With an ARR of nearly Rs 70 crore and one of the first brands to effectively reduce the carbon footprint of their products, Pune-based True Elements is recharting the ethos of homegrown sustainable food businesses.
Finding Sreejith Moolayil, the COO and one half of the brain behind True Elements, on the floor is an impossible mission. At home amongst the workers, closely monitoring their product, when not traversing India to set up new markets and warehouses, Moolayil is what many would call a hands-on manager—much like one you would find in the sweet shop of Malgudi Days. Tell him that and the clean eating advocate in him jumps with joy.
“In the current times of virtual monitoring and work, the liberty of not only making products that you would like to have but also being involved in each stage of the process is a luxury that comes with many benefits. For starters, it always teaches you something new about a product and the ingredients that you are working with, even if you think that you know everything there is to know,” says the former HR head. He is also at ease interacting with the myriad customers he often meets on his trips; trips that the current pandemic has restricted but not stopped.
His urge to ensure that True Elements delivers quality products and on time ensures that the seasoned health professional is always on his toes, thinking of ways to make the product better—and in sync with his clean green drive is co-founder, friend and former colleague Puru Gupta, who joined hands with Moolayil seven years ago to start a food umbrella that was homegrown and worked with homegrown produce.
When two odds make an even
“The story of True Elements,” says Moolayil, “stems from our personal tragedies and is related to lifestyle health issues faced by both of us. In a span of three years, while Puru lost his father, I lost my father-in-law to lifestyle-related issues. That drove us to think around food and health in India. For close to six years, we spent every waking hour thinking about a brand that was 100% dedicated to the cause and was as effective as our traditional dishes. We had to make a product that was ‘Made With Truth’. It was the mantra that became our source of energy as we began putting a team together that could not only think beyond us, but also saw the merit of pushing the envelope even further.
“It took us no less than five years and a solid background of working with not one but two fitness brands to bring together a team of nutritionists, food technologists, industry thought leaders and food scientists—people who could work on products, technology, sourcing, and instituting method-driven processes that could bring in consistency to our production line. But that was only one part of the story, the other was finding farmers growing or willing to grow ingredients that were part of our home-grown list. We rooted for ingredients such as jowar, ragi and bajra and, of course, seeds like sunflower and chia that were native to Maharashtra, as our sourcing area was confined within the state limits,” recalls Moolayil. The only ingredient that he got from Sri Lanka was oats given the branding needs, “as oats were more recognised as a superfood than jowar at the time”.
It was a conscious decision by both co-founders that any new ingredient addition to the product list would have to pass the litmus test of a certain set of questions such as: Can raw materials be sourced from nearby areas? Can crops that cause minimum GHG (Greenhouse Gas) be given priority? Can the manufacturing process be tailored with this in mind? Can the waste produced be reused/reprocessed? Can the movement of goods to and from the factory be reduced? And finally, can there be a zero-plastic option for consumers?
“These questions not only limited us to a certain region and ingredients, enabling us to create a millet processing method (patent pending), but also created an image of True Elements as a clean, green, organic brand. And in doing so, helped us take baby steps and create effective processes that came under the aegis of Carbon Footprint or at least the WHO.”
For the uninitiated, Carbon Footprint is essentially a term popularised by Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore, where he defines it as the footprint created by harmful gases emitted into the atmosphere every time a produce uses a mode of transport except the bullock cart to transport the product. In common parlance, this would mean even a two-wheeler used to transport the ingredients will add to the carbon footprint of the product. According to WHO, however, carbon footprint is a measure of the impact activities have on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) produced through the burning of fossil fuels and is expressed as a weight of CO2 emissions produced in tonnes.
Going eco-friendly and carbon-low
Reigning in such check points, recalls the co-founder, “worked as the big advantage for us as it not only limited our reach to produce, but enabled us to adopt methodologies and processes that involved less energy consumption along with minimal processing of ingredients, and this included the local fruits that we worked with. Case in point is the fruits that we use in our products. Instead of using the conventional heat dehydration process where the fruits need a coating of industrial grade processed sugar and ascorbic acid, we freeze-dry them by removing 100% moisture and increasing the shelf life to almost two years. This is done by taking the fruit to sublimation point and then using vacuum to drain the moisture out of the fruits. The effect is that these fruits work much like dehydrated raisins that can rehydrate in warm milk or water—but without losing their colour or natural sweetness.”
A similar technique is used for rolling jowar flakes where a slow, long process of heating and rolling is administered instead of the high-heat, high-speed rolling done by most commercial brands. This preserves the natural nutrients and flavours of the ingredients. The adaptability to newer forms of working had its drawbacks too, as it didn’t allow the use of certain native fruits such as strawberries.
“No matter how we dehydrated the berry, it would not stop curdling the milk. After several failed attempts, we discontinued the line,” says Moolayil, who found success in dehydrating figs and even curd and thus was able to create one of their signature savoury products called Oats Congee, a ready-to-cook, rice-free version of the traditional congee or kanji.
As part of their carbon footprint reduction plans, True Elements today has warehouse facilities in nearly 11 cities across India that allows it to explore not just newer ingredients for their future products, but also reduce the distance by, in some cases, close to a kilometer – thus creating a plausible blueprint for any food umbrella not just going green but trying to be sustainable as well.