Consumers around the world want more wholesome food and drink these days, and they want it now. This trend is pushing Alberta natural food and drink purveyors to look for new ways to offer customers the biggest plant-based bang for their buck, conveniently and as tailored as possible.

Study after study is finding well-informed, green buyers are interested in taking control of their health and wellness and looking for authentic, back to basics products they can buy like fast food or prepare themselves. A May 2018 Beverage Trends paper suggested that Canadians are looking for more ready-to-drink libations, processed differently and that pack a powerful wholesome punch. A recent Washington Post article noted how US manufacturers are responding to this trend. Between 2012 and 2018 there was a 268 percent increase in the number of foods and drinks using the term ‘plant-based’ to describe their products.

Introducing the Elixir

Enter the elixir niche, a phenomenon born in California eight years ago and imported into Alberta by forward looking natural health gurus like Calgary’s Malcolm Saunders. The Light Cellar owner started to offer ‘organic drinks of the week’ about five years ago to prove that a deeply nutritional cross between morning coffee and smoothies would appeal to today’s more nutritive demanding customers and grow his business.

Photo Credit: Sharon Pearce-McLeay

Since then elixir sales and accompanying ‘how to’ workshops have boosted revenues by 15 percent and expanded ingredient sales catering to fans who want to make their own drinks. “It’s like the craft brew business,” says Saunders, “customers want their drinks made to suit their particular needs and tastes.” In January 2018, Saunders released Elixir Life: Modern Nutrition Meets Ancient Herbal Wisdom containing 30 recipes that’s sold 4,000 copies in store and on Amazon, and opened Canada’s first elixir bar at his north-west Calgary store and later at a south-east food market.

His description of elixirs as “alchemical vehicles for the delivery of food and medicine” might not sound too tasty. But his White-Hot Chocolate Maccha Kiss—green tea meets herbs, reishi tea, chocolate and natural marshmallows—could change your mind. It not only pushes the energy button but delivers nutrients where needed and tastes yummy to boot.

It's Not Just Juice

In the world of wholesome drinks, it is important to differentiate elixirs from juices that use fresh fruits and vegetables—sometimes with a holistic chaser—and the fermented kombucha, which is used for cleansing the gut and strengthening the immune system.

The difference lays in the herbal component that enables creators to design mixtures aimed at specific health concerns, like the common cold/flu, high blood pressure and inflammation, digestion, endocrine and immune system regulation. Adaptogens are a key ingredient that allow the body to continually re-adapt and build resistance to the adverse effects of physical, chemical and biological stress. "The proof," says Saunders, "is in the research behind the teas, healthy fats, natural sweeteners and medicinal ingredients that form the four pillars of any elixir."

Photo Credit: Sharon Pearce-McLeay

Sheniz Wilkie, owner of Edmonton’s Noorish, estimates her elixir bar and ingredient sales have grown to become about 25 percent of her revenue. Like others, she saw a growing demand for nutrient dense non-alcoholic drinks. “People are choosing not to drink alcohol, but still want to go out for a fancy drink, sometimes as a late-night experience,” she says.

Noorish has developed over 100 elixir recipes—up from 10 when it opened in 2011—that bring old world medicine together with popular brews, like coffee and tea. She feels the elixir bar is a good match for her vegetarian menu because the drinks offer a more efficient and tasty way to deliver herbs and super foods to the body. As a further response to trends Wilkie has added some nutrient rich cocktails and hopes to be able to incorporate CBD concentrates when they are approved this fall.

The Support is in the Numbers

Jeananne Laing, president and founding member of the Alberta Herbalist Association (AHA)—a regulatory body that vets herbal education—isn’t surprised that elixir bars have become more fashionable. She says it’s a sign that consumers are tired of mass-produced grocery store food that is less about health and more about efficiency and long-term storage.

A 2015 Conference Board of Canada (CBOC) report demonstrates Laing’s point. Though not specifically focused on elixirs, the survey reveals a fast-growing trend towards healthier living and the use of alternative natural products. According to the CBOC over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, herbal remedies, and other health supplements sales grew 0.4% faster than all retail sales combined between 2004 and 2014 . The 2014 figures show Canadian sales in this category at $5.6 billion.

According toStatistics Canada just one part of the sales studied by the CBOC—functional foods and natural health products (FFNHP)—was the fastest growing agriculture and agri-food sector in 2011. This segment, which includes food actively enhanced with bio-active ingredients during production and items made from natural sources and sold in dosage form to promote, restore or correct human health function brought in $11.3 billion in 2011.

Co-owner and founder of Medicine Hat’s Mutha Earth, Kat Moon [Gammelseter], thinks elixirs provide consumers—who’ve exhausted western medicine’s solutions—with an easy gateway into the world of nutritive rich, integrated health solutions. “They want to increase their awareness, to trust in their bodies, but do it on a gradual basis,” she says. Moon incorporated 10 elixirs—now 25 percent of revenues—into Mutha Earth’s retail mix when it opened in 2017 and has since expanded into selling ingredients—with a free Elixir Crafting guide—to enable customers to make their own. Their next steps will be to sell through cafes, expand into other cities, market their prepared elixir powders through a wholesaler and explore the CBD concentrate possibilities when they are federally approved.

Photo Credit: Sharon Pearce-McLeay

Growth is Still Needed

As popular as elixirs have become, Jusu Bar co-owner, Brandon Mullen, says they need to make the jump from a specialized to a mass marketed product to be self-supporting. His company began offering elixirs at its’ Victoria outlet in 2015, and has since opened four Calgary locations that feature seven of the hot and healthy potions. Holding back growth, he says, are consumers who have grown up on sweet and syrupy drinks and are reluctant to give the nutriment-charged tonics a chance.

Elixirs represent about six percent of Jusu Bars’ revenues, which means diversification into holistic cold pressed juices, food, body and home cleaning products is imperative. He’s waiting for big chains like Starbucks—that already offers a turmeric latte, known as golden milk, through 200 stores across Britain—to expand into the more nourishing tonics. “Then the big chains will sell consumers on the concept for us,” he adds.

Higher prices caused by rare and expensive ingredients may be another hindrance. Most outlets have managed to keep their elixirs in the $6 to $10 range, but some higher end choices can sell for $17 to $25. What might change that are more locally cultivated ingredients. Laing claims Alberta’s climate can support the growth of echinacea, mint, cultivated mushrooms, chagas and rhodiola, to name just a few. As of 2011, the FFNHP study noted that the majority of natural health product inputs are imported.

What Alberta Can Do

Saunders feels Alberta’s agri-food industry should explore more opportunities to produce health food industry ingredients. Nelda Radford, General Manager of the Alberta Rhodiola Rosea Growers Organization (ARRGO) says their 190 member farmers—not all of which are active—harvest some 20 tons of dried product a year and still can’t keep up with demand.

The co-operative’s wholesale customers—local herbalists and apothecaries, and manufacturers in Europe, South Korea, the US and Australia—purchase the rare plant to produce an extract commonly used in teas, tinctures, powders, pills, energy bars and elixirs. To expand to meet demand, Radford says, there’s a need to develop more efficient cultivation and harvesting methods and strategies to deal with weed pressure.

Calgary’s Gut Lab owners, which are working on a book deal with Random House and have sold or gifted elixir makings to the likes of singer Alanis Morrissette, Olympic champion skater Tessa Virtue and professional Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, don’t buy any of their plant-based ingredients in Canada citing lack of availability here.

Co-owners and sisters Danica Barthel and master herbalist Lexi Campbell have doubled their sales annually since they opened to sell bone broth in 2016. The elixir powders and makings—processed at their Calgary facility—produce up to 25 percent of revenues through retail, online and wholesale sales to health food retailers across Canada and soon through Indigo books. Barthel explains, “We developed a passion for holistic health after watching our mom cure her arthritis that way and decided to explore how we could help people to become their own best doctors.”