Brad Charron was in a beat up rented Hyundai this time last year, driving up the sides of mountains in Hawaii looking for family farms, trying to gain inspiration for his protein bar company’s next product.
The CEO of Aloha protein products said he wanted to develop something using crops grown in the natural, volcanic soil of Hawaii. He began talking to farmers and asking them if he could buy their crops for his next product.
“There’s a lot of phony business out there, and so you have to be able to be above board in Hawaii and see eye to eye,” Charron, who previously held executive positions at Chobani, Nature’s Bounty and Under Armour, said. “That’s the nature of this food ecosystem, especially on sustainability and ethical sourcing, you’ve got to be proven.”
Aloha was initially founded by three longtime residents of Hawaii in 2013, and reformed when Charron took over the company in 2017. Charron became fascinated with the quality of the local farms in the island state, and came to believe that there’s “nowhere better to grow” because of their unique climate and soil.
He soon began developing Aloha’s new product, the Kona bar, which harnesses the power of several plant-based foods. It is made with 100% Kona coffee, coconuts and macadamia nuts. The bars contain 14 grams of protein and ten grams of fiber.
But the product’s most unique ingredient is Ponova oil, an emulsifier developed and trademarked by food ingredient company Terviva, which has raised nearly $100 million to date, per Crunchbase. It is made using pongamia trees grown on the island of O’ahu, and it is the first time the oil is appearing in a food product, according to the companies.
The ingredient is deforestation-free, Terviva said. Pongamia trees are found primarily in Asia, and 2021 research published in academic journal Forests said the trees are able to restore degraded land and enhance biodiversity in soil.
The potential for Ponova
Because of its sustainability benefits and health benefits, Terviva sees Ponova oil’s potential as a disruptive ingredient in the food and beverage space. It contains a light nutty, buttery taste, Terviva said in the press release. As an emulsifier, it has the ability to bind to other ingredients and create texture, the way canola and palm oil typically does in food products.
The oil contains omega-9 fatty acids — which some doctors say can help with cholesterol regulation — performs like animal fat and has a good mouthfeel compared to other alternatives, according to Terviva’s CEO Naveen Sikka.
Terviva — which also sells a protein and flour made from the trees — wanted to debut the oil in a special product, Sikka said, so the collaboration with Aloha made sense for two reasons. First, because Sikka has known Charron for 23 years, and they have always been interested in an opportunity to work together, but didn’t think it would be in the food space. Second, because of their shared sustainability values and plant-based agriculture, Sikka said.
“We didn’t want to show up in a white-labeled cream filling in a cupcake. We wanted to show up in a way that told our story with a brand that reflects that,” Sikka said.
Terviva has made other moves in recent years to begin to spread its sustainable ingredient in the food and beverage space. In 2021, it partnered with dairy giant Danone to develop food products using Ponova oil. The company said it plans to launch the ingredient by the middle of 2023.
Aloha’s mission to work with producers in Hawaii took dedication. Not many food businesses work with Hawaiian farmers because of the cost, Charron said, because it requires significant funding and products using Hawaiian ingredients that must then be developed on the mainland of the U.S.
“There’s an intentionality you have to have, with boots on the ground in Hawaii, but you also have to be able to bring it back and manufacture it commercially for a bigger audience,” Charron said.
Aloha’s bar joins its portfolio of other protein products, but is not yet available on store shelves. It is exclusively sold on e-commerce outlet Thrive Market, but Charron said based on its initial high sales, he predicts it will be widely available in the near future.
Something the protein bar maker is also aiming for this year is becoming Climate Neutral Certified, meaning the company offsets all of the carbon emissions it produces. No other plant-based brand has garnered this, Aloha said in its press release.
The company has B Corp status, and Charron said committing to sustainability is something its consumers heavily value. The brand said 10% of the proceeds of the Kona bar will go to nonprofit Kupu, which invests in land stewardship efforts in Hawaii.
“Small companies can’t change the world themselves, but with Climate Neutral [certification], we’re showing our commitments and putting our backing behind it,” Charron said.