Healthy eating: The Southeast Asian startups making it a breeze

© Ella Olsson/Unsplash

From meal plans to novel ingredients, agriculture and foodtech startups in the region are developing new ways to improve nutrition without sacrificing taste

As the world’s population increases, the need for sufficient food continues to grow. There is still a massive food insecurity problem, with as many as 667m people not having enough food. But with growing wealth, there is also a problem of overeating and obesity. According to a 2016 WHO estimate, more than 1.9bn adults worldwide are overweight. Of these, 650m are obese.

Healthy diets can also help manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease, alleviate symptoms, or speed up recovery. However, for various reasons, it is not always easy to start eating healthier diets. 

Many companies worldwide are trying to improve the quality of the nutrition in our diet with solutions that range from catering healthier meals and building customized meal plans to creating new foods and additives that increase the nutritional benefits of what we’re already eating.

The increased interest in health and wellness has created a booming industry for health foodtechs. In Indonesia alone, the health and wellness food market is estimated to be worth $9bn. Startups are also getting in on the action. Southeast Asian agriculture and foodtech startups raised an estimated $350m in the first half of 2020, more than 80% of the total raised in 2019.

Healthy alternatives

To meet the demand for more nutritious foods, manufacturers experiment with new ingredients and methods, adding health benefits to existing popular foods. Instant noodles are a common target in Asia. For Indonesia’s Lemonilo and Singapore’s NamZ, the journey starts with avoiding the deep-frying process in instant noodles manufacturing. 

Typically, noodles are deep-fried to dehydrate and preserve them, and the process also gives a distinct taste and texture. Instead of deep-frying, Lemonilo opts to toast the noodles, while NamZ chooses to air-fry the noodles. Both processes reduce or eliminate oil from the equation, reducing the fat content of the noodles.

Instant noodles are a common target in Asia

BamNut Noodles
NamZ’s BamNut Noodles © WhatIF Foods

Both Lemonilo and Namz also incorporate alternative ingredients in their manufacturing processes. Lemonilo adds cassava flour and a small amount of spinach extract to reduce the glycemic index and add more dietary fiber. NamZ opts for Bambara groundnuts and moringa leaves to create two types of instant noodles, with additional protein and fiber content, respectively.

Lemonilo’s products, including snacks and food supplements, are now widely available in Indonesian supermarkets, e-commerce platforms, and the company’s own web store. 

NamZ sells its instant noodles and shakes under the consumer brand WhatIF Foods, which sells through its online store. Lemonilo, which pivoted from health consulting startup Konsula in 2017, last raised funding in August 2018 from Alpha JWC Ventures and Unifam Capital. 

Same food, more nutritious

While healthy food alternatives are becoming more widely available, it may not be easy to switch because the alternatives may be more expensive. For example, Lemonilo noodles are almost three times more expensive than most other conventional noodle brands in Indonesia.

© Alchemy Foodtech

For Singaporean startup Alchemy Foodtech, the solution is not to change what we eat but to make what we’re already eating healthier. The company has created a food additive that increases rice and flour fiber content while also reducing the glycemic index of such foods. The product comes in the form of a soluble powder, which forms a protective fiber coating around rice grains as it is cooked. The coating slows down the digestion process of rice, which helps prevent spikes in blood sugar.

Alchemy Foodtech’s co-founder Alan Phua launched the startup after seeing his family struggling with diabetes and healthy eating. “I wanted to see real solutions to help people stay healthy but still enjoy the food,” Phua said. “We know it’s difficult for people to give up their favorite foods, especially the rice or sugary drinks.” Together with co-founder Verleen Goh, Phua established Alchemy Foodtech in 2015 to make it easier for people, diabetics or otherwise, to control their blood sugar and carbohydrate intake while continuing to eat what they love.

Alchemy’s powdered additive is now used in rice and flour served in many Singapore restaurants, including Yum Cha, Yu Kee Duck Rice, Korean restaurant Ajumma, and Bakery Brera & Fine Foods. The company has also partnered with Lim Kee Food Manufacturing, one of Singapore’s biggest ready-to-eat meal manufacturers, to produce healthier rice meals. 

Alchemy Foodtech has raised nearly $4m in funding from various investors, including Heritas Capital Management and SEEDS Capital.

Meal programs

Someone who is trying to lose weight will need to eat differently from someone trying to gain weight, and some people need to avoid specific ingredients to manage their chronic illness. The sheer amount of information and choices out there can confuse anyone. Some startups have begun serving this need by providing curated meals specifically developed for different dietary requirements.

product
Vegan burgers © Burgreens

Vegetarian restaurant Burgreens provides weekly meal plans consisting of plant-based “whole foods” and beverages produced without MSG or preservatives. Starting from IDR 300,000, customers can enjoy one plant-based meal a day catered to their preferences, which include gluten-free and peanut-free options. The company also has “healing" meal programs for managing chronic illnesses like diabetes or cancer.

Another Indonesian startup, Gorry Holdings, was founded in 2014 to cater to weight loss, muscle gain, and other special needs. The company has also developed GorryWell, an app providing real-time, location-based recommendations of restaurants serving healthy meals. GorryWell customizes recommendations for each user based on their physical condition and preferences. Many Indonesian companies are using GorryWell to help employees start eating healthier meals.

Both Burgreens and Gorry Holdings have attracted significant investor interest. Since its launch in 2013, Burgreens has raised undisclosed capital from various angel investors affiliated with ANGIN (Angel Investor Network Indonesia) and Singapore-based Teja Ventures. 

Burgreen’s founders have also established The Green Butcher, a ready-to-cook meal and B2B spinoff company, which raised $2m in February. Gorry Holdings last raised funding in December 2018 from Heritas Capital Management, and last November, it was reportedly in talks to raise up to $5m from undisclosed investors.

Edited by S. Mani

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