When Vanessa Hutchinson launched health bar company, Fodbods, it was to fill a hole in the market for consumers who suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but a larger segment of the market was also eager for the product. Adam McCleery writes.
Fodbods was first cooked up in the kitchen of owner and founder, Vanessa Hutchinson, who had been living with the challenges presented by Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
The challenges, especially in a fast-paced working atmosphere like startups, of finding the right food that was also FODMAP friendly was difficult, and the impact on day-to-day life was exhausting.
“Starting Fodbods was really to solve my own problem initially,” said Hutchinson.
“I was introduced to the low FODMAP diet and when I started following it all my symptoms went away and I live a perfectly normal life. But I had a busy job where I was travelling a lot and that made it challenging to follow the diet.
“IBS effects one in five people which is a huge part of the population. The low FODMAP diet was developed by the Monash University and is now the best-known treatment for IBS, it helps 75 per cent of sufferers.
“That means that effectively 15 per cent of the population is intolerant to FODMAPS, which is massive. Many people predict that low FODMAP will be the next gluten free because of how many people it effects.”
After following the FODMAP diet Hutchinson discovered she was feeling much better and many of her symptoms disappeared, but if she ever reverted back to a non-FODMAP friendly food she instantly felt ill.
The challenges then were making sure she had a FODMAP friendly option on hand when needed. Hutchinson shopped around only to discover FODMAP friendly food options, outside of cooking ingredients, were virtually non-existent – particularly healthy ones.
“That’s when I stated making my own protein bars at home and carrying them with me. I realised in this process there was a huge gap in the market for healthy and convenient fodmap friendly food,” she said.
“There are a lot of foods around cooking and breakfast cereals and ready-made meals, but nothing prevalent in the industry, if you go into a service station there is nothing to find, planes, airports, the same.
“I started speaking to dieticians, Monash University and FODMAP Friendly and they all agreed there was a lack of products in the healthy, convenient space.”
Hutchinson then went into research and development mode while also setting up her company, all the while gaining valuable insight from key minds in the FODMAPS and IBS research sectors.
“We actually work with a lot of sports dieticians because athletes get IBS more than everyday people because they are putting their bodies under stress,” she said.
“They struggle to get enough calories in because they don’t have those options. I started exploring further, speaking with consumers and customers, and investigating forums.
“I felt like I had to solve this problem because IBS is so much more than just the physical symptoms, there is anxiety around it which holds people back from enjoying life and is where the convenient part comes in.”
Knowing that she was going to need to scale up in order to achieve her goals, Hutchinson started looking at manufacturing possibilities for Fodbods.
“It took a lot of research – looking at other products and recipes and experimenting with different low FODMAP ingredients.”
“There are so many ingredients used in other bars that we can’t use in ours, dates, cashews, and so on. We had to pull together low fodmap ingredients and create new combinations within those parameters.”
One of the problems, Hutchinson said, which Fodbods aims to address is helping people have a more energy sustained health bar that isn’t just empty carbs.
“I just wanted them to be made frmo simple ingredients you recognise and use at home,” said Hutchinson.
It started as me in my kitchen, I made over 200 samples to begin with, altering the ingredients and conducing tonnes of taste testings.
“We would have tasting days and then broaden out to public spaces for feedback. Eventually I landed on the recipe. Making sure we stayed under the threshold was probably the hardest part.”
Once the Fodbods recipe had been settled on, the next major thing was to get FODMAP certification, which no other protein bar in Australia had achieved to that point.
“The process for getting FODMAP certification is hard in itself because it requires all FODMAPs to be under a very low threshold. Product samples must be independently tested in a laboratory and we had a number of samples fail the test” Hutchinson said.
But first, Hutchinson had to find a manufacturing partner to help scale up production to an industrial level before seeking certification.
“Once we had the recipe it was about finding the right manufacturing partner. They get inquiries all the time so you must pitch them for your business,” she said.
“I had to explain what I was trying to achieve and why the bars would be successful.
“I found a wonderful manufacturing partner who worked closely with me to get it right. They also only work with natural ingredients so that really helped.”
The initial challenge, Hutchinson said, was that her manufacturing partner had not worked with the specific ingredients needed for FODMAP friendly products, but through collaboration the end result was achieved.
“The other thing is, ingredients can undergo changes during the manufacturing process which can create FODMAPs, which is really strange,” she said.
“Even if you’ve used all low FODMAP ingredients during the process, some of the sugars or carbs can break down. Nuts, for example, when roasted can become higher in FODMAP.”
Hutchinson and her manufacturing partner worked together to test samples and make sure they had the best base possible while also reducing the risk of FODMAPs becoming present during the process.
“We had to do a lot of iterations to get the consistency right and would work on their machinery. Once you have the base it’s a lot easier because you only have to alter small things like flavours,” she added.
After nailing down the recipe, and getting FODMAP certified, the next step to hitting the market was finding the right distributor.
“We needed to find the right one for a product like ours, who can understand and articulate why Fodbods are different to the other bars on the shelf. Once the ball got moving it picked up momentum, but you must be prepared to work hard,” said Hutchinson.
“Everyone has a different approach to distribution, they might only want to be direct to consumers because that’s where margins are the highest, or straight to the supermarket because that’s their model.”
Because Fodbods aims to help as many people as possible, Hutchinson said, the aim is to get the product in front of as many people as possible.
“We just want Fodbods in as many hands as possible, so the next logical step was to speak to supermarkets,” she said.
“We held off on approaching supermarkets because you wanted to make sure we had everything down pat first.”
Hutchinson was successful, and Fodbods became the first FODMAP certified protein bar in Australia.
The Fobods brand will continue to grow as it hits supermarket shelves in the very near future, while its position with its current list of distributors will also remain, meaning Fodbods will be available to an even wider market.
“The early success was because there was a genuine gap in the market for healthy, convenient FODMAP friendly food,” said Hutchinson.
“If people have choice and find other options, they’re not looking for a solution. We were able to cut through the noise quickly because we are the only FODMAP certified protein bar in Australia.
“We have a huge vegan customer base; I think it’s two per cent of Australia’s population that is vegan, and they are always looking for healthy and vegan friendly products.”
Capturing a larger segment than first anticipated has been attributed to a number of factors, mainly all linked to the changing habits of consumers who have become more health conscious.
“COVID-19 might have also played a part in consumer trends changing,” Hutchinson added.
“I think people being at home and having more time to think about their bodies and being conscious of how fragile health is, they did start paying more attention to what they were eating.
“We grew quite a bit during COVID, with people ordering from home and wanting that healthy option.”
Word of mouth has also been a big driver in the early success of Fodbods.
“We do a lot of sales online which helps us to really understand our customers, as well as research into product development,” said Hutchinson.
“Without changing our recipe, we can make small adjustments to the manufacturing process. For example, some people want their FODBODs to be a little chunkier, so we chop up the peanuts less, those changes come directly from customers.”
This direct feedback from customers, combined with success through word of mouth, Hutchinson said, is why the product is able to meet the changing demands of the market.
“Having Fodbods in your bag for someone with IBS is a huge weight of their shoulders because they aren’t stressing about what they will eat next,” she added.
It’s opened up an entirely new customer segment, there is one side of the market looking for a protein bar and Fodbods are all natural, plant based, gluten free, made from simple clean ingredients that are delicious and healthy.
“Then you have the other side of the market who would never think about a protein bar but are looking for a healthy and convenient FODBOD option that makes them feel good.”