Simple, unadorned, pure. A profound sensation, recognizable and not: maple.
Pretentious much? Sorry/you’re welcome, take your pick. I ‘scribbled’ that line down on my phone while riding the trainer the other day, watching Genius, an intriguing and thought-provoking film, particularly for those of us who fancy ourselves ‘writers.’ In the scene that inspired, Thomas Wolfe (portrayed by Jude Law), struggles with Max Perkins (portrayed by Colin Firth), his editor, to distill the essence of Wolfe’s experience of falling in love at first sight, from what might be accurately described as ‘a wordy flourish.’
Perkins catalyses the crux of reshaping Wolfe’s emotional experience into resonant writing with eloquent insight:”Maybe the larger question is this: In a book crowded with great rolling mountains of prose, how is this moment profoundly different?”
The scene helped me arrive upon a way to introduce what has every chance of being a totally boring blog post about sports nutrition products. When I was offered FRUIT and BRIX samples for testing and review by local rep, James White, I immediately thought: “Ok, this will be interesting to try, but how the hell am I going to write about this stuff? Who really wants to read an in-depth review of ride food?” How did the scene help? Read on.
FRUIT and BRIX are made by xact Nutrition, a Montreal, Quebec based company headed up by three co-founders and owners: Alain Regnault, BSc, Ing Chim., PhD; Marianne Regnault, BSc, MSc; and, Lawrence Colsell, BSc.
xact NUTRITION started with one idea. An alternative to a an energy gel. Something more palatable and more natural… This project lead to xact NUTRITION’s 1st product, FRUIT2 energy bars for during effort, born from a marriage of our skills with our passions. All 3 owners/founders have passion for doing things as well as they can, but each member of the team brings their unique perspective and abilities to the company.
Three product lines compose xact Nutrition’s offerings, including FRUIT, BRIX, and ProKrunch. The 100 calorie per package FRUIT2 energy bar/jelly lineup is tailored to endurance sport use, while the FRUIT3 variety are tweaked with stimulant ingredients for those looking for an extra kick during high-output circumstances. As xact puts it, “FRUIT3 gives you everything you love about FRUIT2, plus natural caffeine, electrolytes and antioxidants for more zip!” BRIX is maple syrup packaged in a simple, resealable and reusable packet containing 220 calories (two typical gel shot’s amount in one package), an alternative to gels many will be familiar with.
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After trying my first FRUIT3 jelly, I was hardly overwhelmed; it was fine. In that moment, I didn’t realize the line was split between 2 and 3 varieties. The black currant 3 I tried was a bit flat, and the flavour was not exceptional. I figured it was perhaps a little stale. Soon after, I had a BRIX maple syrup shot. And? Well, it was maple syrup. The most interesting thing I could come up with as I held the syrup shot in my hand, wearing nothing but cycling bibs, socks, and shoes, was that I loved the screw-on flip cap, a superior format compared to other shots I’ve seen. But where was the story? How far could I go with glamour shots of the product? What would be the point?
I opened up a maple FRUIT2 before a morning trainer ride a week later.
Simple, unadorned, pure. A profound sensation, recognizable and not: maple.
I wasn’t prepared for the surprise to come. That butterscotch-coloured ochre cuboid of maple-apple earth-fed glucose was so completely soft and delicious I was unequivocally shocked. “Ok, something special is going on here.”
If we consider the process of creative production typical of a ‘genius,’ we’ll likely be vexed to find that there is no ‘process’ to identify. Instead, genius tends to be more of a matter of floodgates opening and ideas rushing out. For some, like Wolfe, creative production is/was a compulsion. For artists like Picasso, the powerful effect of perceiving colour had to be balanced by a commensurate output:
Monroe Beardsley relays a story about Picasso, who claimed to suffer from “an indigestion of greenness” from walking in the woods on a summer’s day: “I must empty this sensation into a picture,” Picasso said. “Green dominates it. The painter paints as if in urgent need to discharge himself of his sensations and his visions.” (Denis Dutton)
For Wolfe, productivity was not the issue. Stopping the flow of prose from his mind in order to distill and refine what was already there, already good, and worthy of finality was the problem, Max Perkins the solution.
In a world swirling with contradictory ideas about nutrition, Lawrence, Alain and Marianne have taken what was already there, already good, and worthy of finality – fruit, maple syrup – and shaped them into something elegant and complete. Genius? If we consider the fruit and maple sap the product of nature’s genius, the xact team plays the role of discoverer, editor, shaper, co-creator. This was the realization I came to while on the trainer. It was clear that the story I needed to tell was about how the xact team steered clear of engineering sports nutrition, and instead tapped into what was already there. So I spoke with Lawrence Colsell about doing an interview for this piece, to which he was receptive, and left it at that, hoping for interesting interview content to work with.
Over the next couple weeks I slowly made my way through the rest of my samples, and each FRUIT2 I had was a delight. I was very happy to find that they rinsed down well rather than hanging out on my teeth. You’ll see below that cavities are a very real concern, not just for me, but all of us eating foods while doing endurance sports.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed taking the BRIX maple syrup out with me on winter rides, and have found that it resists freezing well. I really like to have it alongside some raw almonds every 30 minutes or so after my first hour of riding. I steered away from the ProKrunch bar, as it isn’t vegan, so that item isn’t part of this piece.
In sum, I love the FRUIT jellies and BRIX syrup, and fully intend to stock up on both for the season’s adventures and races. The quality of the FRUIT jellies is on par if not higher than any fancy jellies I’ve had anywhere (and I have had quite a few, they are my favourite candy), and the BRIX syrup is simply wonderful. I am a fan of simple fuel options, and these items fit in rather nicely alongside the dates, figs, bananas, almonds and other single-ingredient foods I like to take riding. I even used a chunk of the apricot FRUIT2 after a snirt ride this winter to make tea; it worked brilliantly! Is this stuff cheap? Nope. Is it fairly priced? Absolutely.
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Ultimately, when I heard back from Lawrence after the holidays, I was delighted to learn that the questions I put to him and his team had sparked interesting and productive discussion that helped them define what they are trying to accomplish with the FRUIT and BRIX. Fantastic! Read on, I think you’ll find their responses fascinating!
The turn to simple ingredients for fuelling endurance sport seems to be something of a return to a bygone era, a time when athletes carried dates and nuts in their pockets, filled glass bottles at spring heads, and wore natural fibres from head to toe. After years of engineered energy products dominating the endurance sports nutrition market, we now see space opening up for products like yours, as pure as maple syrup. Before getting into the specifics of how you do what you do and why, perhaps you’d like to talk about how you perceive this moment in time, how and why we are where we are today with sports nutrition?
We agree. As people with a love for slow food, a return to simple ingredients is something we cherish. Our love of sporting activities was born on the mountains rather than an indoor track or in a gym… Cooking and eating after a day’s hike has always been a part of the experience, not something dissociated from the sporting activity itself. So when we were looking at what could make a great and new food product for sports, it was essential that taste and texture could not be compromised.
The term you used, “engineered energy products,” is a very interesting one, and certainly defines the vast majority of products that we have come to think of as “sports nutrition” — not just how they are portrayed, but their very core: the ingredients used and how they’ve been conceived. The first companies to make energy gels, along with weight loss protein shakes and certain health supplements, are great examples of this process. The term “engineered” aptly describes the process of product development . And while this process is by no means bad or lacking in innovation, it is essentially only as an afterthought that attention is paid to the less engineered and more traditional values of cookery or food manufacturing, such as taste, texture and the overall eating experience.
At xact nutrition, we have adopted the opposite of this process to product development. I’d liken our approach to a more artisanal, hand-crafted approach: rather that of a chef, than a technician assembling specific ingredients. We pay attention to the overall food and eating experience. With FRUIT2, our starting point was the traditional “pâte de fruit,” traditionally made by pastry chefs, not lab technicians! Only once we are satisfied with the actual flavour and texture do we then start adapting it to answer the needs of active people. With FRUIT 2 this meant very pragmatic things like portion size, packaging and shelf life; the nutrient content is already 100% carbohydrate and thus perfect as a source of energy while expending effort.
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However, with FRUIT3 the recipe was more complex: folks we spoke with loved the taste, texture and digestibility of FRUIT2, the traditional artisanal fruit bar or jelly, but wanted the convenience of electrolytes and caffeine in the bar.
We feel that this approach — starting with the eating experience, and staying true to that experience as we refine and add value to the product — is the xact nutrition way of doing things. It also happens to be part of an approach that is more and more widely sought after these days. I think it’s fair to say we are part of a counter movement in the sports nutrition space; one moving towards crafted food for active people and away from over-engineered products.
What is it, then, about maple syrup and/or fruit that drew you in? Was it a matter of seeing what was on the market and discerning a gap you could fill, or perhaps a dissatisfaction with what was on offer? Perhaps it was something else altogether?
It was more about the ingredient itself. The transition to sports nutrition manufacture was a natural move, not based on an analysis of needs or market assessment…
It stemmed from our conviction that the food experience comes first. What will the person be eating and what will it taste like? Only once we had that dialled in did we then get onto the fine tuning. How much sodium do we need? What is the amount of caffeine shown to be beneficial? What is to be the portion size?
In order to get the best taste and texture, as any chef knows, it’s all about ingredient quality. In our experience the technical side (micro and macro nutrient quantities and assimilations) is far easier to get right since there is plenty of excellent guidance and evidence in the scientific literature.
What I really like about the Brix packaging is that it is resealable, and it contains two servings. For me, that’s enough sugar for a 2-3 hour race. Plus, if I’m to be honest, I can refill it with syrup from home if I want, if my kids had not cleared out our supply! It must be more expensive to use this packaging over the typical tear-top format, which means you have to factor this cost into your profit margins. How did you arrive on this decision? I imagine it was a bit of a leap of faith, hoping consumers would value the larger format, less wasteful format enough to pay a little extra?
I’d say the most important factor in any product development decision is differentiation, and this holds true for all aspects of the product. With BRIX we felt packaging differentiation was particularly important, as the syrup itself, while it is different from what you would buy in any store, certainly appears familiar.
With BRIX, as with FRUIT2, it was all about adding value and convenience to what is an already great product. We wanted the simplest ingredient list possible. We did have less room for manoeuvre, but an ingredient list of 1 is as simple as it gets! So it was all about optimising the maple syrup itself. In this instance that meant calorie dense while preserving flow or liquidity, so that it’s easy to get it out of the sachet, and swallow it too. As you cook and concentrate maple syrup, it will thicken until it gets to the taffy stage. By using maple syrups gathered at different times of the season we are able to fine tune the composition of the syrup so as to be able to concentrate it further, and keep it liquid enough so that it flows easily. Herein lies the name of the product, BRIX. BRIX is the unit of sugar content measurement. BRIX has a higher sugar content per unit volume than regular grocery-bought maple syrup. We believe this is a small, but useful advantage for someone looking to replace energy spent whilst exercising.
As far as the packaging is concerned we fell in love with the resealable pop-top; re-usable, harder to litter and being able to regulate yourself just how much maple syrup you take in a shot are huge plusses. The larger portion size does split opinion somewhat, but we’re working on a great solution for folks who prefer to keep things slim in the jersey already, so watch this space! As far as costs go, surely you, as someone who enjoys first hand riding and writing about quality equipment appreciates the fact if you want to move the game on in terms of quality, or being environmentally responsable, this usually comes at some cost? We figured it was worth it, and so far our customers seem to think so too.
Absolutely. That’s why the cap caught my attention. I really appreciate it when I see brands building these considerations into their product packaging.
On the FRUIT2 side, I have to say, I was truly impressed when I tasted fresh samples. I grew up a fan of fancy fruit jellies, and yours are on par with the best I’ve had anywhere. In particular, I was amazed by the texture and flavour of the maple. I felt compelled to share that experience on FaceBook, and was not surprised to see many people comment about their love for the flavour too, not to mention the others in the line. Can you talk about the process you went through to get to the recipes you finally settled on?
Of course. First of all, I’m glad to hear about your comments and those of the community regarding the flavour, for we believe that this is where our game is. We want to make products that taste great and feel better than what is already available — as opposed to rant about some fabled, and probably questionable benefits of a specific amino acid… This comes back to our initial values and beliefs about the quality of the whole product, and our conviction that enjoyment should be an integral part of the process.
As for the process, the recipe for pâte de fruit has not changed in the last two centuries. Making pâte de fruit (fruit jellies) is as well established as is making jam or fruit preserves in order to conserve fruit harvested during the summer. Like fruit preserves, fruit pulp is cooked with sugar. The texture that you enjoy is thanks to pectin, a gelling agent naturally present in the skins of certain fruits, like apples and oranges Acidity is necessary for the cooked fruit pulp to jellify properly; if the fruit mixture is not naturally acidic enough, we simply add lemon juice to it.
Fantastic! I’ve never in my life considered making pâte de fruit, but now I am inspired! It is really interesting to learn that this is a traditional way of preserving fruit, more than being about creating candy. As I think about it, this makes perfect sense; people have long needed compact food options for time spent away from home. Fascinating!
One of the hesitations I and a few cyclists I know have around consuming sugary products while riding is about our teeth. Specifically, some of us developed cavities after using sticky products like Honey Stingers for a while. To be perfectly honest, this turned me away from packaged nutrition products and back to simple things like dates. This is why I tested the FRUIT2 jellies before my morning rides, so I could brush. Is dental health something you considered when devising the FRUIT2 recipes? I can say that if you didn’t consider this, you lucked out, because my testing indicates that the jellies dissolve and seem to rinse away exceptionally well. On the Brix side, maple syrup rinses down well, so no real concerns there.
I have to be honest here, this one wasn’t on our radar at all, and its something we heard about only quite recently! I guess there are sometimes unexpected benefits when you concentrate on ingredient quality!
I’ve noted that you are supporting a number of Canadian athletes and teams, and after trying the product, I have a strong feeling many of the plugs I’ve seen from some of them over the last couple years have been totally genuine.
Aside from getting the brands out there, are there other benefits derived from your partnerships with teams and individual athletes? I’m thinking about the feedback side, but when I consider BRIX, perhaps there’s not much to tweak, and with FRUIT2, the product seems so refined, I don’t know where you could go next. So what sort of feedback do you get that you can act on, or, what sort of feedback might you wish to receive from the athletes you are linked to?
The benefits of working with individuals and teams have been massive. While we have always been very keen outdoor and sports enthusiasts, we are just that. None of us were on any elite sports programme… I made the cut for my high school’s rugby team, and that was only just! We are expert in cooking, product development, and food manufacturing. This experience has been more about taking that expertise and learning the sports industry and distribution side of things as we grow — and not being shy to seek the right expert advice when required!
Via @cycleryracing energized by XactNutrition // #fuelyourgoals // #Repost @cycleryracing ・・・ A couple of us were down in the US this past weekend for the #christhater crits! Put in some some top 10 finishes ahead of #GatewayCup this coming weekend! 📷 Andrew Thayer #ridewithopUS #smithwomen #smithiscycling #biemme #sako7bidons #sako7socks #myopus #giro #womenwhoride #cyclelikeagirl #fromwhereiride #thecyclery #fuelyourgoals
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But to get back to the question, our partnerships have been hugely influential in a multitude of ways; business promotion decisions, product development, business partnerships…even our social lives! We can not overstate the importance of being a part of the sporting community in this entrepreneurial adventure, and long may it stay so!
FRUIT2 seems well established in our region, but I’m guessing you’d like to expand into other markets. What’s your vision for the brand? Do you feel the quality of the product ‘speaks for itself,’ or is part of your task to convey what the brand is about in terms of beliefs and values? That is, we know what the product is, how it’s made and how it works, but the part that really resonates with people is the ‘why.’ What is the ‘why’ of FRUIT2 and BRIX?
I guess there are the products: FRUIT2, PROKRUNCH, BRIX, and then there’s our brand, xact nutrition. We don’t see ourselves bringing out endless versions of the FRUIT2 or FRUIT3 bars. At a certain point, if the only new creation is another flavour of a pre-existing product, I’m not sure how valuable that is, medium term. We see ourselves applying what we have learned with FRUIT2, with maple syrup and with our protein wafer bar to a new product type — one that is still in the food-for- active-people segment, to create something new and delicious that can change the game for our customers. Even if it’s in a relatively small way, if it’s not moving the game on, then we question why we should bother doing it all. So watch out for some exciting new products in the years to come.
Thank you to Lawrence Colsell and the xact Nutrition team for taking the time to talk with me for this piece, and for their unique contributions to the sports nutrition landscape. If you’d like to learn more about xact’s brands and products, you can find them in both French and English at www.xactnutrition.com, on Instagram: @xactnutrition, @brixalerable, Twitter, FaceBook, and YouTube.