Didi Lo of Soulfresh on next gen health foods
Soulfresh founder and CEO Didi Lo packed up a van in 2003, filled it with his favourite Byron Bay products, and drove to Melbourne in the hope of selling them. Little did he know that 15 years later, the likes of kombucha and almond milk would be daily habits for many Australians.
Putting flavour first, Lo has masterminded some of the most recognisable products in supermarkets today, from Pico chocolate to Nutty Bruce almond milk. The first Soulfresh product he ever sold was an unpasteurised ginger, lemon and honey drink; his next challenge is retooling plant-based milk to deliver more nutrients and better flavour and texture. Lo joined the Global Table Trade Zone in 2019, presenting on innovations in the health and wellness sector.
People’s eating habits are vastly different from when you started Soulfresh 15 years ago. How does that make you feel about the future of the planet?
It makes me feel happy that people are starting to consumer in a better way. Although it doesn’t necessarily make me feel happy about the future of the planet because what is actually required from all of us is so much more far-reaching than just the food we consume. It’s a fundamental shift in how we actually live our lives.
Health was really uncool 15 years ago. Trying to promote something that was healthy was seen as niche and really not in the mainstream. I think this movement towards health is really tied in with personal education and access to information and those sorts of things. We’re lucky because healthy is cool now and when something’s cool it sort of influences people more. I’m not sure it’ll always stay as cool because these things wax and wane but certainly I think the healthy food movement is here to stay.
“Healthy” food is a term that’s fraught with misunderstanding for a lot of people. What do you believe healthy eating is?
I believe that one person’s definition of healthy food is completely different to another person’s definition, but neither of those definitions are wrong. The most important thing with healthier food is that it’s not alienating to people. As soon as you guilt people into trying to consume in a certain way, people tend to do it begrudgingly. When I look at it, the most important thing for any food company is that you’re able to give people solutions that help progress them. It’s not about the most healthy product; often it’s almost about the product that’s just a little bit healthier than what someone is consuming now because that makes people feel comfortable, it allows people to feel like they can go on this journey, versus being alienated.
What do you say to any backlash over healthy, organic or “green” food, such as the switch to almond milk and its effects on the environment, the premium price tag on certain foods that makes them unaffordable for many?
Almond milk is a perfect example. Almonds themselves are incredibly water-intensive. But when you have a look at an almond compared to dairy, dairy is even more water-intensive. And that’s just the water aspect; you’re not even talking about the greenhouse gas emissions from the methane production, and the feedlots or the grain and all the things that tie in to supporting the dairy industry. Then you have the animal cruelty layer that goes over the top of that. What we see and we’ll see soon in the market is we continue to try to evolve that because I think food is only ever a picture of a moment in time. That’s why health now is so different to 15 years ago yet both are as relevant as each other.
We spoke about it a bit today. People want this magic pill solution, people don’t want to understand that you just have to live a healthy, balanced life and you’ll be an incredibly healthy person. It’s a simple thing to do. Like we must have our beetroot matcha lattes and dehydrated cauliflower and broccoli, but these are just simple ingredients. The concept of a super food is strange to me, because all food in its natural state is pretty super.
What product are you most proud of and why?
We’re really proud of Nutty Bruce. When we were first thinking about plant milk, all that was really available were products that were masquerading as plant milk. They had a small amount of almonds, they had a whole lot of gums and thickeners. Because they were using pastes, they had to use emulsifiers to mix the oil with the water. They were using flavours to make it taste a bit more like milk. They were using oils to give it a bit of fattiness. Personally, I really believe in not consuming as much dairy but the solution just wasn’t great. When we created Nutty Bruce it was about just trying to be really simple. We’ve now, in that category, just about become the largest almond milk in Australia. And this is a product that is more expensive because it uses whole, organic nuts instead of pastes. There are lots of things that mean it shouldn’t be as popular, but it’s just tapped into this psyche in the Australian consumer that is actually looking for better. If they can get it at a reasonable price that delivers value for them, then they’ll buy into it.
How do we get more people to make more conscious eating choices, whether it’s conscious of the planet or conscious of their health?
Information is the single most important factor in helping people to consume better. If you understand more of what you’re putting into your body, you will make a better decision. Accessibility then becomes incredibly important. When we look at a lot of health food products, it’s actually relatively easy to create the most expensive, most incredible version of a product. It’s very hard to create a product to appeal to someone living on a very tight food budget, which most of us are. In terms of the future and enabling better choices, it’s absolutely about education, availability and affordability. Driving those three things is the responsibility of retailers, of educators all the way from schools up, and of companies like Soulfresh to try to create products that genuinely meet these tensions that people have around consuming these sorts of foods.
What’s one thing you’ve had to make a conscious effort to remove from your shopping list?
There have been a lot of things over the years, but processed ingredients, more generally, is the number one. There’s a reliance on eating more processed ingredients. You can often think that because you’re buying an organic version of that ingredient that it’s good. Ultimately, it’s still a processed ingredient. At home is we really try not to buy packaged foods, from a packaging and sustainability point of view as much from a health point of view. We have all our own mesh bags, we have our own Tupperware so we can buy from the bulk bins at the health store. We absolutely try not to shop without using packaging.
What’s your favourite fact about the food and agriculture industry?
The average annual emissions from a cow in Australia is enough to fuel a car to drive all the way from the tip of the north of Australia – Cape Yorke Peninsula – all the way down to Tasmania and back.
What’s next for Soulfresh?
We are trying to rethink what milk should be. How do you actually give a consumer everything that they get from milk so you remove the discussion around “This is not as good for you. It doesn’t give you what dairy milk does”. For two years we’ve been working on a product to deliver, from whole food ingredients, the protein, the calcium, the macronutrients you’d get from dairy milk, in a format that tastes beautiful and creamy so that if you’re a dairy milk consumer you’re not going to feel alienated. That is what we feel like the future of milk will look like. We’re aiming to get it out there in February 2020.
What message do you have for the young people at Global Table about changing our current trajectory?
In the 15 years that we’ve been running Soulfresh; it’s gone from a real battle early on to such a hunger for change now. Even though we have these terrible governments who are so backward in their thinking, who refuse to think logically and rationally around how we actually have to be in the world and how we have to deliver a sustainable future, the change is here and they can’t hold it down. As angry as I get on one side, I also get excited because there are other factors now, where an individual can walk into the biggest retailer in Australia and if they have the right idea and they do the right thing, they can get that product out there. That’s just from a retail standpoint. I think availability of information and the ability to communicate your voice out there through social channels has given us an unprecedented ability to create change.
Find out more about Soulfresh and stay up to date with their latest products: soulfresh.co