Though first sold to Danone and now owned by Lactalis, Stonyfield was originally co-founded in 1983 by Hirshberg and Samuel Kaymen. The dairy brand produces organic yogurt, milk and cream for babies, kids and adults in various formats.
Hirshberg is still involved with Stonyfield as an adviser on strategy and communications to the current CEO, on a part-time basis, and is now staking a claim in the plant-based space. Hälsa Foods makes 100% clean and organic oat-based milk and yogurt alternatives with a Scandinavian heritage.
Cyclical changes force flexibility
Co-founders Helena Lumme and Mika Manninen are from Finland, and first brought their Scandinavian oat drink to the US in 2011. Hälsa is Swedish for health, and the brand eliminates all additives and chemicals from the manufacturing process and recipes.
The products are only sweetened and flavored with organic fruit, and they are formulated without enzymes, gums, emulsifiers, phosphates and processed sugar.
“Hälsa has done something other plant-based brands have not been able to do by creating a completely clean, additive-free process and label with minimal ingredients and no added sugar,” Hirshberg said.
“I was attracted to Hälsa yogurts because of their superb taste and texture, but also because I believe that the future of plant-based is absolutely organic.”
Lumme and Manninen first met Hirshberg in 2013 when they were all keynote speakers at a summit in Finland. They kept in contact, and after Hälsa launched its 8oz ‘oatgurt’ drinks in 2018 and the spoonable cups this year, Hirshberg wanted to get involved.
Consumers are proving to be ‘flexitarian’ in their diets, consuming both dairy products and plant-based alternatives. But the same is proving to be true of brands and producers. Not every dairy executive has a crusade against veganism, and vice versa.
Lumme told DairyReporter, “That’s the sign of the times. At Hälsa, we are not against milk or the dairy industry at all. I think for everybody working in the food business, there’s cyclical changes that happen due to consumers. Now they want to have plant-based and organic. We just have to live with these cyclical changes.”
Don't process to death
While the plant-based alternatives market is growing more crowded, and oat bases in particular, Lumme thinks Hälsa stands out enough to compete and pave a new path forward for the category.
The organic oats used in Hälsa products are sourced from Scandinavia and grown with a zero water footprint. Lumme said the company does not ‘burden the environment’ when growing its ingredients, which is common with the production of most plant-based milk alternatives.
The majority of the plant milk alternatives in the US use different variations of the same method, according to Lumme. Over processing the beverage can make it lose most of the nutrition from the plant base, resulting in little more than fortified sugar water.
The Hälsa recipe took four years to develop, and Lumme said it is not more expensive to make than the mass-produced beverages, and is much simpler. She described is as a smoother version of oatmeal with added probiotics.
“You can process something to death so that none of the beneficial nutrients are left in the product, and that’s unfortunately what happens,” Lumme said.
The products are manufactured in New York state, found in local delis and healthy food retail, as well as Fairway Market and Shoprite locations, and New York City airports.
The beverages are available in Mango Pear, Strawberry, Blueberry and Concord Grape, and contain between 120-140 calories and 9-11g of sugar. The ‘oatgurt’ cups come in Plain, Mango, Strawberry and Blueberry.
“The future of plant-based belongs to 100% clean label. Hälsa cracked the code by developing a new manufacturing process that keeps the nutritional benefits of whole grain oats intact,” Lumme said.