As five-year vegan Carmela Cancio jestingly tells it, her vision for Superfood Grocer Philippines, a thriving e-business selling nutrient-rich, plant-based alternatives, grew out of the fact that she literally “had nothing to eat.”
“Prior to being vegan, I had never even cooked in my life,” admits the former corporate worker-turned-entrepreneur, whose vivacious energy is surprisingly contagious. “I suddenly had to start learning how to make all these things because I wanted to prove that changing my lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean depriving myself of delicious treats like cookies and ice cream. I wanted to still enjoy the good life,” she says.
Cancio’s choice to go off the beaten path with her partner and business co-founder Ralph Go really stemmed from the fact that they wanted to help their loved ones in their fight against disease. “Everyone around us was getting sick. Cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol—my mom had diabetes—and somehow we’ve come to accept that as a normal thing, that there’s nothing we can do about it. We wanted to go against what has always been this passive view of disease,” she says.
Such a need drove Cancio to start learning more about food, where she soon discovered that proper nutrition does not only protect from disease but actually reverses it. “Because I wanted to help my mom first, I started by changing the food at home. I wanted to make it delicious for her—I gave her pizza, burgers, ice cream, the works, except that now everything is plant-based,” she relates.
Within a month, Cancio’s mother had lost 15 pounds and her energy levels increased tenfold; she even started running and signed up for her first 3K race. “That’s a miracle for my mom because she’s the type who’d complain about getting tired after walking in the mall,” shares Cancio. Beyond her mother’s weight loss and healthy glow, Cancio points to the more important fact that her mother’s glycated hemoglobin count greatly improved. “Five is usually normal for HbA1c. My mom used to be an eight, and now she’s a four. That’s the power of empowering and changing one’s lifestyle,” she says.
Superfood Grocer Philippines started in 2012—way before clean eating hit the mainstream. “My siblings and friends all thought I was crazy. No one is going to drink green juice, they said, but it didn’t really matter. We weren’t after profit, although that eventually came after. The business was built on that we really believed in something and we knew there were people who needed help,” says Cancio.
These days, with Filipinos’ appetite for healthy food, drinks, and snacks growing at pace and boosted by surging demand for free-from foods, protein products, and vegan alternatives, Cancio enjoys a cozy front-row view of the industry that has grown from absolutely nothing to where it is now. “We’re privileged to have seen it grow and we’re still optimistic about how far it can go—we’re really just at the tip of the iceberg here,” she shares.
It’s a statement that chef Christina Lagdameo agrees with. The co-founder of Honest Junk, a free-from food business selling gluten-free, dairy-free, fat-free cookies and gummy bears, Lagdameo relates the healthy food sector, while steadily growing, “still has a dearth of local healthy food items available, which is unfortunate because the Philippines actually has a lot of superfoods.” A young mother of two, her many roles include heading Doughnut People, Inc., the maker of Gonuts Donuts (“a juxtaposition,” she laughingly admits), and LC Corporation, which introduced Plana Forma to the Philippines.
“Health isn’t only the reason fueling us to share what we do. More than the treats, we’re passionate about giving people the choice, empowering them with knowledge, because it’s one thing to eat and another to actually understand and know how you can help your loved ones,” shares Cancio.
Quite like Cancio, Lagdameo’s Honest Junk was built on a personal need that wasn’t currently being addressed by the market. “I’m an advocate of healthy eating and I’ve always found the options here to be really limited and largely inaccessible. Normally when you say healthy food, it often connotes too many labels, too many highfalutin ingredients that people do not understand, and more often than not, they’re often imported and expensive,” says Lagdameo, adding that she and her partner Celine Gabriel-Lim saw an opportunity to educate people and help them become healthier by introducing snack options that are “affordable, no frills, and not intimidating.”
Honest Junk, asserts Lagdameo, is by no means advocating a totally healthy, fat-free lifestyle. “There’s nothing wrong with indulging once in a while. We’re all human, too. We see Honest Junk as more of a stepping stone to kickstart a healthier lifestyle. We want to give people healthier choices that actually taste delicious because you have to admit that sometimes these exorbitantly priced healthy foods do not even taste good,” she points out, adding that before they introduce new cookie and gummy bear flavors to Honest Junk’s market comprising primarily “mommy millennials,” these treats have already been vetted by the most discerning of palates: picky eaters.
“I think it’s really important in this specific sector that the business owner is really well-versed on food, nutrition, and wellness. We’re talking about customers who are not afraid to ask questions and in fact demand you give them information,” shares Cancio.
“Our kids are really our test subjects. Whenever we’d develop the product, they have to taste it and when they don’t like it, then it’s not going to pass. Try again,” says Lagdameo. It’s the same premise that’s driven Superfood Grocer to sell products beyond such superfood ingredients as maca powder, spirulina, malunggay, and coconut sugar.
The most recent concoction to have come out of Cancio’s kitchen has been its line of Super Scoops vegan dairy-free ice cream, which are drawing even the non-vegan crowd. “Initially, we thought people would only buy our ice cream for their health benefits. They’re dairy-free, refined sugar-free, zero cholesterol, and 100 percent plant-based. But people have been buying them also because they taste really good,” she says.
In the know
Because the barriers to entry are still relatively low in the healthy food sector, there’s potential for food businesses to carve out a niche and sustain operations over time. Both Lagdameo and Cancio agree that a key differentiation strategy in this space entails a clear value proposition, one that often has to do with a commitment to social purpose.
“Health isn’t only the reason fueling us to share what we do. More than the treats, we’re passionate about giving people the choice, empowering them with knowledge, because it’s one thing to eat and another to actually understand and know how you can help your loved ones,” shares Cancio. As with most businesses, Superfood Grocer is also big on the environment. “Plant-based foods are really a better alternative to saving the Earth. If you combine all the carbon emissions from transportation in animal agriculture, it’s double the amount. So changing, adopting even just one dish a day is not only good for yourself and loved ones, it’s also good for the planet. We’re empowering people about that as well,” she adds.
What’s surprised Lagdameo about entering this sector has been their surprisingly ready market of “mommy millennials” and individuals looking to kickstart a healthy lifestyle. At two months old as of press time, Honest Junk has been getting an overwhelming stream of orders for their gummies and cookies, all of which feature superfoods and local flavors such as pink guava, guyabano, malunggay, and calamansi.
“We were pleased to discover that we already have a niche. First of all, there’s a lot of people now who are already into the health trend. You’re also talking to people who want to be healthy but are afraid to do it because of such constraints as price points and taste, so we found that when they tasted our products and realized it was healthy and affordable, they come back again. So it’s an existing and new market,” she says.
With their businesses catering largely to a demographic that avidly consumes and shares information online, Lagdameo and Cancio agree that theirs is a discerning market with very little tolerance for false advertising. “I think it’s really important in this specific sector that the business owner is really well-versed on food, nutrition, and wellness. We’re talking about customers who are not afraid to ask questions and in fact demand you give them information,” shares Cancio.
“They’re definitely on the informative side,” agrees Lagdameo, “and they’re also keen on participating in the process. That’s why we’ve branded ourselves to be very informative, and we even let them in on some parts of our design and R&D process. We ask them what they think. It’s a market that’s very conscious of what they consume; they want to see all the nutrifacts right away. They really want to be in the know.”
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 14 No. 1