connected to the ingredients that we source. We’re connected to the vendors that we work with. And a lot goes into our packaging. We look at how we can differentiate ourselves with our formulations. We make many revisions to make sure that sodium levels, carb levels and the ingredients that we use do something good for the body.

PG: What would you say is the most challenging part of what you’re doing now?

LW: Well, the feedback that we get from our customers has been great. I would say retail’s very different from what I used to do before. I’m very used to someone reaching out to me and saying, “I need 80,000 pounds of black beans tomorrow,” and I would quickly plug it in. But in retail, people plan the freezer case months in advance. There’s a lot that goes into the buyer planning, and obviously, everyone wants to feel connected to what products they put on the shelf. So that’s very different from what I used to do before, because it was very fast-paced. 

PG: I know that part of your mission is to educate consumers on “the power of food.” What does that statement mean?

LW: Food can send different signals to our bodies, and can tell us to make muscle, and can tell us to feed our brains, and can help us combat and prevent disease. But on the flip side of it, food can also send negative signals to our bodies, and can tell us to not repair or be as efficient with bodily functions [as] we would expect. And so those things can appear in different ways. We can feel sluggish, we can be bloated, we can lack the energy or the enthusiasm that we would normally have. And so it’s about helping people not necessarily drastically change their diets, because that’s not sustainable in the long term, but helping people eat more vegetables or try something new that’s maybe presented in a different way. 

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PuraVida Meets Consumer Demand for Nutritionally Superior Food
PuraVida's line of products aims to help consumers eat healthier foods without making drastic changes to their diets.

PG: Do you think that food companies are making enough changes to help people lead healthier lives?

LW: I think that food companies need to be more cognizant of the choices that they make. Obviously, there are lots of changes happening. And I think the shift we’re starting to see is toward more simple, clean-label products that really speak to the mindset of people emerging out of the pandemic. People spend a lot more time at home now with their families, with their kids especially, and they really took the time to look at their lifestyle choices, whether that’s food or spending more time together as a family doing things. And I think that food companies need to take that bigger picture into mind, because the little choices we make about using one ingredient over another have a role in that and have a role in the larger picture of the food industry, which feeds into the health system as well. 

PG: Do you think some of these trends of consumers wanting to eat healthier at home and cooking food at home more, are going to stick?

LW: I do, and I firmly believe that the longer people engage in more active lifestyle choices, the more they will realize that when they eat better, their body just feels better. At least for me, when I make better-quality food choices, I feel much, much better. I’m not bloated; I’m not feeling icky. So I think people [will] start to realize, ‘Hey, maybe I’m not going out for a full-blown run or I’m not going to the gym, but I’m eating more fiber and I’m eating more vegetables. I feel really good.” I think that when people start to realize that these little changes they’re making have an effect on them and that they feel great, those will spiral into larger, more profound changes that will also impact their health as a whole.

PG: Can you tell me a little bit about what else might be in the pipeline at PuraVida and when it might be available at retail?

LW: We are launching something really exciting: our Kids Life program. It’s going to be familiar favorites that kids are excited to eat and that they want to grab off the shelf, but they’re also going to be things that parents feel good about serving their kids. They’re going to have fortified ingredients. We’re going to make sure that kids are getting the protein, the carbs and the fats they need to have the energy to play on the playground and have the energy to be sustained during classroom sessions. It’s going to be launching just in time for back to school.

PG: What are you hearing from retailers about how they’re thinking about their natural/
organic/plant-based assortments? 

LW: We just got back from Expo West, and the feedback that we got at the booth was very, very positive. People were excited that we weren’t just vegan or keto or vegetarian. We are promoting a flexitarian diet, and our items are simple and clean enough that they can be used in a variety of different lifestyles. 

PG: What’s your outlook for the industry in five years? Will we all be flexitarians?

LW: I think we’re seeing a lot of really innovative plant-based options, but that doesn’t mean that people have to be only plant-based. A lot of the people that stopped by our booth said that they ate a predominantly plant-based [diet], but that they also ate animal proteins, which I think speaks to people really looking at what they’re eating. ... I think that we’re going to continue to see that push towards more healthy, nutritious food on the shelf, and that more brands will become innovative. So I’m really excited for the direction that we’re going in. It means that we’re on the right course. 

[To watch video of Watkins discussing how to leverage consumer demand for healthier food, click here.]

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