It was while pursuing a six-month chef’s training course at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York in 2013 that Moina Oberoi, 38, was first introduced to probiotic beverages such as kefir and kombucha during a fermentation class. For Oberoi, who was suffering from an autoimmune disease, it was a life-changing moment. “One of the side effects of my condition is brain fog and fatigue. Within a week to 10 days of having kefir, my head felt clearer," she recalls. Soon enough, she had sourced starter culture to make her own kefir—a probiotic yoghurt drink made using whole milk and kefir grains (small gelatinous beads that contain a variety of bacteria and yeasts). “Within a month or so, I was 90% pain-free," says Oberoi, who had suffered from chronic body pain for more than 15 years.
In 2014, when she returned to India, Oberoi continued making kefir for herself. However, since the mother culture keeps multiplying, she soon had too much of it for personal consumption. That’s when she toyed with the idea of bottling and selling kefir in Mumbai where she is based. In November 2016, after a six-month pilot project, Oberoi launched her brand Mo’s Superfoods, which provides health supportive and sustainable food products within the fermented food space. Currently, she has a range of six kefir beverages in various flavours, kefir cream cheese, black garlic and coconut oil under her brand name.
Why probiotic foods?
Oberoi, who considers kefir a magic elixir, says this probiotic beverage, which has 40-50 strains of bacteria (as opposed to 1-3 strains in curd), is particularly beneficial for gut health. Apart from eliminating irritable bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal disorders and chronic inflammatory diseases, it can also improve immunity and bone density. Even though it’s not readily available in India, she felt it would be easy to integrate it into one’s lifestyle as most Indians are used to curd. While it’s similar in taste to curd, kefir tends to be more tart and of lighter consistency. Since the drink is 99% lactose-free, Oberoi has been targeting both the lactose-free and probiotic market.
“If we can replace 30% of our staples with something cleaner, we would be reducing the toxicity levels in our kitchen and feeding our family a little better," she adds.
As a startup with fresh dairy products, finding a cold chain distribution network that’ll work with smaller volumes has been a pain point. “While there are large-scale logistics companies that do an amazing job, we are not there yet with our volume. And since we are not yet looking for funding, we can’t invest large sums in establishing a cold chain supply to expand outside [Mumbai]," says Oberoi, who had initially raised a seed fund through family and friends and has also taken a bank loan. Currently, Mo’s Superfoods sells online within Mumbai through its website and has also co-branded with Urban Platter, an online platform for niche and gourmet food products, which delivers its products via Amazon pan-India.
Within a month of launching the kefir in 2016, Oberoi realized that she would need to tone down the acidity of the drink for the Indian palate. Plus, people wanted more variety apart from the plain kefir, especially since many mothers were keen on getting their kids to try it out. “In the first year, we did a lot of events and markets where we tried out new flavours and gave out tasting samples for feedback," says Oberoi, who introduced flavours such as pink guava, Alphonso mango, mishti doi and Himalayan pink salt chaas soon after.
The kefir cream cheese, which also comes in five flavours, was introduced after one-and-a-half years of research to add to the product range. “While doing the nutritional counts and lab tests, we also found out that it had five times fewer calories than regular cream cheese. While this isn’t something I emphasize on since I don’t count calories myself, there are people to whom it may matter," she adds.
Future of the market
With the value-added category in the dairy segment growing exponentially in India, Oberoi believes that the “sky is the limit" for this particular market. “We are talking to larger companies who have existing distribution [networks] or set-ups that one can piggyback on and the other way around," she says.
Food Files looks at unique food startups and their journey through challenges and learnings.