Orgain Shakes Up the Nutritional Beverage Category
By Kat Schuett
They found a lump. It was cancer. Rhabdomyosarcoma, to be exact. Andrew Abraham had just started his senior year of high school when his life would change forever. Once you have had cancer, you often look at even the smallest details of life differently—especially the ingredients panel on the food you put inside your body.
Chemotherapy and radiation had completely killed his appetite as well as his ability to keep down whole food, so, like most cancer patients, Abraham subsisted on a diet of ready-to-drink (RTD) nutritional shakes. Then one day after forcing himself to chug one of these unpleasant-tasting shakes, he read the ingredients list on the label and what he saw shocked him: mass amounts of genetically modified high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), artificial flavors and colors, synthetic preservatives, cheap protein that was likely to be made from genetically modified soy...
“The whole time I thought that these drinks had to taste horrible for a reason—they must be good for me,” Abraham remembers. “I could not believe that a product marketed as a ‘healthy’ beverage—and something thousands of doctors recommend to sick patients—contained the exact ingredients that are linked to giving you disease in the first place.”
This revelation led to divine inspiration. Through the rest of his treatment, he blended his own shakes till he had it down to an art. Years later, after completing medical school and becoming a family practitioner, he has taken his shake-making skills to a whole new level—retail. In 2010, Dr. Abraham, who still works as a family care physician, launched the only certified organic nutritional shake on the market: Orgain. The name was chosen to convey the organic health benefits the drinker will “gain.” As Orgain’s slogan states: Gain health. Gain energy. Gain life.
Over the last few decades, the meal-replacement-drink category has grown to several billion dollars in size with well over 100 companies. These beverages appeal to a spectrum of users, including those who are ill and cannot eat, as well as people looking to lose weight, gain muscle, supplement their nutrition or just have a quick grab-and-go meal.
Now, just 17 months after bringing the product to market, Orgain is available in over 5,000 retail outlets ranging from supermarkets to health club chains. Abraham also recently launched a kids’ version of Orgain at Natural Products Expo West.
Today, Orgain is changing the way patients as well as health professionals look at labels and is being recommended by physicians and nutritionists across the country. What’s more, Orgain has also become a grass-roots movement, with consumer advocates evangelizing about the product to local retailers, friends and family.
From the Blender to the Tetra Pak
When thinking about what to include in Orgain, Abraham and his wife, who has a master’s degree in holistic nutrition, imagined what would be in a perfect meal and then worked backward to create it.
Because many of those who were ill would be relying on this shake as the sole form of sustenance, it needed to contain all the essential nutrients and then some extras to boost wellness. The list included complex organic carbohydrates, healthy fats, bioavailable high-quality protein, fruits, vegetables, a long list of vitamins and minerals and green tea (antioxidants)—and absolutely no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. All this, and it had to taste good, too.
While some of the items he used in his home concoctions would make the ingredient list, as anyone who has ever taken a product to market knows, whipping up something in the kitchen is very different from making it in mass quantities to be carted around the country and stored for months.
So he started looking for a food scientist to help formulate the product, and one by one they turned him down, claiming that putting his list of ingredients into something that tastes good was an “impossible” task.
Then he found the one who said he would take on the project, and was patient enough to keep trying over and over again to create the right mix. He was on the East Coast, Abraham was on the West Coast. So they met in the middle at a lab in Texas, and after about 40 attempts to formulate the product, Abraham about gave up. “I looked at the food scientist and said, ‘If we’re not able to make it taste good, I’m fine with stopping the project,’” Abraham says.
They persevered, however, and in the next round of formulations, finally found one that was as tasty as it was healthy.
Good and Good for You
So what exactly is in Orgain? One of the key ingredients is whey protein. Orgain is the only drink of its kind to have organic whey. Organic certified protein was very important, not only because of the lack of hormones, antibiotics and pesticides, but also because of the contaminants in conventional proteins. Abraham points to an investigation done by Consumer Reports released in June 2010 that found worrisome levels of heavy metals like lead, cadmium and arsenic in several popular conventional protein shakes. According to the report, protein drinks are considered dietary supplements, so the makers are not required to test the products before sale to ensure they are safe and effective.
Before deciding on whey, Abraham tried various organic protein sources. Some were gritty or would sink to the bottom. Others, like soy, were not as easy for the body to assimilate and use, says Abraham. Plus, using soy would turn off many health-conscious consumers, he adds, pointing out that several animal and human studies suggest that soy phyoestrogens can behave like estrogen and potentially increase breast cancer risk.
Whey, on the other hand, contains lactoferrin, a substance found in breast milk that has been shown to improve immunity. Whey also is a good source of immunoglobulin, which plays a critical role in scavenging the body to find and eradicate abnormalities.
Sourcing organic whey, a byproduct of cheese production, was a challenge, though. No matter where he looked, there didn’t seem to be enough whey to launch Orgain nationally and provide a secure supply as the company grew. So he contacted a network of dairy farmers, contracted with these farmers to buy their whey directly and brought it to the company’s processing facility, where it is isolated into organic whey protein. In total, Orgain has 16 grams of organic protein as compared to other nutritional shakes, which have about 9 to 10 grams of protein.
For healthy fats, Abraham chose organic monounsaturated high-oleic sunflower oil. Originally, he wanted something high in omegas, but after he had performed numerous experiments, none of the options he found remained stable in a ready-to-drink beverage that was stored unrefrigerated. Plus, the omega-3s added to many foods use a hexane extraction process, which in addition to environmental and health implications, also negatively affects the taste of the product. In order to get the amount of omegas found in the recommended 2- to 3-gram daily dose of fish oil, it would take 60 times the amount of omegas that they found they could put in the drink without adversely affecting the flavor.
For his complex carbohydrates blend, Orgain includes organic brown rice solids and organic brown rice syrup. Orgain’s sugar content, however, is a fraction of what is found in other nutritional shakes. Orgain has 13 grams of sugar, while Ensure has 22 grams and Slim-Fast has 34 grams! Others such as Muscle Milk use artificial sweeteners.
And what would a meal be without healthy fruits and vegetables? Orgain’s organic freeze-dried powdered fruit and veggie combo combined with added antioxidants like green tea gives the drink an ORAC value of 16,000—the equivalent of 10 fruits and vegetables. Additionally, a key part of the formulation was the vitamin and mineral mix. “I didn’t want to leave anything out,” Abraham says. “For some people, this will be their only source of nutrients—so it had to be as complete as possible.”
Last but not least was the flavor. Abraham had tried several “natural” flavors and ended up choosing a certified organic vanilla.
“All of the others didn’t taste right to me, probably because certain chemicals were used to extract natural flavors. With some of the other drinks on the market, you practically have to plug your nose to get it down. I am sure it is because they buy the cheapest ingredients—and that includes cheap flavors. Organic flavors are not cheap, but they are definitely worth it when it comes to taste.”
Educating the Influencers
In order to get Orgain out in the marketplace, one of Abraham’s strategies was to go to the people most trust to know all there is to know about health—doctors.
Like Abraham in the beginning, most people, even doctors, assume these RTD nutritional shakes are somewhat healthy—until they really look at the label.
So Abraham set up a conference on the subject through his local hospital’s continuing education program. Over 40 oncologists attended. The lecture began with a series of slides highlighting ingredients like HFCS, soy protein and different carcinogenic preservatives, and at the end he asked, “Does anyone know what this might be?” The doctors were shocked to find out that those ingredients made up the same product that they had been recommending to patients. Abraham has done many more presentations since and says the feedback has been great.
He points out that while doctors are great at treating disease, they are not so great at preventing it. “Keep in mind that most medical students only receive about two weeks of training on nutrition. Most of what I know on preventative health I have learned through years of self-study.”
Abraham also reached out to nutritionists to give the same enlightening presentation and will be exibiting at the American Dietetic Conference, which is geared towards over 9,000 preventive health professionals. Recently, Orgain was launched into two major health club chains—Lifetime Fitness and 24 Hour Fitness.
“When you work out, the body releases a lot of oxidants, which is why you can sometimes get sick from overdoing it at the gym—the antioxidants in Orgain can help fight these free radicals,” Abraham says.
Orgain also just received the “Ashley Koff Approved” (AKA) seal. Koff is a well-respected registered dietitian who is regularly called on for her nutritional expertise in several media outlets, including The Huffington Post, Good Morning America Health, E! News, O! The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, Natural Health and Organic Processing magazines. The AKA endorsement is likely to lead to a surge of media exposure for Orgain—and cause many more people to look much more closely at the label of their usual RTD shakes.
Another way Orgain is getting out to new areas in the market is by giving cases of it away for free. Since its launch, Orgain has used a portion of its profits to give a free supply of Orgain to more than 100 people who needed the nutrition but could not afford it. “The only thing I ask in return is that the people we help spread the word about Orgain—and they have!” he says.
One of the first people who received free product was a patient dealing with cancer. One year after giving her the product, Abraham started receiving phone calls from pharmacies and small retailers all around her area requesting Orgain. “She had gone out and told everyone how much it had helped her,” Abraham says. “It was very rewarding and humbling to see this kind of feedback, and it strengthens our resolve to continue to help others.”
As part of this resolve, this summer, Abraham is going to be working with the nonprofit Nourish America (www.nourishamerica.org) to launch a kids’ nutrition program, as well as another program working with malnourished seniors.
Plans for Expansion
To give parents an organic alternative to brands like PediaSure, which contains the same HFCS and artificial flavors and preservatives as the conventional brands for adults, Orgain launched a kid-size version at Natural Products Expo West this past March. Orgain Healthy Kids is very similar to the adult version except it is smaller, 8 ounces versus 13 ounces, and has more vitamin D and calcium, and less protein. It is marketed as an ideal way to make sure picky eaters are getting the proper nutrition for development, as well as a healthier option for after-school snacks, meals on the run or as a pick-me-up after sports practice.
As for what’s next, Abraham says he is continually testing new ingredients to make Orgain even more nutritious and adds that there are usually about 40 different ingredients he is experimenting with in his kitchen at all times. He has also been looking for ways to make it more affordable, especially for those who are ill and depend on Orgain for every calorie. Orgain currently sells for $2.99 retail, which is not too bad when you consider that it is about 5 ounces larger than its conventional competitors, however, it can add up when a cancer patient is drinking 6 to 8 servings a day. Recently, though, Orgain was made available through Amazon.com’s Subscribe and Save program, bringing the price down to about $2 per unit—35 percent less than what it sells for in stores.
Meanwhile, Abraham’s biggest project continues to be enlightening consumers about what really is in so-called “healthy nutritional shakes” and making sure no one ever has to plug their nose to chug another again.
Kat Schuett is the editorial director of Organic Processing Magazine. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.