03 Feb2016 The story behind 250KAL
After tackling the January blues, I can safely say that I am looking forward to the month of February. While admitting some difficulty in trying to maintain my healthy new year’s resolution, my January goals were made easier by 250KAL treats. My plan for this year was to eat healthier without feeling the need to completely eradicate sweet things from my diet. Chocolate is my ultimate craving when it comes to a bit of a sugar indulgence, so I soon found a healthy (guilt-free) alternative. 250KAL’s chocolate orange cake is less than 250 calories, has only natural ingredients and above all, tastes yummy!
250KAL was founded by siblings Robert and Denise Hallam in 2008. After Robert was diagnosed with diabetes, he had to adjust to a completely new diet and lifestyle – the main one being, eliminating refined sugar. The pair started to experiment with different ways of making cakes and desserts without using refined sugar or chemically created sweeteners. The result was delicious tasting treats that all come under 250 calories, have no refined sugar or artificial ingredients.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Robert yesterday to chat about the company and some of their products.
How did the idea behind 250KAL come about?
Like a lot of ideas this one came about by being forced to find a solution to a problem – the problem for me was sugar, the solution was finding foods that tasted sweet but didn’t spike blood sugars. As sugar came more and more into focus it became obvious there was a strong argument that everyone should reduce their sugar intake, not only those who are forced to. The biggest food challenge with sugar is trying to make a sweet treat that tastes every bit as good, if not better, than the full sugar version – savoury dishes are less of a challenge. As more and more friends and family tried my low-sugar treats and said they would like that choice when they were having a treat, it was time to try it for real – so 250KAL was launched.
So Denise and I left our previous lives in the property and tech industries respectively and set up 250KAL in a purpose built production kitchen in The Murrough, Wicklow. We couldn’t ignore the feedback that our friends and family were giving us that people liked the cakes and wished they could get them on a regular basis.
Food has always been a big deal in our family, with excellent home bakers on both sides of the family so this was a chance to see if Denise & I could continue the tradition.
What did you find hardest about adjusting your diet after your diabetes diagnosis?
Cold Turkey is only nice when it’s on an Insomnia sandwich – it’s always difficult to cut out those things we enjoy and everyone loves to treat themselves to something sweet with their favourite coffee, so cutting out all sweet treats was the biggest challenge. I tried all of the artificially sweetened products and a lot of raw food treats but found them all lacking in flavour or overly sweet. Ironically once I managed to survive without sugar I found I felt better, eliminating those sugar highs & lows helped me maintain better energy levels and improved my general well-being. I know how difficult it is to just stop eating sugar but there’s no denying the health benefits and now you can reduce sugar without having to go Cold Turkey!
What is the difference between using refined sugar and not when making your cakes?
Baking is chemistry or alchemy when you get it right and most of the magic normally comes from the bond between butter and sugar...we don't use sugar so we had to make our own magic. There are so many other great sources of sweetness available to us in nature. We harness the sweetness of fruits, nuts and other plant based sweeteners to allow us to cut out the sugar but keep all the taste.
We have had to develop new techniques and finishing touches to extract the maximum sweetness from what nature has given us but our handcrafted jams and purees, (made using some sugars that are normally discarded, e.g. natural pear juice from our pear & almond cake) give our cakes a natural home-baked taste which we hope Insomnia's customers enjoy; all without spiking your sugars or pushing your calorie intake too high.
What is the benefit of using only natural ingredients?
As Mary Berry said, if it takes eggs, butter, flour and sugar to make a cake then why does it list an encyclopaedia of ingredients on the back of most cake boxes. Although we make hundreds of cakes we endeavour to keep the same methods and values that our Mum and Nana used. Good quality, fresh ingredients give the tastiest result. Artificial additives can make production easier to make and can last for weeks but the trade off in flavour and texture is not something we will ever consider.
You source your products locally; why do you think this is important?
We have a wealth of fantastic ingredients available to us in this country. The food industry in Ireland is very exciting at the moment with a strong recognition for the quality of Irish producers. We never compromise on the quality of our ingredients and make an effort to support our fellow food suppliers - the benefit is that in doing so our own cakes are all the better for including the likes of Killowen fresh yogurt from Wexford and free range eggs from O'Egg in Clonarn.
Have you always worked in the food industry?
We are new to the food industry but we are not new to food, we are both keen home cooks and have always enjoyed experimenting with food and different food ingredients. We both come from customer facing industries and know that the key to success is listening to feedback from your customers. We love doing tastings and hearing what our customers say about what they like and what new flavours they might like to see.
Yourself and your sister founded 250KAL, is it nice having a family business together?
Honestly, yes it is, that’s not to say we have our differences of opinion on matters but we try and see all sides and agree on the best option. We are very close and it’s a concern when you take a very strong family relationship and turn it into business relationship, you have to walk into the bakery every day with your commercial hat on and leave your family hat at the door, to retrieve it on the way out. It was our love of food that lead us to create 250KAL and our collective drive to deliver the very best products we can for our customers – that said we couldn’t have done this without the support of innovative Irish companies like Insomnia who are supportive of Irish food companies, trying to make a difference.
Do you think people are more conscious about the amount of sugar they are taking now?
It seems that the message to reduce sugar in your diet is big news now. While the message has been around for a while it appears that since the World Health Organisation recommended amount of sugar intake at 6 tsp per day is starting to sink in – the average adult consumes 22 teaspoons of added sugar every day – that’s more than 350 calories!
With new TV coverage promoting sugar reduction and celebrities like Jamie Oliver now getting behind the idea we are seeing a lot more interest in our range. We will be expanding the range considerably during 2016 adding more cake flavours and energy bars with the same low-sugar/low-calorie natural format.
It’s not just the fact that reducing your sugar intake naturally reduces your calorie intake but all the other add on benefits for your health, including a reduced inclination to over indulge – a number of studies have clearly created a link between sugar and obesity, type 2 diabetes and poor energy levels.
Do you have any new products for 2016?
2016 is going to be a really exciting year for 250KAL; we have a whole range of new offerings in development and hope to be able to share them with Insomnia customers over the coming months. We are teaming chocolate with different fruits and also some new and interesting flavour combinations. The one thing that all our new offerings have in common is allowing you to have a treat which contains less than 250 Calories and always less than 5% sugar.