It’s the seed of the Asian water lily and it could be set to shake up the snacking scene. Introducing the lotus seed.
It can be popped – a popular method of playing with ancient grains at the moment – but they are also common in Asian cuisine. In China and Japan they use the seeds as a paste or flour for pastries, biscuits, cakes and desserts.
Generally sold dry, the seeds can also be soaked overnight and directly added to soups, congee or other dishes. Spiced seeds are a popular snack in the north and west of India.
Traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic practices value the seeds for their nutritional and healing properties, which could tap into the emerging trend in the West for food as medicine. Lotus seeds have some notable credentials as a good source of protein, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus. They are also low in saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol.
So will they be hitting UK shelves?
If Thai social enterprise TL Tradewinds has its way, lotus seeds will soon be in Europe, including the UK, after conquering the Asian markets.
Founder Nitcha Tengprawat Le launched her Mai Dried Lotus Seeds brand five years ago. Initially, she was met with some resistance from Asian retailers, who questioned whether lotus seeds could fill the healthy-snacking market.
Her lotus seeds bites are natural, with no added sugars and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives. Condé Nast Traveller even listed them as one of the Best 50 Food Souvenirs from around the world.
The snacks are sold in Thailand supermarkets such as The Mall, Tops, Golden Place, Big C and Tesco Lotus, as well as in convenience stores like 7-Eleven and CJ Express.
The company currently produces over four metric tonnes of crispy lotus seeds and also sells the snacks in Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and Japan.
But how would the UK market respond to this Asian eat? Le believes the lotus seeds would not only provide a taste of Thai cuisine, but noted that consumers in the West are increasingly interested in healthy treats and exotic flavours.
Ethical practices are also important to Le, who supplies the seeds for the plant directly to farmers, who then grow and harvest the pods. Her social enterprise also organises training and research to ensure quality production and manufacturing.
Pepper, paprika and more
But Le isn’t the first to bring the lotus seed to the European market, with competition already established in the UK.
London-based start up Nuto turns the seeds into a healthy popcorn, with co-founder and CEO Puja Rohailla believing the snack could have its own section in the supermarket, rather than being lumped in with the crisps or standard popcorns.
She imports the seeds from India; they are then roasted in the UK in a small amount of sunflower oil, before being flavoured and packed.
A bag of popped lotus seeds from Nuto contain less than 100 calories and is currently available in two flavours: salt and pepper, and maple and smoked paprika – the latter a nod to her husband’s Canadian routes. They are also high in protein, gluten-free and suitable for vegans.
Rohailla says the seeds have a very plain, neutral taste. Supplies are stable and she has the manufacturing capacity to scale up and can currently make 150,000 bags a month.
The product is also free from preservatives and artificial colours as well as gluten free. Rohailla has two new flavours under development, one savoury and one sweet, and she wanted to offer a healthy snack that was still satisfying.
“I’m a healthy eater and into fitness but love to snack. It’s not good for me, because so many snacks out there are full of salt. When I had my baby, I became even more into nutrition, so it all stemmed from that,” she said. “I now feed my daughter the popped lotus seeds.”
Nuto's packs are sold online via its website and in a few specialist shops in the UK, but the company is looking to move into major retailers. It already exports to Germany and Holland.
So could we see Sparkie snacking on lotus seeds?
An interesting idea that plays on current trends for authentic traditional foods from well-known cuisines.
The downside is that according to Mintel, the focus for healthy food products is moving more towards price-conscious consumers, meaning that it is cheap healthy products that are winning out.
The price point for the lotus seeds are at the high end for the category. So unless the product is amazing and stands out among every variation of healthy crisps and nuts that we currently have, then I can’t see it being huge.
If anyone, it will be the premium retailers who take it up as they tend to favour more unusual products and the price point won’t stand out in that environment.