COVID-19 has propelled a growing need to take care of our health

Scroll through Facebook and Instagram and you’ll see the rise of online fitness coaches, Zoom workout classes, and the proliferation of healthy food and beverages. It goes beyond personal wellness, too, focusing on healthier, nutrition-packed alternatives to their own families and loved ones. 

Many have jumped on the bandwagon and Filipino consumers are making healthier changes that follow the whole idea of food as medicine, which has been espoused for decades in the industry. 

A bit behind 

While consumer demand for healthy food began in the 2010s, this trend in the country seems to come and go, with some years emphasizing it more than others. 

According to Jeanne Marfal of Crumbs and Grubs, shifting to a healthy lifestyle is more of a supplementary decision rather than a major choice a person makes. Healthy food also seems to mean going on fad diets to lose weight. There’s also limited access to fresh and natural food as unhealthy alternatives that are easier to purchase are growing in number. There are not a lot of options available, particularly to vegetarians or vegans.  

The local food culture is another factor, according to Patricia Coronel of Hygge Beverage Co, the company behind vegan ice cream brand Alt Scoops. She says that Filipinos are generally used to flavorful and savory dishes that incorporate fatty meats and other heavy ingredients. There’s also a lack of education and general public awareness.

One of the common misconceptions the public has toward healthy food is that the taste isn’t comparable to that of regular food. This is the idea that both Jeanne Marfal and Patricia Coronel want to challenge through their offerings.

But the good news is the country has come a long way since and is taking strides toward emphasizing healthy food. For instance, veganism or vegetarianism was long considered a niche in the market. Now, even big fast food brands are offering vegan or plant-based options in their menu.

The pandemic has not only made people more conscious of what they’re feeding their bodies, but also see which brands reflect the values they espouse. This includes an emphasis on utilizing fresh, local ingredients and produce from Philippine-based farmers. 

Addressing the gaps

One of the common misconceptions the public has toward healthy food is that the taste isn’t comparable to that of regular food. This is the idea that both Marfal and Coronel want to challenge through their offerings. 

For Marfal, the goal was to create healthier alternatives to otherwise unhealthy snacks. She started her business Crumbs and Grubs in 2011 by offering familiar food with a different yet still flavorful taste. 

Lactation cookies for breastfeeding moms were her first offerings. “In 2011, if a breastfeeding mom wanted a sugar-free lactation cookie, it means having to go with the processed sugar-replacement and one with sugar-free chocolates means having to go with a version that uses compound chocolate which is essentially unhealthy fat and artificial flavorings,” Marfal says. “We developed our healthier alternative lactation cookies, which are made with locally-sourced plant-based natural sweetener and organic cacao nibs, as a sugar-free chocolate alternative.”

The pandemic has not only made people more conscious of what they’re feeding their bodies but also see which brands reflect the values they espouse
Crumbs and Grubs’ strawberry croissant
One of the common misconceptions the public has toward healthy food is that the taste isn’t comparable to that of regular food
Crumbs and Grubs’ sugar-free vegan dark chocolate cookies

Familiar but healthier is also the theme for Alt Scoops, a dairy-free, vegan gelato that tastes just like the commercial versions in the market. Coronel is aware of the notion that vegan food has a distinct taste or that it’s inferior in terms of quality, so she sought to challenge that through ice cream. 

When offering vegan ice cream, according to Coronel, “It can’t be just healthy. It has to be both healthy and enjoyable to the consumer.” 

“Of course, it is easier said than done, but so far for Alt Scoops and Oatly, we’ve gotten close to providing this,” she notes. Oatly! Oat Milk from Sweden is a product she has personally tried abroad, and which they eventually brought to the country. 

“For flavors, we wanted to target the classics or the staples. Honestly, this was a challenge but if we were to prove that Alt Scoops will taste like your usual ice cream, we had to go for the most common flavors consumers eat now as dairy ice cream,” Coronel says. 

She also noticed the consumer desire for local flavors, such as their Cordillera-sourced strawberry flavor and their dark mocha variant that uses Batangas Barako Coffee and 77% Auro Couverture Chocolate. 

Seeing growth amid the pandemic

Since starting Crumbs and Grubs, Marfal has expanded her menu to other baked goods such as croissants, vegan cookies, and grass-fed mozzarella. And while they have been early adopters of e-commerce, it was only during the pandemic’s onslaught that more people embraced it. They also took a look at trends and offered different takes as seasonal items, such as the pure ube halaya puff pie, which was propelled by the popularity of ube cheese pandesal. This, in turn, helped grow the company’s sales and market reach. 

This pandemic and the quarantine restrictions have really opened an opportunity for small and medium enterprises especially those that have a digital platform or presence. It has forced consumers to source elsewhere and away from their usual shopping places before COVID, such as groceries and department stores,” says Patricia Coronel 

But like many food businesses operating in a pandemic, she still had to pivot and shift her operations. Supply chain was drastically affected, as there was a shortage of ingredients at the height of panic-buying and hoarding. Marfal says the business adapted by seeking alternatives in suppliers and ingredients, and making recipe changes.

“We were able to tap into grassroots organizations, independent farmers, suppliers, and producers, which allowed us to be more creative with our recipes and products.” Marfal says. Although she had to initially decline or limit orders, the quarantine period allowed her to find ways to expand her menu to what it is at present. 

The same can be said for Alt Scoops, which wasn’t able to scale and hire more manpower. It was, for Coronel, a necessary business call for the safety of their clients and staff too. 

On the flip side, she witnessed how small businesses and consumers adapted during the health crisis. “This pandemic and the quarantine restrictions have really opened an opportunity for small and medium enterprises especially those that have a digital platform or presence. It has forced consumers to source elsewhere and away from their usual shopping places before COVID, such as groceries and department stores.” 

Building an online business also meant being open to different types of marketing, like influencer marketing.

“Especially in promoting a vegan product that is relatively new to the majority of Filipinos, we had to seek the help of influencers to educate the market. We’re very careful though in ensuring that the influencers and celebrities we work with truly advocate not just the brand, but the lifestyle we believe in.” 

Alt Scoops is made with 100 percent vegan ingredients
Alt Scoops’ range of oat milk ice cream seek to change Filipinos’ definition of ice cream
When offering vegan ice cream, it can’t be just healthy. It has to be both healthy and enjoyable to the consumer
Alt Scoops’ choco hazelnut ice cream

Looking ahead

Post-pandemic, Marfal says she’ll continue to stick to strategies and initiatives that have worked for her business, while continuing to promote healthy snacking in the Philippines. “Despite being a digitally-driven business, we still try to be as conservative as possible by being very strategic with our initiatives and sticking to those which provide actual, measurable, and valuable KPIs. We like to stick to a more conservative and sustainable approach that not only allows us to scale accordingly but also allows us to maximize our efforts and budget.”

Globally, more consumers are paying attention to healthy food, particularly immune-boosting items. The pandemic had people visiting food shops and supermarkets more often, checking labels, and determining whether this food purchase could help improve their health. In the Philippines, Marfal observes, it also brought out movements that support our local farmers and the consumption of whole, fresh, and local produce.” There are a number of local producers and independent sellers in the country, with demand for fresh produce growing 444 percent YOY in 2020. 

Globally, more consumers are paying attention to healthy food, particularly immune-boosting items. And in the Philippines, there are a number of local producers and independent sellers in the country, with demand for fresh produce growing 444 percent YOY in 2020. 

There will also be more efforts in promoting and protecting sustainable food services and business practices. Purchasing raw materials from provinces and making sure they are ethically procured and transported will also be key  moving forward. 

For Coronel, the goal is to make Alt Scoops the choice of ice cream for vegans and non-vegans alike. Educating the market of the vegan lifestyle is also a goal.

Her advice to entrepreneurs in this growing market: “There’s no such thing as too small a place to start a business. If you have an idea or a product, then start. Just start. Start anywhere and any time, however small it is.”

You should know your business’s purpose and your “why,” says Marfal. “Build your core values and brand around it. Don’t focus too much on making a profit but rather on providing solutions.”