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One ingredient wonders: How brands like Oatly and Banza build businesses around a single ingredient

The strategy leans in on a single ingredient’s popularity — and hopes that supply won’t run out.

Chickpeas take center stage in food brand Banza's range. (Photo: Banza)
BUILDING BLOCKS

There are plenty of food and drink brands out there that owe their existence to a single ingredient.

Without the humble oat, Oatly wouldn’t have been able to flood the market with its dairy-free milk alternative. Grassy green matcha powder is what sustains brands like Motto, MatchaBar, Cha Cha Matcha and plenty others, and if it weren’t for crickets, cracker brand Small Giants wouldn’t exist.

It’s an approach to brand building that leans heavily on the popularity and public perception of that given ingredient, and it’s common for brands to ride the "superfood" wave of the day. According to Food Dive, chia seeds featured in 37% of new product launches containing ancient grains in 2017, around the same time as they were one of the most searched-for ingredients online.

But not every ingredient is robust enough for an entire brand to be built around it, and brands that choose this path often end up spending a lot of time on research and product development to figure out what their hero ingredient is capable of doing. “[Chickpeas] are very similar to the makeup of wheat in the sense that they’re starchy and have high protein and fiber,” says Leigh Hamp, vice president of product development at Banza, which makes products like pasta and pizza crusts from chickpeas. “On the flipside, chickpeas don’t have any gluten, which is wheat’s most powerful building block.”

There was a lot of trial and error involved before Banza was able to launch its chickpea-crust pizza in 2020, for example, Hamp says. While the pasta and rice products Banza was already making shared a fairly similar production process, when the team tried to make a pizza crust this way, the prototypes ended up like “dehydrated hummus,” Hamp says. “Every development process has its fair share of challenges,” she adds. “We wanted [the pizza] crust to be crusty, the center to be chewy, and fold in half like a New York pizza slice. It’s about [figuring out] how we can target those characteristics in the Banza version.”

When all your eggs are in one basket

There are also risks that come with building a brand around a single ingredient. Foods can fall out of fashion — one day overnight oats may feel as dated as 1950s diet favorite cottage cheese — and supply shortages can cause havoc. Following droughts that saw U.S. oat production decline 39% year-on-year in 2021, Oatly has struggled to keep up with demand for its products. American chickpea stocks are also down — although Hamp says that Banza has been building up its network of suppliers in order to make sure it always has a steady supply.

Faced with such challenges, it’s likely that all one-ingredient-wonder brands ask themselves that existential question: Could our existence be greater than a chickpea, a chia seed, or an oat husk?

Hamp says that at Banza, the door has purposely been left open for the brand to explore the pros and cons of other beans beyond chickpeas. “As an organization, our mission [is] to inspire people to each chickpeas and other beans,” she says. “We were strategic about keeping the mission broad and not exclusive to chickpeas. We are open to all pulses.”

During its product development process, Hamp says that Banza will always test new products with other types of bean flour. It’s just that, so far, the chickpea has always been the winner.