What “100% clean” means, and why it matters
Behind a little (5.3 oz) container of Hälsa Oatgurt™, and woven into its packing label, lies a grand story of innovation, persistence, and passion to bring gut health to people and to our challenged planet. Helena Lumme and Mika Manninen, co-founders of Hälsa Foods (Hälsa means “health” in Swedish), are food pioneers who were hip to oatmilk before it was introduced commercially in the U.S. They’ve revamped the procedure for making plant-based food—a process typically involving enzymes, chemicals, and unclean ingredients that results in a heavily processed, nutritionally poor product. Their technology—Oats 2.0—turns organic whole grain oats into a fiber- and nutrient-rich, pre- and probiotic-filled product, without using a single food chemical or additive either in the final product or the process itself.
Five flavors of 100% clean “Oatgurt”—the only organic oat milk yogurt available on the market—are sold at Natural Grocers, Mom’s Organic Market, Central Market and in about 600 other independent natural food stores across the U.S. The 100% organic yogurt contains only organic whole grain oats, live cultures, and prebiotics, and is topped with organic fruits and berries (no added sugar).
Oats are a resilient grain providing excellent soil erosion control, and they’re grown with zero water footprint, which makes them a very sustainable grain to meet the needs of environmentally concerned consumers.
A launch stymied by COVID
Helena and Mika have backgrounds in global branding with Fortune 500 companies. With a strong interest in natural foods, they decided to take their experience and apply it to a small company, to improve consumer health and nutrition. They introduced the first single serve oatmilk product, Simpli OatShake, into the U.S in 2011—a product imported from Scandinavia.
“Our Scandinavian manufacturer pulled it out after 18 months because they couldn’t see any future for oatmilk in the U.S.,” Mika said. Unlike their manufacturer, Helena and Mika kept believing in oats and spent 4 1/2 lean years in creating a new manufacturing process with the help of Scandinavian oat experts—finally “cracking the code” on how to keep the health benefits of whole grain oats intact. They eliminated all artificial ingredients including gums, binders, emulsifiers, phosphates, and processed sugars. “Our process is very simple and economical as it allows us to make this product at any existing dairy plant without having to build expensive new factories,” Mika added.
Hälsa Organic Oatgurt hit the market in 2018. But COVID’s emergence in 2020 rocked the business—the new ground rules made it extremely difficult for new products to break into the larger conventional stores. “At one point, we lost 90% of our business,” Mika said. “Distributors wouldn’t pick up our pallets (we were a small vendor), airports closed, killing a major sales outlet, online grocers cancelled orders. We needed hands-on workers to keep the business alive, and I personally trained a new co-packer after we lost ours…I spent 227 nights in hotels in 2020.”
One silver lining came from having to stand in front of stores and offer Oatgurt for taste tests—it got Hälsa into the small independent and local food stores, which is now their main market.
The value of farming—and eating—organic oats
Eric and Jamie Ziehm’s dairy is the perfect place to grow organic oats. Dairy farmers are struggling with slumping milk sales, and Hälsa is partnering with High Meadows Farm in Hoosick Falls, New York to grow high quality oats to secure a domestic supply. The dairy has converted part of their 300 acres of organic land to oats, to build a biodiverse ecosystem. The couple were eager to be home to Hälsa’s test plots. Hälsa provided quality oat seeds and a guidebook on European oat growing, and results have been very promising. “We harvested our second harvest last week; by the third harvest we’ll hopefully have enough organic oats to fill our production needs,” Mika said.
What makes Hälsa Oatgurt such a healthy, clean choice? Whole grain oats contain beta-glucan, a nutrient that lowers cholesterol, and have soluble fiber that is a prebiotic, feeding good bacteria in the gut. They also neutralize acids so good bacteria and probiotics can survive long enough to fully benefit the digestive tract. Most plant-based yogurts are so chemically processed that fiber is removed. “You want the pre-biotic ingredient contained in whole grain oats,” said Helena. “It’s the fuel, the fiber, to help make the most of the probiotic value. If you’re killing good probiotics with additives, then why eat yogurt?”
In addition to no artificial ingredients, Hälsa ingredients are 100% organic, a key part in the “clean” label.
With Hälsa, “clean” offers more than a clear conscience—it’s an essential component for getting the health benefits. “Sometimes people don’t really know what ‘clean’ is, because they have no reference in their palate for it,” Mika noted. “You get used to artificial tastes. But people’s bodies can tell when they’ve eaten something healthy.”
The biggest challenge for the company is the altered retail situation due to COVID. But the rewards are profound. “My favorite is hearing from a parent, ‘This is the only plant-based yogurt my child will eat, and it passes our test for quality,’ ” Helena said. What could be more satisfying than that?