Some Foods co-founders Martine and Ronnie Banks

Some Foods co-founders Martine and Ronnie Banks

Australia is seen as one of the markets where low-FODMAP foods have gained the most traction. Dean Best speaks to Martine and Ronnie Banks, the founders of local business Some Foods about why they set up the company, the prospects for low-FODMAP foods in Australia and their ambitions overseas.

just-food: What was the spark for the setting up of Some Foods?

Ronnie Banks: I've had medically diagnosed IBS for over 20 years. I've never really known what caused it and I've had every test you could imagine. Three years ago, I was in New Zealand for a work conference, and I'd gotten unwell there. A colleague told me about the low-FODMAP diet that Monash University developed. As soon as I got back to Australia, I went on the diet. Within two weeks, I was the best I've felt in many, many years. I had very little bloating. I didn't have any pain. It was a real life-changer for me.

Martine and I are both quite avid cooks but we certainly don't have cooking backgrounds. One day, we were cooking dinner and both said we missed being able to buy a jar of sauce occasionally. We woke up the next day and both said: "I have an idea." That kind of became the business. We saw there was no-one else in the world - that we could uncover, at least - that was doing low-FODMAP products, and so from there, we just started developing our own recipes. It was just over 12 months from that point to launch the product [in July 2014]. We launched probably about a month after the Fodmapped Foods product range. They can claim that they were the first ones to launch; it was a bit of a shame that it wasn't us but never mind; we were on the same path at the same time. That's sort of how the business was started. We still manufacture all the products ourselves, so every single batch is done with at least one of us there cooking it.

just-food: Is the low-FODMAP diet easy to follow?

Martine Banks: It can be challenging. It depends how much the person wants to educate themselves. There are some really great resources available. The Monash University low-FODMAP diet app is certainly the Bible to have in your pocket when you're going shopping. They've got over 500 tested foods.

Ronnie Banks: The one thing I tell people to focus on is what you can eat and not what you can't. S many people are hung up on the fact they can't eat garlic or onion anymore, or they can't eat broccoli or whatever might be a trigger for them.

Martine Banks: There's not a one-size-fits-all, in terms of tolerance level. FODMAPs and them impacting from a symptom point of view is down to a serving level. There are some foods like sweet corn on the cob where a quarter of a cob is low-FODMAP but, if you have a whole cob, it's high-FODMAP. Finding how your body responds to it is probably the most challenging thing, rather than necessarily the diet itself. That's why it's recommended you do it under the guidance of a dietitian because they can help you from a manage-and-elimination diet, and then also help you from a re-introduction point of view. The re-introduction of FODMAPs is important from a gut flora health point of view. The fructans and some of the galacto-oligosaccharides are prebiotic fibers for your gut and actually promote good gut flora. Restricting those long-term ... they haven't done studies on it but they're of the opinion it could be detrimental to your gut for a long-term, so they really do encourage you to try to introduce, even if you're just having very low amounts of those prebiotic fibers, just so you can maintain your gut health going forward.

just-food: What is the Some Foods' product range and its listings?

Martine Banks: We still have just the original six that we launched with but we are about to release another three to market. We've got a long list of other new products we'd like to release in the near future. Balancing the growth of your market versus product development has been a little bit challenging. We have quite a good presence in South Australia, our home state in Australia. We're in over 50 stores and also have an online store. We have a distributor for two of the eastern seaboard states and we've just signed with a distributor for Western Australia, so we're starting to get our product out there and known.

Ronnie Banks: Our distributing is an independent grocery chain. We're not in the really big, corporate supermarkets. We're very lucky in our home state of South Australia the independent supermarkets have about 60% of market share. They took it on very quickly. That's helped us expand into the other states quite well. Being a small business, it's taken us a bit of time to increase our manufacturing. Twelve months ago we took on our own commercial facility. That's enabled us to ramp up production to accommodate the expansion into the rest of the country. We already had quite a lot of inquiries from America and the UK as to when we can get there, and it's just a matter of both of us getting ourselves ready for exporting over to those countries.

just-food: How do you assess the development of the low-FODMAP market in Australia?

Martine Banks: Probably more rapid than we thought. When we launched our product, we did a lot of in-store tastings and, at that point in time, very few people who we interacted with had ever heard of the low-FODMAP diet. Yet, now, whenever we do a tasting, at least several people either are on the low-FODMAP diet or have a family member or friend who are. That's within the space of two years. There are now many, many more foods that have been certified. There's a Foodland supermarket within our state that has recently just set up a low-FODMAP dedicated section within their supermarket, which is very forward thinking of them. There will be other stores that follow suit. The two main chains, Woolworths and Coles, have health-food sections. If you've got certified products, that's where they'll be. We're not there yet, but we're really close to it being a category.

just-food: Are you seeing other categories in Australia try to ride the growing interest in the low-FODMAP diet? Similar to how, across the world now, we're seeing with gluten-free?

Ronnie Banks: In a way but that's probably been driven more by the two certification programmes. There's the FODMAP Friendly certification and the Monash low-FODMAP certification. I guess in order for them to continue to build their certification programmes, they're reaching out to companies and a lot of them are things like bread companies who might do a sourdough, rye bread. Or a snack bar company where they haven't actually changed their recipes at all to accommodate being low-FODMAP. It just kind of by default is low-FODMAP. I don't think there's too many that have jumped on that bandwagon voluntarily yet. We have a lot of variables within this diet that would make it hard for people to jump on the bandwagon.

Australia at forefront of low-FODMAP development - analysis

just-food: Are you seeing more mainstream consumers - those without IBS or other digestive conditions - take an interest in the low-FODMAP diet?

Ronnie Banks: We think we've come up with products that certainly are meeting the needs of both the low-FODMAP community but also the mainstream community who are purchasing probably even more of our products at the moment than the low-FODMAP community.  When we first launched the product, people were passing by, and they would try it, and just love the taste of it. Probably for the first 18 months, 95% of our sales were to mainstream-consumers, who just loved the taste of our product and the fact there's no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives and things in it. What we've also seen is that most people don't know the low-FODMAP diet. When you say it contains no onion or garlic, they go, "That's great. I can't eat that." They understand there's something they can't eat but they don't understand why.

When I talk about the mainstream, there are the people who just want a jar of sauce they feel is guilt-free because it doesn't have anything artificial in it, but also tastes great. Then there's other people who just don't eat onion and garlic because it makes them feel a bit lousy. There's no question the mainstream consumers, so to speak, has been what's helped our brand grow quickly. It's only really in the last six months we've suddenly seen a real pick-up in low-FODMAP diet people who are buying our brand.

just-food: Are more people being advised they should follow the low-FODMAP diet?

Martine Banks: Monash run a dietitian workshop once a year. More and more, dietitians are being trained in the low-FODMAP approach. More gastroenterologists are aware of it. 

Ronnie Banks: The problem with that then is it can be such a complicated diet to get your head around initially that there's a lot of misinformation coming out from GPs and other referring doctors because they don't quite understand it. Most general practitioners these days are so time-poor they don't have the time to really understand the diet.

just-food: As you build the business, I'm assuming you're pretty agnostic about the types of consumers you might attract, whether they be people with digestive issues or the more mainstream consumers?

Ronnie Banks: Yeah. I think it probably differentiates our brand from maybe some other products on the market is we want to make sure appeals to anyone, whether you're on this diet or not. We want to produce just good quality products. I think that gives us, particularly in these early stages of the diet getting wider recognition, the ability to sell more product to people who just want a really good tasting product. Everything we do, at the same stage, will always be low-FODMAP.

just-food: Which of the major retailers are getting behind low-FODMAP foods?

Martine Banks: Coles were the first ones to stock anything low-FODMAP certified. Then, Woolies, I guess almost by default. Again, this is where we talking before about the FODMAP-friendly certification and Monash University low-FODMAP certification programmes reaching out to food manufacturers and encouraging them to have their products tested. Some of those products that were tested were already in Woolies and then happened to then wear the certification stamp.

Ronnie Banks: In Australia, the people who are going to drive this category are going to be the independent grocers. I think they're going to drive it, and then the big ones like Coles and Woolies will jump on board, and it'll become part of their way of working. Coles and Woolies have reached out to us and asked why we haven't approached them to stock it instead of going to the independents. We're just not ready to deal with them at this stage.

Martine Banks: I guess we're very mindful that you hear the stories, and you see the evidence in the supermarket on the shelves, in terms of products that are brought in and used as test cases, and then home-branded by the supermarket.

just-food: What are the growth prospects for the business? Are you willing to talk about the annual turnover that you generate right now?

Ronnie Banks: We probably don't want to talk about numbers too much but I'm comfortable talking about roughly what our predictions are with our business plan. Our business plan is something that we update on a regular basis. We would hope to be turning over seven figures within the next 12 months. Part of what going to help drive that will be our expansion overseas. We would love to be in the UK and the US. That's probably where we're going to see the significant growth and probably where we're going to be more open to dealing with the big guys than probably more than we are locally.

just-food: Is the business profitable?

Ronnie Banks: Does it make money? Yes, it does. But every cent the company makes, we actually put straight back into the business. We spent a lot of money going through the accreditation process with Monash, on our own facility. We don't plan on making any great living out of the business over the next few years. It's all just going straight back into the business to help grow and get ready for the next stage of growth that we're hoping is going to happen.

just-food: How would you characterise the prospects of the low-FODMAP movement in Australia? FODMAP Friendly has said the market will be at least 15 times larger than the gluten-free market.

Ronnie Banks: I have absolute confidence it will be bigger than the gluten-free. Part of that is because a lot of people who eat gluten-free are probably actually more of the low-FODMAP issue than it is gluten. I think gradually over time that's going to ring true for people, and they're going to move from being gluten-free to being low-FODMAP.

just-food: When do you think you could get products shipped overseas and where?

Ronnie Banks: In our business plan, we have exporting in there by the end of this year. We already have a distributor in the US that's really keen to take us on, and we've been kind of going a bit slow on that just while we get a few things sorted out at our manufacturing facility that we can ramp up productions quickly to accommodate that. We're probably at that point where we can now.  Both of us have family in the UK, so from a personal perspective, we'd love to get into the UK sooner rather than later. We just need to figure out what's the best way of entry in that market from a distribution perspective.

Martine Banks: We're part of a lot of low-FODMAP groups on social media, and both of those markets are crying out for products.

Ronnie Banks: Both the US and the UK have fairly similar rates of IBS as Australia, so it could make sense that not only do you have an educated consumer who's looking for health-related products, but you also have them with similar rates of IBS as we have here.