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Health Warrior CEO talks superfoods, plant protein, and why Americans need more prebiotics

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Health Warrior CEO wants more Americans to talk about prebiotics

Related tags plant protein plant-based plant-based protein Chia seeds

We caught up with the co-founder and CEO of Health Warrior, Shane Emmett, a new entrant in the dietary supplement space, to learn about the white space he wanted to fill in the crowding plant-based protein category.

Health Warrior entered the dietary supplement space this year with the launch of its plant protein powder blend​. The company has been around for seven years, specializing in snack bars made out of chia and pumpkin seeds.

Its products are distributed everywhere from independent health food stores to big retailers like Target and Giant, but Emmett said that it was its strong ecommerce business that has kept the company in touch with consumers, and motivated the company’s entry into dietary supplements.

“We’ve had so many consumers ask us about doing a plant-based protein powder over the years, it’s always been on our radar,”​ he told us.

After many years of brainstorming ideas for how to stand out in the crowding plant protein space, they found white space to fill. “We realized about a year ago that most of these protein powders are made of peas and rice, so it’s not friendly for people trying to do the Whole30,”​ he said, referring to a diet that rode on the coattails of Paleo, a fellow grain- and legume-eschewing, processed sugar-avoiding diet.

It made sense for Health Warrior to fill this gap—the main ingredients the company had been working with were friendly for the growing number of consumers on Whole30, Paleo, and ketogenic diets.

“We thought, ‘let’s use superfoods for the protein and just try to make the cleanest plant protein as possible, and have that protein come from superfoods we use in our other products,’”​ Emmett said.

The protein powder, released this summer, is grain-free, gum-free, dairy-free, and soy-free. It comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors.

Michael Pollan’s NYT article got Emmett interested in probiotics

Ever since reading Michael Pollan’s article Some of My Best Friends Are Germs​, published​ in The New York Times in 2013, Emmett has been intrigued by probiotics.

“It’s a great article, and one of the things I’ve focused on ever since I read it, is that probiotics are really important,” ​he said. Hence, probiotics (specifically Kerry Group-owned Ganeden’s Bacillus coagulans ​GBI-30) made its way into Health Warrior’s new protein powders.

“The other side of it is that, if you don’t feed your probiotics, they’re totally useless, and almost no one in America eats enough prebiotics, which are a good source of fiber as well,”​ Emmett explained. He made the case that Health Warrior’s flagship ingredients used in the powders (chia and pumpkin seed), can feed the friendly bacteria in our guts to confer health benefits, known as a prebiotic effect.

The jury’s still out on which fibers can be considered prebiotics​, after all, the science around prebiotics is still nascent. But Emmett believes that it would benefit consumers to know the concept of ‘feeding one’s microbiome’ with ingredients that have been studied to give prebiotic effects.

“People aren’t talking as much about prebiotics yet, but I think they will be,”​ he added.

HealthWarrior Portfolio
Products in Health Warrior's portfolio to date.

Chia, from niche to mainstream

Health Warrior’s logo features a human figure holding a spear, evoking the tribal- and caveman-inspired branding that started proliferating grocery stores a few years ago during the early days of the Paleo craze.

When the company started in 2011, chia seeds weren’t as easily found in mass US grocery stores as today, except maybe in Chia Pets​. “Seven years ago, it was really hard to find chia,”​ Emmett said. But growing enthusiasm among US consumers for ancient grains and healthy food items brought the seeds of the Salvia hispanica ​plant, part of the mint family, under the spotlight.

“One of my favorite parts of the chia story is its wonderful history. It was one of the key foods in the western hemisphere for 2,000 years,” ​Emmett told us in a 2014 interview​. “The Spanish wiped out the crops, so no one had heard of it for the past 400 years, and now it’s making this epic come back. ​​

Demand for chia grew earlier this decade but the US chia supply market was still in its infancy. “The agronomic work really had to catch up with the market,” ​he told us recently. “This was before we knew what certificates of analysis were, but we could tell the quality differences. Some chia seeds, you put it in water and it just turns muddy.”

After a year of scouting for what they thought was the highest quality supplier in the world, they found the Chilean company Benexia, which continues to be Health Warrior’s chia supplier today. “They were the only one that had the HACCP requirements, the ISO requirements, full traceability,” ​he said. “Basically the only company we could find six years ago that was doing things right.”

The company debuted with chia bars, which have about 100 calories, 3 g protein, and 5 g dietary fiber per serving. Then came the pumpkin seed bars, with 8 g or protein and 6 g of sugar.

“We still have so much white space domestically,” ​Emmett said. “We have a bunch of new flavors in the works, and distribution-wise, our business-to-consumer is rapidly growing.”

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