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From the rainforest to Bellevue Hill

From the rainforest to Bellevue Hill

posted April 4, 2015 - news

Amazonia, Divinita and the start-ups riding the healthy food trend. There is a simmering indignation in Dwayne Martens. He is outraged by the lies printed on “health food” products and the garbage we force our bodies to digest every day.

“It’s an abomination,” he says, while bouncing on his fitness ball. “There should be regulations forcing you to say if you’ve used modified ingredients. People have a right to know.”

Martens is on a mission to inform people about their guts. He’s also on a mission to smooth out the ecological pipeline in the Amazon rainforest, by sourcing acai berries directly from farmers and the communities that live in the region.

Acai’s properties are associated with healthy digestion, cellular health and have high levels of anthocyanins, a form of plant antioxidant that prompts lower cholesterol levels and other cardio-protective benefits.

And so far, the mission is going well. Martens’ superfoods company Amazonia is on track to turnover $10 million this year alone. Since he first trekked through the Amazon, hunting acai berries, it’s gained huge momentum in the Australian market, with devotees happy to pay almost $50 for 120 grams of powdered pre-probiotics or $125 for frozen acai smoothie packs.

“Yeah, we’re kind of smashing it at the moment,” says Martens, from the living room of his house in Bellevue Hill. It is one of Sydney’s most exclusive suburbs, but he doesn’t sleep in it, preferring one of the two teepees pitched in the backyard. “There is an absolute health epidemic and we’ve developed a solution based business.”

And business it is. According to IBIS World, the health snack food production industry in Australia is worth $587.4 million. The sector has enjoyed annual revenue growth of 7.3 per cent these past five years and is forecast to continue to grow by 4.6 per cent per year over the next five years.

The hankering for gluten-free, additive-free, bio-everything products has spread like wildfire, and people are more than willing to pay for the good stuff and are keen to reconnect with nature.

Franchise chain SumoSalad has installed hydroponic walls in two stores that grow fresh food and vegetables. Paleo Cafe, a business founded in Cairns in 2012, is now franchising nationally. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley says the trend is mainstream, followed as much by middle-aged men in Dubbo as young women in Bondi. Even unhealthy food is getting healthier, with Nestle shrinking the size of its killer python lollies, and Grill’d introducing low-carb options.

Businesses like Orchard St, based out of Sydney’s Bondi, have gathered remarkable momentum using social media, turning over tens of thousands of dollars a month from their cold-pressed juices, kefir fermented drinks and nut milks.

Like Orchard St, Amazonia started small; Martens made acai smoothies out of his car at festivals around Fremantle in Perth. As acai caught on, he booked a flight to the Amazon and went to meet the folks who pick the berries and discovered an existing, thriving industry.

“Nobody really owns the land in the Amazon,” says Martens. “The locals are getting paid for the baskets they pick, so they have more financial incentive to keep trees standing and the forests in tact.”

While the trees in the Amazon had already been yielding acai berries for years, it took time for the Australian market to come round to the idea of superfoods.

“We grew with the fad, I’m not going to lie,” admits Martens, but emphatically points to the ticking time-bombs we ingest in over-processed foods as part of our daily diets. “Australians have adopted acai berries really well, but they don’t really have a choice. The food industry here has been compromised with all the additives and things. The human body is only so resilient.”

Seaweed supplements

Divinita founder and CEO AvnerDanielli with his company’s brown algae tablets.Photo: Michelle Smith

Not content to eat off the walls to get their health fix, some people are turning to fish food to alleviate health problems caused by irregular and processed diets.

Adam Danielli was slaving through an architecture masters, beholden to the perks of caffeine when his father suggested he try unlikely European sensation, brown seaweed algae.

“The amount of energy I was getting out of brown algae was incredible,” says Adam’s father AvnerDanielli, founder of brown seaweed startupDivinita – derived from divinitas, the Latin for divine. “He and his friends started using it while they were studying instead of drinking coffee.”

Adam actually found the health food industry more interesting than architecture, and in 2010 joined Divinita with his father.

Brown seaweed algae is harvested in Norway and Scotland, under strict controls as it is essential to the marine ecosystem in those parts, but is rich in vitamins, minerals, omegas 6, 3 and 9 and organic iodine.

Well known in Europe, Divinita then spread to Singapore to gain exposure to the Asian market. For centuries Asian countries have been using algae as a health supplement, and the introduction of brown algae was well received.

For three years, Divinita concentrated on selling brown algae capsules overseas before bringing the business to Australia this October. Partnering the University of Queensland, the Daniellis have unlocked many functions the seaweed can perform.

“The health industry is growing a lot here,” says AvnerDanielli. “Australians understand alternative medicine complements traditional medicine.”

Businesses leveraging off the wave off the nutritiously conscious are springing up all over the country. The recent sweep of Paleo diet devotees, those who emulate what cavemen ate (lots of meat, eggs, nuts and berries and no dairy, sugar, grains or legumes) have inspired a sweep of Paleo cafes from far north Queensland to southern Victoria.

“The health food industry has no choice but to get bigger,” says Amazonia’s Martens confidently. “We’re in a time where we either make this paradise a prison or we do it properly. Authentic organics need to exist so that our life expectancy goes up, not down.”