Karuna Aims to Balance Flavor and Function with Rebranded Line

Growing up in China, Angela Zeng believed strongly in ayurvedic medicine and the power of food and herbs to support overall health and wellness. Studying chemistry with a degree in pathology, she applied that knowledge of herbal remedies to food science to understand how those ingredients affect the human body on a biochemical level. The combination of those modern and traditional approaches to wellness formed the foundation for Karuna, a brand of organic, functional plant-based beverages Zeng launched last year. Now, as she prepares to unveil both a revamped formulation and packaging, she believes she’s finally got a product that matches her ambitions.

Karuna, which launched last year at Whole Foods stores in the St. Louis area, has gone through several variations of packaging, formula, and flavors as Zeng has tried to perfect the line for market. This month, the company is debuting a new brand design and a refined message that is aimed at fueling expanded distribution over the next 12 months. The revamped line, which features a new bottle design by Flood Creative, emphasizes the products’ various functional benefits, wholesome ingredients, and its bonafides as a gut-health-boosting source of prebiotics.

According to Zeng, she first began developing herbal remedies as a child for fun. As she grew older, she ventured into more professional scientific routes and became interested in modern food and medicine research.

“We’re very passionate about Chinese traditional medicine and herbal formulations,” Zeng told BevNET in a phone call. “Since I was age 5, I was coming up with my own [beverage] creations. On the road, I self-studied traditional formulations…. But when I went to college I chose to study chemistry, I felt like I needed to be in a hardcore science.”

Each of Karuna’s six SKUs use different ingredients to emphasize unique needs, which the flavors are named for. The products blend traditional Chinese ingredients like mung bean sprouts with western flavors, such as aronia berries which are only grown in the Midwest U.S. The flavors include Boost, a coffee blend made with black sesame and coconut; Focus, a coffee with turmeric and coconut; Pro-Fit, a smoothie made with cacao, chestnut, pear, oats, and flaxseed; Empower, a smoothie made with banana, cinnamon, black soybean, quinoa, and flaxseed; Rejuvenate, a tonic made with mango, goji berry, lemon, and red dates, and Detox, a juice made with grape, kiwi, watermelon, aronia berry, and mung bean sprouts. Each flavor comes in a 12 oz. bottle and is USDA certified organic and Non-GMO project verified. The line ranges from 45 to 150 calories per bottle, depending on the variety. It retails for $3.99 per bottle.

The diversity of the line is part of its strength, Zeng said, as it offers consumers variety. But it’s also proven difficult for Karuna to market to consumers who are unfamiliar with the eastern-influenced taste profiles. Karuna launched last year with five SKUs, four of which have evolved into new formulations in the current line (a hydration-focused variety was dropped). The latest revision lowers the sugar content while also improving the overall taste profile. Earlier this year, in a prior rebrand, the company added the coffee blends, which Zeng said were meant to broaden the appeal to western consumers (coffee is relatively unpopular in much of eastern Asia, she said) but with unconventional ingredients such as turmeric and black sesame that improve the health benefits.

“Some of our flavors can be difficult for western consumers to accept, so everything is tailored to be what the consumer wants,” Zeng said. “But in our presentation you can see our philosophy, and we will never change our philosophy.”

The formulas also come with added challenges in ingredient sourcing, which made developing flavors difficult at times, Zeng said. Unable to locate an affordable source of organic mung bean sprouts, the company instead developed a hydroponics system to grow its own sprouts. According to Zeng, including the ingredient in its Detox flavor was vital to the function, as the sprouts “bind to toxins to help our liver detox naturally.”

Based in Missouri, Zeng said she hopes to grow Karuna throughout the natural channel in the Midwest. The products is currently available in 54 Whole Foods stores in the Midwest region, and Zeng said she is aiming to expand into additional regions in the next year. Although the brand is only in a few hundred stores around the country, it has entered the UNFI Next program to secure five warehouses — two west coast, two Midwest, and one on the east coast. In the San Francisco bay area the brand is in Berkeley Bowl stores, and in L.A. it has added Jimbo’s natural food stores. On the east coast, Karuna is in Fairways in New York.

The rebranded line is launching this month and the new bottles are beginning to roll out to stores now. After more than a year-and-a-half of working to get the branding right, Zeng said she believes she’s finally found the right look and message that will give Karuna the boost it needs to expand nationwide.

“I believe it’s outstanding,” she said. “Like artwork on the shelf.”