Q: How do you get milk from a sunflower seed?
A: Squeeze really hard!
It involves a few more steps, actually. Simply put, a sunflower non-dairy beverage is made of a blend of soaked seeds with water, strained and reblended with a sweetener. That’s the homemade version.
Realistically, most people don’t have the time to soak the seeds and come up with a homemade concoction. That’s where Steve Verde’s upstart product called “Sunsational” enters into the picture.
What began as a non-dairy beverage experiment in Verde’s kitchen will hit store shelves in April as a new beverage made from sunflower seeds. The selling point for Sunsational is “sharing a dairy-free experience with a delicious taste all its own.”
Where the Story Began
The roots of Sunsational sunflower non-dairy beverage go back to 2007. After an annual medical checkup revealed Verde to have very high cholesterol levels, his doctor gave him a list of foods to avoid. High on the list were dairy products.
Having worked in the natural products industry, Verde was familiar with many non-dairy products on the market. His wife, being a vegetarian, already had soy and/or rice milk in the house, and now he started to drink it.
Most of the products were okay, but Verde was looking for something different. He did some searching on the internet and watched a few “how-to” videos on YouTube. His search for something different turned into a lot of trial and error with his blender. He employed his wife and children as the primary “taste testers,” to the point where anytime his kids heard the blender start up, they ran out of the kitchen and sometimes out of the house.
Eventually, Verde got the product to the point where the taste was coming around. In May of 2009, he enlisted the help of a food scientist at the University of Nebraska. Their team helped Verde nail down a basic formula for the seed milk.
From the basic formula, Verde began working with a pilot plant to produce a product sample of the beverage. Results were encouraging, as the taste profile continued to improve. From there, the process moved into the final stages of product development. It’s a similar process to the homemade version; but Verde says in large-scale production, the sunflower seeds are ground into the consistency of butter. The sunflower drink is essentially water, sunflower, organic sugar and stabilizers to balance pH levels and hold the product together so it drinks consistently.
Target Consumer Audience
Today’s replacements for dairy milk are judged first by sight and smell. If the coloring or smell is too different from dairy milk, the product is likely to be rejected by the consumer before it’s even tasted. Sunsational has an off-white coloring and slightly nutty aroma. Current consumers of non-dairy beverages are used to variations from cow’s milk; others new to the market are less accepting of a product that varies from dairy milk.
Verde says the off-white coloring comes from chlorogenic acids as well as other beneficial phytonutrients. Chlorogenic acids are naturally occurring antioxidents in sunflower, and some studies are suggesting they help lower blood glucose levels and work to reduce the amount of glucose absorbed by the body. Verde notes that further research needs to be conducted here before any concrete claims can be made. However, this could end up to be a major selling point for diabetic consumers.
“More and more people are consuming non-dairy beverages for all kinds of reasons, whether it’s because of lactose intolerance or other digestion issues, animal rights and welfare or taste,” Verde points out. “Companies are producing better non-dairy beverages now than they were 10 years ago, so as the taste profiles improve and prices come down, there will be greater consumer acceptance.”
What about the taste? That tends to be one of the top questions on the minds of the consumers.
Through consumer testing and demos at local natural food stores, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Verde claims Sunsational has a smooth, creamy, delicious taste. Rich, tasty, full-bodied, nutty and unique were other terms often used by tasters to describe the product.
In addition to an appealing taste, Sunsational has tremendous nutritional value all its own and is not fortified with extra vitamins and nutrients. Verde says this is by design, with the intention of keeping it “clean, pure and simple.”
Sunsational delivers 4g of dietary fiber per serving, which can be considered a good source by the FDA. “Because of the ratio of fiber and carbohydrates, our beverage is relatively low in net carbs,” Verde explains. “Our product is also a good source of folate and an excellent source of vitamin A. Unfortunately, vitamin E, which sunflower is known for, is lost in processing. However, our beverage also contains complex plant protein, healthy omega 6 and 9 fats, along with antioxidents.”
Verde’s main target consumers will start with the some 50 million people who are lactose intolerant. Sunsational is free of lactose, gluten, soy and nuts, making it appealing to the consumer seeking an allergen-free product. Sunflower is an allergen-friendly food source and is free of the eight most common food allergens — dairy milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds, cashews, walnuts), fish, shellfish (such as crab, lobster, shrimp), soy and wheat gluten. “The overall market of people with digestion and allergy issues is huge, and this product is a great solution for that.” Vegetarians and vegans will both be a large consumer base for this product as well.
The product’s main competitor would be cow’s milk. Then probably soy because soy currently fills most of the non-dairy category. “I’m trying to build the entire non-dairy category so it becomes an easier, better, more accessible choice for all consumers, Verde says. “I just see so many benefits to drinking sunflower beverage that I want to share it with the world.”
Sunsational can be used “cup-for-cup” to replace milk in recipes that call for dairy. The product package features a pancake recipe, and more recipes are posted on the website For sunflower prices at various locations refer to our website at www.sunsationalnondairy.com. Their Facebook and Twitter pages also invite the exchange of recipes and ideas for the use of non-dairy beverages.
Target Retail Sector
Sunsational is packaged in 32-oz cartons and will sell for just under $3.00. Shelf stable, it has a one-year shelf life. It will typically be found on the store shelf, but retailers will be free to place it in the refrigeration section if they choose to do so.
Original and Vanilla Sunsational varieties will be available in the initial launch of the product. The first target retail sites will be the local natural food markets. The product will be rolled out in the Northeast first, then nationally not too long after. If all goes according to plan, product should hit the store shelves in April. Also in the works is an unsweetened version, which has become popular with other non-dairy beverages, and a chocolate product that will be geared toward a younger audience.
The overall non-dairy category is growing, Verde claims. It continues to be very dynamic, with some areas on an upswing and some declining. Overall sales currently are modest due to the fact that soy milk sales have declined recently because of allergy issues associated with soy. Soy is the leader of the overall category. “Seed and nut milks are showing dramatic increases, and obviously sunflower fits nicely into that segment of the category,” Verde observes.
In the initial stages, Verde has worked with an organization that specializes in sourcing seeds and nuts to make various products in the organic, kosher-certified natural food industry. All sunflower seed and all ingredients are sourced domestically, a component that Verde says was very important in order to support domestic farming. The product is made in the USA.
“Looking at sales projections and quantities of sunflower seeds needed, I’m looking at tens of thousands of seeds in the first year, then hundreds of thousands of seeds in year two — and someday it is conceivable to be purchasing millions plus pounds of seeds annually,” Verde explains. — Sonia Mullally
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