Dealing with the pandemic diet

COVID-19 has changed the eating habits of Canadians, according to study

Organika CEO Aaron Chin with a fresh batch of the Richmond-based health food company’s keto cookies | Chung Chow

Barren grocery store shelves were a signature of the pandemic’s early days as hoarding and supply chain issues plagued consumers intent on locking down and baking countless loaves of bread.

Since then, as the COVID-19 crisis has made Canadians rethink everything from time at the gym to visits to restaurants, many of those store shelves have given way to made-in-B.C. health food products delivering more than empty calories.

“Pandemic’s not a bad time to be in food,” said Ian Walker, co-founder and president of Ike Enterprises Inc. (Left Coast Naturals). His Burnaby-based company distributes healthy foods for the Canadian and U.S. markets.

 It also manufacturers its own under the Hippie Snacks and Left Coast Organics banners.

Walker said distinct consumer habits took over at the outset of the pandemic, in which people were first focused on hunkering down and making their own items, such as bread, before junk food started to become more prevalent.

The “new normal,” he said, sees home cooking entrenching itself as many people are either avoiding eating out or are benefiting from more time spent in the kitchen now that they can work from home. Demand has declined for energy bars and other on-the-go products as more people are staying in.

And for a period, that meant grocery stores were reluctant to bring on new products, Walker said.

“You didn’t want to spend a lot of time in the grocery store discovering new items and then bringing them home. You just kind of wanted to get in and get out. So that’s settling a little bit more now. You’re seeing more experimentation, more space given to new brands.”

This trend has brought more of B.C.’s health-oriented food products to store shelves and has drawn the attention of big investors.

U.S. investment firm TPG Growth took a majority stake in Vancouver’s SmartSweets Inc. in October 2020 for a reported US$360 million.

Tara Bosch, who created the low-sugar candy dotting 30,000 supermarket aisles in colourful bags, remains the largest individual shareholder after launching the company in 2016.

She told BIV that consumers were eager to find candy during the pandemic they could “enjoy and feel good about,” and SmartSweets is now focused on rapid expansion.

“TPG as a partner has equipped us with the resources required to elevate everything we do,” Bosch said in an email.

Meanwhile, the past 18 months of the pandemic have been changing the ways Canadians approach food, according to an April 2021 survey from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University.

Among the 9,991 respondents, 74% admitted the pandemic has affected their eating habits, while 42.3% acknowledged unintentionally gaining weight during the first year of the COVID-19 crisis.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the market for healthy foods has narrowed.

An October 2020 Consumer Reports survey revealed 22% of American respondents were eating healthier over the past month than they were a year earlier – prior to the start of the pandemic.

“A lot of people have looked at what’s important life, and one is obviously your health,” said Aaron Chin, CEO of Organika Health Products Inc.

The Richmond-based company produces about 200 health products, including foods such as chicken broth and keto cookies.

Chin said having a home base in B.C. – ranked Canada’s healthiest province prior to the pandemic by the Conference Board of Canada – has been instrumental when gauging which products will sell in other markets.

“B.C. is a leader in different trends or the different way you consume products, and then it kind of spreads out. Definitely to Ontario first, and then it hits the Prairies and then after that, the Maritimes.”

Chin added that while his company is focused on the Canadian market, is also gaining traction in Asia.

Organika owns and controls all of its manufacturing in Richmond, where the sales, marketing and regulatory teams are also based.

Chin said the company hasn’t fallen victim to supply chain issues plaguing many others. That has allowed it to keep products stocked in stores without the same kinds of disruptions other brands may have experienced.

“We came up with one product in the span of … two months. And usually it takes companies anywhere from eight to 12 months to launch a product,” he said.

“It’s a huge advantage when you need to move quick, when you’re not relying on somebody else to make your product for you or somebody else to apply for your governmental certificate.” •