So I’m not the target audience for Unreal, a new candy company that says it wants to recreate America’s favorite candies–M&M’s, Snickers, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Milky Way–without the junk. In its effort to “unjunk” candy, Unreal Brands says its candy will have no corn syrup, no partially hydrogenated oils, no artificial colors, flavors and preservatives, no GMOs and less sugar and fewer calories than conventional candy bars.
Unreal has an appealing back story — it was started by a 13-year-old boy — and prominent fans, including NFL star Tom Brady and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. The company says its key ingredients “need to be responsibly sourced, supporting farming communities and preventing destruction of the rain forests.” What’s more, Mats Lederhausen, a former McDonald’s executive who helped launch Chipotle, and is now chair of the the board of Business for Social Responsibility, has invested in the firm. Mats, who runs an investment firm called BeCause, told me by email:
Unreal is one of my favorite examples of a company born out of a “purpose bigger than their product” which as you know is the core of my mission. It attacks a huge social problem that cannot be fought by regulation but rather by developing a better product, free from the “nasties” and marketed to consumers with appeal rather than guilt
So I decided to take a look.
Getting an interview took some doing. A company spokeswoman told me that Unreal hadn’t worked out its “positioning” yet, and an interview scheduled with its CEO, John Burns, a private equity investor, was abruptly cancelled. But a few days later I got on the phone with Adam Melonas, an innovative young chef who practices “progressive cuisine” and, it turns out, was brought into Unreal by Nicky Bronner, the boy who started the company. Nicky got the company started, the story goes, because he loves candy and a couple of years ago, his parents wouldn’t let him eat what he collected on Halloween. Why not, they decided, try to create something better?
Chef Melonas, who was then working in Madrid, got a phone call one day from Nicky, he told me. They were connected by a British physicist and author named Peter Barham, whose research interests span polymer physics, penguin conservation and molecular gastronomy.
“The thing that struck me as odd in the beginning was that on the other end of the line was a 13-year-old child,” Adam said, when we spoke. “But I soon realized this was no ordinary 13-year-old. We talked mission, mission, mission and mission. By the end of the conversation, we felt like kindred spirits.”
And the mission was? “It was about better food for a better world,” Adam said.
Adam flew to Boston, where Nicky lives, and agreed to become a co-founder of Unreal. Later, Carlos Canals, the former chief executive of Tribe, the hummus company, joined Unreal. Other employees came from Google, Mars and P&G.
I’m not making any of this up.
To be sure, Nicky also had help from his father, Michael Bronner, a wealthy entrepreneur and investor who started a digital advertising company Digitas and a financial-rewards company, UPromise, which were sold for $1 billion and $300 million, respectively, according to The Wall Street Journal. Michael Bronner has introduced Nicky, who is now 15 and home-schooled, to investors, food scientists and his friends including Tom Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen.
So let’s cut to the chase: How does Unreal taste?
To find out, I asked my nieces and nephews — four of them, ages 10 to 14 – to sample Unreal. (They didn’t have to be asked twice.) The candy got very mixed reviews–some were said to taste better than the conventional alternatives, others didn’t quite measure up. They were put off by the odd hues of the M&M-like candies, which is what you get when you take away artificial colors. Having said that, I thought the Unreal offerings were delicious (maybe because they aren’t as overwhelming sweet as traditional candy) and nothing was left over after our collective tasting. Overall grade: B, or maybe B-plus.
Which is impressive because, as Adam explained, the conventional candy industry “has spent the better part of 50 years engineering ingredients. This was about going back to basics, old-fashioned ingredients that your grandmother would recognize.”
Impressive, too, is the way Unreal has found its way into retailers, as a new brand in a competitive category. It’s being rolled out to more than 30,000 stores, including CVS, Rite-Aid, Walgreen’s, Kroger and Ralph’s.
As for the mission, progress there is harder to gauge. On the plus side, Unreal candies have less sugar, less fat, fewer calories and more protein than conventional equivalents, as these side-by-side comparisons show. Other health claims are more questionable. “All ingredients needed to be non-GMO,” the company says, but it doesn’t explain why. Most scientists believe that food with GMO ingredients is perfectly safe to eat. Nor has Unreal take the extra step of buying organic or Fair Trade ingredients. Mars. which, of course, is a much bigger company, has a better-developed sustainability story to tell. [See my blog post, Why Mars is a sustainability leader]
Having said that, if you’re going to buy candy, why not try Unreal?