Nevada-based Kellie Lee, an avid backpacker, came up with her company Rowdy Prebiotic Foods and its flagship product Rowdy Bars as a substitute for sugar-rich candy bars her husband would bring with them on backpacking trips.
“I always wanted to bring real food with us, so my goal was to always bake things and bring them with us,” she told NutraIngredients-USA. To replace those candy bars, Lee started making granola for their backpacking trips.
In 2013, she started to have digestive issues. After a visit to the doctor’s office, she was diagnosed with hypothyroid, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain hormones, potentially disrupting certain aspects of metabolism.
“So my focus changed from backpacking food to how do I live and eat with hypothyroid. I was using brown rice syrup in all of my baking, and when I started researching for different sweeteners, I came across yacon root,” she said, referring to the tuberous root of a perennial daisy traditionally grown in the Andes.
Yacon root syrup has been a staple in health food stores in North America for a while, and has a small following of bakers and home cooks who swear by it and share all they know about the ingredient on internet forums and blogs, which is how Lee came across it.
“It’s low glycemic and aids in digestion, and I started to notice a difference in my stomach,” she said. Then, she started creating bars with the yacon root syrup as the main binder of nuts and granola, a precursor of today’s Rowdy Bars. Flavorwise, the yacon root is nautrally sweet. Lee described it as a cross between a sweet potato and an apple.
“I started making these bars on a regular basis, and my sister said ‘you need to sell these,’ so I started selling them coworkers and friends and family. I was making about 10 batches a week out of my kitchen, working full-time and also getting my MBA. When I think back to this, I think ‘Holy Smokes, how did I do all this!?”
“But it was a passion, so it was easy.”
Lee decided she wanted to make these bars her full-time job. In January 2017, she found a manufacturer and quit her day job to bootstrap Rowdy Prebiotic Foods.
She declined to share more specifics of her manufacturer (other than it makes the bars in Boise) or the supplier of her yacon root, but she specified that the roots come from Peru and are processed into syrup here in the US.
Prebiotics not yet a household name
Prebiotics have been an industry buzzword for quite some time, used to describe ingredients (like fiber) that selectively feed bacteria in our guts that infer health benefits to the host (probiotics). But step outside the industry bubble and the term is still relatively obscure among many consumers.
“More and more people are becoming aware of it,” Lee said. “A lot of the [retailer’s] buyers are aware of prebiotics. But in my experience of just talking with people, around 40% of people would say ‘you mean PRObiotics?’ and I’ll tell them, no, I mean PREbiotics!”
A look at Google searches on Google Trends reveals that US internet users look up ‘prebiotic’ far less than they do ‘probiotic,’ a sign that the latter the first is not as top of mind as the second.
Interest in prebiotics has grown over time, based on searches on Google...
...but it still pales in comparison compared to searches for 'probiotics'
When it comes to yacon root’s prebiotic effects, the science is nascent.
A search of ‘yacon root prebiotic’ on PubMed, an online database of studies registered by the US National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health, returned four results. The most recent study came out of Brazil in 2015, followed by one by Argentinean researchers in 2013, a Peruvian study in 2008, and the earliest registered one by researchers in Texas in 2003. All four had positive outcomes backing the root’s prebiotic activities.
“I’m surprised that not more people use the yacon,” Lee said. “It is a more expensive ingredient, so that may keep [brand-owners] at bay, but I’m not about the money. I want to make a successful company, don’t get me wrong, but I also want to provide a product for people who can benefit from it.”
Just shy of two years old, Rowdy Bars is slowly picking up more bricks-and-mortar distribution partners.
Her first retail partner was Scolari’s, a local supermarket chain of about 15 stores in Nevada, which picked up the product a month after it launched last year. “We got a story with the local news, and that’s what kicked us off. Scolari’s picked us up after that coverage,” she said.
Then the smaller mom-and-pop stores picked the bars up, including running shoe stores in the area that order the bars bi-weekly. Most recently, Rowdy got a deal with distributor Doyles Sheehan to penetrated the convenience store channel in the Northwestern territory.
The company exhibited at Expo West in March this year and was noticed by several large retailers distributors, “so hopefully next year you’ll see us start expanding.”
Right now, the company is focusing on targeting outdoors enthusiasts, ultra marathoners, cyclists, and the like. “It’s low glycemic, it holds them over for the long period of time they’re training, and it works as a pre- or post-workout,” she said.