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Food For Thought

You could call Julie Arora a cereal culler, but her Mom’s Healthy Secrets is breathing new life into the often unhealthy breakfast routine

By Ted McIntyre

She is radiant in all senses of the word. There is a glow, an energy, a spark not merely fuelled by character, but by the actual fuel that makes her a walking advertisement for healthy eating.

A single, 33-year-old workaholic who spent the previous 30 of those years in Oakville, Julie Arora is adding momentum to the Real Food movement by providing consumers with natural choices at a time of day when most people have little time anymore for smart meals.

“I know it’s an old saying, but breakfast really is the most important meal of the day,” says Arora, who was reared on a healthy start. “Yes, my mom had a vegetable garden, but it wasn’t so much about the food she grew, it was about how our days started. We were all woken up with a glass of warm lemon water with a bit of honey, which hydrates you and is a good detox for your system. And we’d get our back and legs massaged, and then they’d tuck us back into bed. Never once did we leave home without a healthy breakfast—even before my mom’s cereal was created. And our lunches were always packed.

“My mom grew up in a family where there wasn’t much food, so food was always abundant in our household,” Arora recalls. “There were no restrictions on what we were allowed to eat, but there was a strong sentiment of ‘Eat your meal, then you can indulge in a half-dozen Oreos if you want.’ I always had some side money for lunch too, like $5, if I wanted to indulge in french fries or something. But the reality was that there was never any space for the Oreos and rarely for the fries. If you fill up on healthy foods that create satiety, then you won’t crave something else. It’s true to this day for me. If I’m craving sugar, it’s usually because I’m hungry.”

Arora’s mother ensured that would never be the case for her children. They would always have energy to burn.

“We were competitive athletes growing up,” Arora notes. “I was playing a fair amount of soccer. But what really put my mom over the edge was my younger sister and her competitive swimming. She was getting up for 4 a.m. practice. We were all being raised vegetarian, so nutrition was paramount. That’s where the cereal was born. My mom started to research every single ingredient. Any she found that had real value, she would put into this cereal mix. But she also knew it had to taste good, so she’d sweeten it with fruit. She would make everything with it—serve it hot and cold. It became very popular with her yoga students because it was literally a meal in a bowl. Six different types of seeds—including flax, sesame, pumpkin—then she’d throw in walnuts and almonds and bran, wheat germ and oat germ.”

That high-octane trail mix has remained a staple of Arora’s diet, through her time at McGill and the University of Guelph while studying business, religion and education, to her summers as an Air Canada flight attendant and her post as a management consultant in Washington, DC. It even helped motivate her search for a higher purpose as she transitioned to a yoga instructor and took courses at the Harvard-affiliated Mind Body Medical Institute to help understand how the body worked, “and why my mom’s tricks and tips were so effective!”

Arora then employed that training by forming a stress management program. “Many of my clients were not eating breakfast, and if they were, it wasn’t the type of product that would give them long-lasting energy,” she recalls. “Clients fell in love with my mom’s recipes and wanted to buy her cereal. That’s when I realized what I needed to do in life! The cereal that I took on flights around the world with me, had as breakfast every morning in hotel rooms when I was consulting, even had for dinner on more than one occasion, was my Mom’s Healthy Secrets, and I should share it with everyone!” Convincing her parents to allow her to quench her entrepreneurial thirst was next. “The Washington company I was working for only hired Ivy League grads, so the plan was to use the money my parents had put aside for me to go to business school in the States. The focus was so much on education that my parents would have sold their house to send me to university. My mom, in fact, refused to have an arranged marriage before she graduated with a Master’s in economics from a college in India. And so then I say to them, ‘Give me the money and let me start my own business.’

“I was lucky that my parents recognize the value of actually ‘doing,’” Arora notes. “But before I spent a dime on packaging or anything, I knew I had a chance to sell the product to a distribution channel, which would be a lot better than running around in my car.”

Arora made that first connection via an unlikely source. While still working as a flight attendant, she met New York City venture capitalist Joel Levy, a man who, for reasons he couldn’t explain, felt compelled to provide Arora with some assistance. Levy eventually hooked Arora up with the president of a large distribution company.

“They believed in me,” she says, but the product, small bags of a tropical fruit and raisin mix, was not selling. “And then, three and a half years ago at a trade show, I met Jamie Cooney, who was the director of Natural Value organic foods for Loblaws, who was leaving to become the CEO of Rowe Farms. He told me what we were doing wrong. He gave me Merchandising 101. He was trending ahead of the industry by managing all these Natural Value outlets across the country. So he knew where the growth lay. And he knew what I was trying to do.”

Arora subsequently introduced three functional cereals (cereals that address a nutritional attribute) and put Mom’s Healthy Secrets into boxes. Another facelift has since followed this summer, providing consumers with a punchier, more informative presentation.

Each of the three cereal blends has its own special focus: the antioxidant-rich VibraBerry, the high-fibre FibreFit, and OmegaActive, a source of both Omega-3 and Omega-6. The majority of the population comes up short in each of these areas, says Arora.

“My mom has always said, ‘Your body is your vehicle and food is your fuel.’ In a busy world we’re all looking for quick solutions that are healthy. However, far too often what is presented as healthy is not. And it’s amazing how addictive processed food can be. If you’re predisposed to pancreatic cancer, the risk increases dramatically if you drink just two cans of pop a week. People drink it like water.”

But busy and healthy can still coexist, says Arora. “And being healthy doesn’t mean that food can’t be delicious. All of Mom’s Healthy Secrets products are centred around my mom’s philosophy that good food equals good health. We carefully select all of our ingredients to ensure that your kitchen is always filled with energy-rich choices. We want to take the guesswork out of healthy eating.”

It appears to be working as a business model. “As a result of the new packaging and the newfound focus, we’re up 38 percent over last year, and 200 percent since we went into boxes. And now we’re distributed in 800 stores. The grand plan is to for more growth in Canada and to push into the U.S. The problem is our awareness level is still low. But people who know of us will try it and will continue to come back, and word of mouth has helped.

“The commercial side of things is very exhilarating—meeting new people, lots of new challenges all the time,” she admits. “But for me, I think of Mom’s not as a business, but as a mission.”

Arora isn’t paying lip service for PR purposes. This is a woman who once raised funds to enable her to travel to Costa Rica and help build a health centre.

“The price, $4.99 per box, is low considering the quality of the natural, whole ingredients,” she says. “We’ve kept our prices artificially deflated and are taking a huge hit as a manufacturer because we want to make these foods accessible for everyone. The goal is to get as many people eating this as possible. My mandate is not just to make money; it’s to give people the opportunity to find health in packaged goods, which is impossible right now with what’s out there.”

But just as one good meal doesn’t make you healthy, Arora continues to look for multiple paths of spreading her gospel. She made it to the final three contestants vying for a starring role in the W Network’s Expert Challenge and yearns to land a lead spot on any network show to help address the ultimate source of the problem for many.

“Good nutrition starts with the family environment,” she notes. “You can teach kids all you want in school, but at the end of the day, it’s what the parents are practicing in the home. I want to see manufactured foods on shelves that are what they say they are, and to make healthy food accessible to families.”

More healthy choices

Afflicted with Celiac, baker Julie Richer has joined forces with her husband John to launch Voila on Lakeshore Rd. in Oakville. Catering to people with Celiac, IBS, Crohn’s, autism, diabetes and other health issues, their establishment featues a nut-free baking environment, with breads, pies and cakes all made with certified organic gluten-free flour.

Specializing in gluten-free and clean eating, the dispensary of this full-service naturopathic clinic, located inside the Halton Family Health Centre at Walkers Line and Highway 5, includes an extensive variety of the highest-quality organic remedies and snacks, as well as offering nutritional advice and counselling.

Located on both Upper Gage and Locke St. in Hamilton and on Fairview in Burlington, the 25-year-old natural food market continues to provide “the education and resources you need to maximize your health potential,” while its products, they assure, are the “healthiest foods available,” with a strong local bent.

Situated on Kerr St. in Oakville, the promise of this family-run Canadian grocery store “is to bring you the best quality organic and all-natural foods, at the best possible prices. Every product is hand picked to ensure freshness, quality and taste.”