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PUCHONG, June 25 — Those of us who hit the gym regularly inevitably join the cult of People Who Drink Protein Shakes.
It’s part and parcel of strength training and muscle protein synthesis with the ultimate dream of looking ripped like Hugh Jackman. Which seems like a sweet deal until you actually taste one of these protein shakes.
More often than not, protein drinks taste overly sweet or chalky thanks to sugar or artificial flavouring used to sweeten the whey protein powder.
Unflavoured, the taste of raw whey protein powder has been likened by some to drinking cardboard. Worse, neither sugar nor artificial sweeteners in excessive amounts are likely to be healthy choices in the long run.
But if you want to build muscle, you got to do what you got to do, right?
What if there was a tastier, healthier alternative though? This was the same question that plagued Justin Chan, a fitness enthusiast who was weary of awful-tasting protein drinks.
Most had fillers that were detrimental to overall well-being. The average gym goer would just suck it up: drink it or lose it. The protein shake or the hard-earned muscles.
Chan decided there had to be a better way. The finance graduate from the London School of Economics had already eschewed the usual career path of banker and joined Lazada during its start-up days.
He recalls, “However, I realised my passion was always in fitness and entrepreneurship. So I quit my job and became a certified fitness trainer while looking for the right business opportunity.”
That right business opportunity turned out to be Heal Nutrition, co-founded in late 2016 with his partner Phoebe Cheong, formerly a business analyst at Shell.
Together, they developed a range of dairy and non-dairy protein shakes flavoured naturally with ingredients such as coffee, green tea, chocolate and stevia, a sweetener derived from the leaves of the stevia plant.
The dairy range is branded as Heal High Protein with flavours such as Classic Coffee, Coconut Shake, Matcha Latte and Signature Chocolate.
The non-dairy pea protein shakes are marketed as Heal Vegan Protein; currently two flavours — Charcoal Sesame and Salted Chocolate – are available.
Based in Puchong, the duo has since expanded their distribution channels. Currently, key markets include Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei; they also ship to Australia and Hong Kong.
Beyond supermarkets such as Jaya Grocer, Village Grocer, Ben’s Independent Grocer and Supa Save (in Brunei), Heal Nutrition products can also be found at various pharmacies and gyms, as well as online at their own website and platforms such as Lazada.
Heal Nutrition may sound like an overnight success but that was far from guaranteed. Far from a no-brainer, Cheong remembers how terrifying it was to quit her day job and join Chan full-time: “It was definitely a scary decision, but like Steve Jobs once said: ‘You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’ Looking back in hindsight, it was all worthwhile.”
The two co-founders were convinced of the potential for their business as it came from a very real pain. Chan explains, “During my career as a fitness trainer, I saw a gap in the market: We all know the importance of protein, including my clients, but it was still so difficult for me to convince my clients to have enough protein on a daily basis. Either they didn’t like chicken breast or they just absolutely hated the nasty taste of most protein shakes in the market.”
Quick fixes typically included adding some coffee or milk just to make the taste tolerable. Further research by Chan revealed the lacklustre taste of many protein brands was likely due to artificial flavours and colours, mainly to cut cost.
What if protein shakes were seen as delicious beverages rather than supplements? What if real coffee and milk were already incorporated?
Thus ensued weeks of product development and research. Chan remembers the early days when they were still figuring things out: “There were many ‘sleepless’ nights that we literally couldn’t sleep and felt jittery all day, not because of work and stress, but simply from a caffeine overdose after testing all kinds of coffee and green tea we had sourced.”
While most businesses incorporate consumer feedback into their marketing strategies, for Heal Nutrition listening to their customers is especially crucial given a knee-jerk reaction towards protein powders.
Cheong explains, “When people heard we were selling protein, their first impression was always ‘Eww, protein. I don’t want to try it. It must taste bad!’ But after trying Heal, they could really taste the difference and most of them ended up buying it.”
The duo’s philosophy has always been to listen to their customers, rather than their competitors. Instead of trying to keep up with trends, they rely on customer feedback to constantly improve their product formulation.
Though they now have a team of people formulating their products, Chan still personally samples every single batch before it is shipped out to the consumers.
Visualising the end result was crucial, along with a generous helping of perseverance. Cheong says, “It was extremely challenging to establish a brand during the early days. Cold-calling and rejections were like a daily routine. However, we knew that we had a great product and we just got to believe in it.”
Once Heal Nutrition secured their first stockist, however, getting the second, third and fourth became easier.
According to Cheong, the business has grown 300 to 400 per cent annually since they started. To date, Heal Nutrition has sold nearly 300,000 servings of products with plans to hit a million servings in the next year.
Today the start-up is firmly established and looks to expand their distribution network across other regions.
Chan notes that they have already received enquiries to distribute their products from over 10 countries, including the UK and the US.
He adds, “We will definitely be spending time exploring these potential markets. There will be new flavours and products coming out along the way.
"Our ultimate goal is to have many different brands under our umbrella, just like Nestlé and Coca-Cola, but a much healthier version of it.”
To learn more, contact +6011 7000 0028 or visit the following: