Creating a Better, Healthier Soda with Veri Soda Company’s Leonard Alexander Freeke

October 31, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Leonard Alexander Freeke. He’s the founder of Veri Soda Company, and you can find them on verisoda.com. Welcome to Green is Good, Leonard. LEONARD FREEKE: Thank you. It’s lovely to be on the show. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, I’m so thankful you’re here today because you have a fascinating company you’ve created, and it’s very a important company in terms of where we’re going as a society and the problems we have today with obesity. But before we get talking about your great company, Veri Soda, I want you to please share with our listeners your interesting journey and story leading up to the founding, because you have a fascinating story that I want you to share with our listeners first. LEONARD FREEKE: It’s been a while since we started Veri Soda. It took us about seven years to develop the current sodas that we’ve just launched in the American market. I actually grew up in the Dutch countryside. My father’s a vet, and I grew up what I consider very close to the food chain, so I saw my father’s patients were cows and pigs, and a lot of our friends were farmers. Later on in life, I went to university and became basically a city dweller, and then suddenly realize when you get older that you have distanced yourself from the countryside and from the food chain. About 10 years ago, I was asked to reorganize a food company in Netherlands. To my big surprise, my wife at that time was pregnant. We discussed in the morning, I said, “Darling, it’s going to be a wonderful day because I’m going to see my first lemonade factory from the inside.” I thought it’s going to be exciting because I’m going to see lemons and strawberries and probably bananas and all that. To my big surprise, I was just flabbergasted. I only saw bags and buckets and barrels with skull and bones on them with artificial ingredients. That was actually the beginning of my thinking about where have we ended up in the food chain, what are doing to ourselves, and especially to our children? The point when you become a father, I think that’s when you have an increased or at least you feel more responsible to your offspring, and you start thinking how can I positively change the world, and especially what my children are eating? I think that’s the theme of a lot of things I’ve been involved in for the last 10 years. I think this is a global thing. I think we’re in the middle of a food revolution. I think there is a general concern about what we’re eating and how we can improve that, and often it means going back to old ways of producing food and looking at food and treating food. So, it’s a very interesting environment, and what we did with these sodas, I think we went to one of the most unlikely products and tried to improve them and make a better and healthier soda. I think we’ve succeeded. JOHN SHEGERIAN: When did you launch Veri Soda? LEONARD FREEKE: We started the company here in the U.S. two years ago, and we launched just before Christmas last year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there to go on your website, it is one of the most beautiful and visually stimulating and just gorgeous websites I’ve ever been on. For our listeners to go check it out, it’s www.verisoda.com. Two years ago you launched it in the United States. How’s it been going? Tell us a little bit about it, and how did you come up with that name? LEONARD FREEKE: For us, it’s been a wonderful market launch. I think the American market is very receptive to new products. The American market is the largest organic market in the world. It’s the largest soda market in the world. For us, as organic soda producers, to be here makes a lot of sense. The supermarkets have picked it up. We are currently in about 2,000 supermarkets, and it looks like we’re moving to about 3,000 towards the end of the year. I think we’ve been fortunate to meet really, really good partners. It started already in the Netherlands, where we come from, and we won several awards. We won the best company and entrepreneur awards, and at that time I was approached by a gentleman who today is the creative director of one of the largest advertising agencies in the U.S., and he was responsible for a lot of big advertising taking place in the U.S. He said, “What you’re doing is fantastic, and perhaps we should talk more about it,” which led to I think a remarkable partnership that we’ve been able to set up with this large advertising agency called the Martin Agency based out of Richmond. All the onus to them because they’ve been, with their wonderful creative minds, responsible for creating brands together with us that I think is authentic but also visually very strong, with its own personality and visual language. The name comes from Latin, and it comes from the word veritos, which means real or truth or genuine. For us, it’s the DNA of everything we do. It’s based on real, authentic products. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For truth in advertising, I drank your products before, and they’re delicious products. I’m very sugar conscious. I’m a vegan as I eat, and your products are wonderful, wonderful-tasting products for our listeners out there. LEONARD FREEKE: That’s the best compliment we can ever get, so thank you very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Who was the first supermarket chain to pick you up here in the United States? Who took the first chance on this very disruptive and wonderful product? LEONARD FREEKE: That was Whole Foods. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Whole Foods, yeah. That’s actually where I bought your products from. Talk a little bit about how that’s gone from there. Who then picked it up after that? Talk a little bit about your thoughts on food distribution and how we can improve upon that with new products in the United States. LEONARD FREEKE: Well, first of all, I think it’s important to note that I think we’re stuck in some kind of prisoner’s dilemma in food development. I think current food development taking place by companies doesn’t necessarily lead to the best products, best I mean from a health and taste point-of-view. I think we’ve lost over the last decades, especially after the Second World War, a lot of knowledge that we’ve gained over the centuries in humanity as part of our culture how foods are developed and the processes and tradition in food. That’s actually one of the things that we’ve done with our own sodas, gone back to old-fashioned ways of producing food, and a guaranteed quality. I think there’s a common denominator in a lot of new food developments taking place everywhere. I think the U.S. is in a happy space where literally I think you’re in a food revolution. Craft beer is booming, everybody is rediscovering brewing beer, and it’s fun, and the result is a wonderful product. There’s only one reason why these things are giving wonderful results. It’s all about good ingredients again. The same goes for wine. We’re making beautiful cheeses here in the U.S and bread, and so many things are being rediscovered. The common theme is that people are enjoying going back to old-fashioned, wonderful ingredients, and developing into beautiful food products, which are being loved by people. I think Whole Foods, in that respect, is not unusual that they pick it up, because I think they look very early to pick up on a trend for better products directly from farmers, and be very conscious for the quality of the products. Are they organic? Are they non-GMO? For us, that’s the leading theme. What we have done is we’ve developed our sodas for our own children, something we could give to them without feeling guilty or not afraid that they would drink something that is in essence very unhealthy, so we’ve taken out all the chemical ingredients, and we’ve produced a product which has a low glycemic load. I think that’s the big thing at the moment regarding sugar consumption. I think you should be very careful with the number of spikes you experience during the day in your blood sugar level. If you look at supermarkets, I think the trend is very clear. Whole Foods as set the trend. Sprouts is following it. I think all the mainstream supermarkets like Kroger and Walmart, they’re all following the trend that organic food is growing. It’s growing 15% a year on average, depending on the category, but there’s a big shift in consumption patterns that’s all being driven by the consumer who, at the end of the day, wants healthier food. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Your soda has none of that corn syrup or high fructose corn syrup, or none of that stuff. LEONARD FREEKE: Consciously not. Our soda is developed as purely organic, and it’s organic because we don’t want all these chemicals in the drinks. In mainstream sodas, there are about 40-50 chemicals which we consider very unhealthy, so by saying something is organic, that is the seal of quality and you can rely that these chemicals are not in these drinks. The second dimension, which is important for sodas, is the sugar, the sweetener, so, of course, no artificial sweetener. They’re even worse than sugar. Then the question is high fructose corn syrup. It gives you tremendous spikes in your blood sugar level, so we’ve sweetened it with a combination of stevia and organic cane sugar. There’s still some sugar inside. I think it’s becoming common knowledge now that diet drinks don’t work. On the contrary, they confuse your metabolism, so if you’re trying to get something sweet inside your body, it’s not necessarily bad to have a little bit of sugar. The key is not to create tremendous sugar highs and spikes in your blood sugar level. I think the latest research is really going in the direction that the number of sugar spikes you have during the day, that is in direct correlation with whether you’re prone to get Type 2 diabetes. So, I think we’ve developed something we think is a proper alternative to mainstream sodas, and the wonderful thing about this journey is once you make the decision to start working with better ingredients, you get wonderful products. That’s why we love our drinks. We know that there’s great products inside. Our lemons come from Sicily. Our oranges come from Mexico. We’ve got cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Our ginger and our ginger root comes from Nepal. We source it directly from the farmers. The farmers are very proud to be involved. It’s going back to its roots. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m on your website right now. Your vanilla is from Madagascar, and all of your lemons, oranges, ginger, and everything that’s put in there, whether it’s stevia or cane sugar, it’s all organic. LEONARD FREEKE: Everything is organic, and what we’re working on today is two things. We are in touch on a very regular basis with our own farmers, so we’re going to make that in the future transparent on our website to really show the consumer, “Listen, we source the lemons from this farmer, and literally if you want, you can pay him a visit.” The same with the other ingredients. The second thing we’re working on very hard at the moment is to get everything in place to be a completely climate-neutral company, so we’re climate and water-neutral as well. For us, it’s important to do everything properly. I think it belongs to our mindset. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s your culture and your DNA, obviously, and that’s so great. Leonard, I want you to explain to our listeners something that’s very prominent in your literature and on your website, but something that the consumers need to be further educated on because it’s an important distinction, what we’ve all been lulled into thinking here in the United States and beyond. Can you explain the difference in marketing between natural versus organic? LEONARD FREEKE: Well, at the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with the word natural. The only thing that is wrong with it, since it’s not legally protected, it’s the most misabused word in marketing today. I think at the moment, there are hundreds of class action suits against producers that say something is natural which is not. A very simple rule for the consumer is that natural is not protected and doesn’t necessarily have to be natural. If you see something is organic, you can trust and rely on it. The USDA seal is very properly legislated and audited, and for us, it’s an annual audit that we get. It’s a surprise audit, and they take it very seriously. It’s the whole food chain, cradle to grave, they check it. It’s a very reliable seal. If the USDA seal is on it, that basically means it’s organic. Organic, for us, means it comes from nature with no artificial ingredients involved. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there who, like we all are, are consumers, a product can be labeled natural and still be GMO. LEONARD FREEKE: Yes. So, it’s natural in essence. There’s no guarantee at all. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Of anything. Now let’s go back and talk about your product. Not only is it organic, but it’s also important to point out that your Veri Soda has no GMO elements, so it’s organic and it’s non-GMO, so it checks every box for the millennials and the consumers at large out there that are worried about their children drinking the right product. Your product really goes to the heart of the matter. LEONARD FREEKE: I think so. For us, we can continue asking for a lot of certificates, and we are actually on that path, but we are suitable for people with allergies. It’s a long, long list, and it’s basically the result of working with a very clean product with very good quality ingredients. I think a lot of the problems with hyperactivity or allergies we’re seeing today with children are often food-related, and I think more people are waking up to the fact that the quality of the food you’re consuming is the fuel for your body, and especially for children that have to grow, it’s an important part of how they’re going to function. So, I think it’s an important thing that we’re very conscious of. There’s more and more communication and education on that, so that’s one of the reasons why we’re also a big sponsor of the Green School Conference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Talk a little bit about the Green Festivals. Can you talk about why companies like Veri benefit tremendously from the Green Festivals, and what attendees of the Green Festivals can see when they come in terms of Veri Soda? LEONARD FREEKE: I think for us, our experience with the Green Festival is a wonderful one. It’s a pleasure to see so many like-minded people gathering together, and I think it’s a sign of the times that people are looking for better products and people with the same mindset. For us, it’s always been a warm bath to be there, and it’s addictive for us because we keep them coming back. The response of the consumers is overwhelming. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Are you going to be at the Green Festivals this fall in Los Angeles, Chicago? LEONARD FREEKE: We are. We’re going to be at most of them. As I said, we are big fans, and that’s because the consumers give us wonderful feedback. I’ve done many trade shows in the past, but it’s different from doing consumer shows. What we like is that people are generally prejudiced about sodas, and when they drink our sodas and hear the story behind it and they taste how delicious they are, they feel comfortable that this is a healthier product. That’s why we started this whole business in the first place. It’s wonderful to get that feedback. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re down to the last minute. I want to leave that to you to share anything you want or any shameless plugs. I want this to be all about your great products so our listeners can learn more about Veri Soda, so it’s up to you, Leonard. You close the show. LEONARD FREEKE: I think we’ve had a wonderful start here in the U.S., and what makes me very excited is that last week we had a presentation for a large school in the Los Angeles district, and we got wonderful feedback from the pupils. I think what is the big promising thing for future is that the children are really picking up on this as well. Education is geared towards strong consciousness of food and where food comes from, why we’re eating what we’re eating, and how we can make better products. That is resonating very strongly in the schools, so for us, the development here is a positive one. Society is driving it. There’s a great public debate when I hear that 80% of the U.S. families are regularly buying organic food. I think we’re moving to a better world, and a better world where families are feeding themselves with better products. In a good company, food is culture, and I think it’s a celebration of life. That’s hopefully what we’re a part of, at least we try to be a part of that very much. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there that want to try Veri Soda, go to the Green Festivals coming up in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, or greenfestivals.org, or go to your local Whole Foods or great store in your area, and go grab a couple cans, and try Leonard’s great soda, Veri Soda. Verisoda.com. Thank you, Leonard, for being an inspiring and visionary entrepreneur in the organic food and beverage revolution. You are truly living proof that green is good. LEONARD FREEKE: It was a great pleasure. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you.