How brands decide what your favourite snack tastes like?

In a modish second-floor cabin across the derelict Sitaram Mills Compound in Mumbai, where cotton mill workers once broke their hours with cutting chai, Anuj Rakyan and Shuja Ahmed kick off a tasting session for flavored almond milk.

Occupying the center table

Twelve 250ml bottles of the bisque-colored liquid, all unlabelled, occupy the center table. A batch of Charcoal Lemonade, also unlabelled, lies in wait for flavor improvisation analysis.

“Would you like some?” Rakyan asks, offering a cup of almond milk.

“Sure.”

“What do you think?” he asks as I take a sip. “Would you pay for it?”

Dates. That’s the predominant flavor. Would I pay for it? Yes. But how much?

“I like it. Almond milk is a blank slate otherwise.”

“Hmm. I’ll meet you outside. If you stay here longer, you’ll have to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement),” he jokes.

Since its inception in 2013, Rakyan’s Raw Pressery, the flagship brand of Mumbai-based Rakyan Beverages Pvt. Ltd, has raised Rs 183.5 crore ($25.8 million) from Sequoia Capital, Saama Capital, DSG Consumer Partners and Alteria Capital. It’s extended its ‘clean label’ (all-natural, cold-pressed, sugar-free) from juices, cleanses and smoothies to nut milk and ready-to-drink soups. Coming soon: probiotic drinks and “alkaline water”.

Where is the irony?

The irony of ‘disruption’ is that one man’s revolution becomes another’s establishment. This also applies to packaged foods. Brands that threaten the status quo always, whether inadvertently or not, become leaders in their cubbyholes. It’s the nature of the FMCG ghoul.

Take Raw Pressery, in whose wake a gaggle of startups like Rejoov, Juro, Juice Up (now Imagine) and more hanker for your wallet. Got (almond) milk? So do some six other brands, who’ll go one up by also offering oat milk. Or milk with vanilla, straight from the bean. Milk with “spring water”.

Imagine, a brand that came to be after Raw Pressery, now claims to offer India’s first cold-pressed probiotic juice. How else could it set itself apart? Raw Pressery noticed and wants to make its presence felt in the segment.

The quest to differentiate, however, can go to naught if you overlook one tenet: the road to a consumer’s heart is not through the stomach. It’s through the tongue—even when you’re a brand that prioritizes health over mere flavor. People may not want refined sugar, but they also don’t want their tongues invaded by chlorophyll and little else.

Enter food technology, flavor innovation, and product development. Weapons of choice in the never-ending war among FMCG companies, and the crack teams of food scientists in their employ.

At Raw Pressery, Shuja Ahmed, head of product and R&D, is the one who plumbs the depths of the brand’s ingredients lists. He’s the bridge between flavor and functionality, the one who can explain why their almond milk range contains only 5.1-7.5% almonds. How spirulina can be made palatable. Why export-grade fruits aren’t always best for juicing.

Offering More

Now, store-bought almond milk typically contains only 2-3% almonds. Raw Pressery claims to offer more, but little-known is that its first packaged almond milk five years ago contained 45% almonds. The product was discontinued for two and a half years, before a reintroduction with revised proportions.

Reason? Phytic acid. Here’s where almonds become more chemistry than biology, and longevity trumps taste: Phytic acid is why you’re advised to soak almonds before consumption, or eat nuts as a snack instead of with other foods. Abundant in nuts and legumes, it’s a natural inhibitor. In other words, it hinders mineral absorption in the gut. It’s also used as an acidity regulator and antioxidant in its food preservative avatar, E391.

Germination and soaking break down phytic acid and by extension, its preservative properties. Meaning a product with 45% almond content in 55% water would ferment faster than grape morphing into wine.

“We’re talking rancidity in two days. You also can’t guarantee the consistency of our existing cold chain infrastructure. So we had to revise everything,” Ahmed explains.

 

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