When you think of ice cream, you probably think of indulgence before health. But, wellness-focused dessert lovers are aiming to combine the two seemingly contrasting elements. Caroline Tseng, whose product Sweet Nova offers lush taste in spoonable form (all while being plant-based and nutrient-dense!), is doing just that. After testing more than 200 recipes, she’s landed on an option that satisfies the urge for sweets as well as substance.
Originally from the suburbs of Maryland and the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, food was more about enjoyment and connection than anything else, especially with a mother who was a wonderful cook. But since Taiwanese cuisine features balanced meals, eating well came naturally. Now, she’s taking her background in advertising and combining it with her love of food to create a company that's as satisfying as it is sweet and alluring. Below, SBS dishes with Caroline.
SBS: What was your professional path? How did it lead you to your work now?
Caroline Tseng: I've worked in advertising on the brand/digital strategy side for about 10 years now. In fact, I still work part-time to fund my business. After starting my own fashion blog at NYU, a chance encounter in an elevator somehow led to my first internship as a social marketing intern at a great agency at the time, kbs+ (which no longer exists, unfortunately). Working in advertising was a dream. Truthfully, I didn't even think it was a real job. But it was, and I was obsessed with it. I worked my butt off, got ridiculously lucky learning from the smartest people in the industry (like my friend and mentor, the brilliant Faris Yakob), and gained experience across a bunch of different industries.
My advertising background led to my current venture, Sweet Nova. Advertising was a dream job, but it was also hard, life-consuming work. As I moved up the chain, the work load followed. I was working 15-hour days pretty regularly and saw my stress get to an unmanageable level. I rarely had time to sleep, much less make nourishing, healthy food. I often ended up shoving a spoonful of peanut butter in my mouth for ‘lunch’ because it was the cleanest, fastest, plant-based food option in the office kitchen. I thought to myself, how can I make something that you can spoon right out of the container that took no work, was delicious, and was full of nourishing fruits and vegetables?
SBS: What was the original nexus and a-ha moment of the product?
CT: The product has gone through many iterations, so I'd say there were a series of ‘a-ha’ moments that eventually led to the current version of the product. The first one was definitely that ‘spoonful of peanut butter’ moment where I realized, okay, a spoonful of peanut butter is a great source of protein that can tide me over a bit, but I'd love it if this spoonful also had fiber and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables that I can never seem to find in a snack form.
The concept actually started as ‘meal replacement ice cream,’ but I hated the taste of the powders. So instead, we moved to more of a smoothie base concept using real fruits and vegetables. Our product now uses banana and coconut milk as the base and uses superfood ingredients such as dragon fruit, sunflower butter, cacao and matcha.
SBS: How did you then manifest that idea?
CT: I got lucky, and a friend of mine had a cousin who was a Unilever food scientist! She taught me a ton about the science of ice cream (percentage solids, overrun, stabilizers and emulsifiers, etc.). It's very scientific and very finicky. We tested over 100 recipes (probably over 200 at this point) before we got to something we were happy with. The first versions actually had dairy in them! Then I made a conscious decision about wanting to be plant-based for both our bodies and for the planet, so dairy and honey were out. Instead, we use coconut milk and dates. 100% plant-based and no added sugar, woohoo!
SBS: How is your food different from other snacks? What makes it special? What's surprising about it?
CT: In a sea of ‘better-for-you’ snack options, Sweet Nova has created an ‘actually-good-for-you’ choice. We use nutrient-dense, plant-based ingredients, and have no added sugars in our product because it's only sweetened with dates. It's a grab-and-go smoothie bowl that's spoonable like ice cream and made with 100% clean ingredients. And, it lasts a year in the freezer. That does not exist on the market.
SBS: What was the process for creating the recipes?
CT: My food scientist friend, Evonne, created this awesome spreadsheet for us. We'd have to look at so many elements at the same time: nutrition, sugar levels, fat levels, percentage solids. Every time we tweaked one ingredient (a little more coconut milk), we'd have to make sure the ratio of ingredients still worked together (enough solids, enough fat, enough sugar). In a way, what we're doing makes no sense: The best ice cream has lots of sugar and lots of fat. That's what makes the best premium, artisanal ice creams. We were trying to take all those elements away and still make a delicious, spoonable product. Hence, 100+ recipes!
SBS: What were happy surprises and obstacles when building your company?
CT: Every happy surprise comes when people love our product. That makes it all worth it. When we do events, people get really excited about the concept and it reminds us of why we're doing this.
The key obstacle would definitely be cash. Building a scalable packaged food business costs at least $100-200K, and it wasn't the kind of funding I had access to. I've found exciting new manufacturing and sales partners, however, and I'm really excited for how it's going to shape the growth of our brand when we re-launch in 2020.
SBS: What tools, emotional and practical, helped you move forward?
CT: Being really aware of my physical and mental health has been a total game-changer, as has been the idea that both mental and physical health require an ongoing practice. Some of my favorite tools/habits include:
-The Happiness Equation, which is an easy, engaging read with lots of great charts and tools that simplify concepts around positive psychology.
-Trello, which organizes every single to-do item in a clear way.
-OKRs (objectives and key results), which helps me make sure I have a 10,000 foot view of where we're trying to get to, and also making sure I'm focused 100% on just five to seven goals, not 1000 goals at once.
-7-Minute Workout, which is scientifically proven to be one of the most effective workouts in the tightest time frames.
SBS: What's your own health and wellness routine? How has it evolved as your company has evolved?
CT: I do five to 10 minutes of meditation every morning. I switch between Shine when I want a lady power pick-me-up, Headspace when I really want to create space around my thoughts and The Meditation Podcast when I want a longer, full-body relaxation experience.
Then, some form of cardio at least 3 times a week. This can range from running outside, using my mini home elliptical while watching a show, or literally just dancing around like an insane person in my apartment. They’re all free, other than buying the elliptical just once!
And, I do a 20-minute replay (based on an exercise recommended in The Happiness Equation referenced above) where I spend 20 minutes thinking about all the amazing things that have happened recently and/or that I'm grateful for in general. Game changer.
Caroline’s SBS Mantras: Be Kind and Be Brave resonate the most with me. Kindness is a non-negotiable. There is more than enough hate and anger in the world. The least we can do is be kind to each other.
Feeling fear is a completely normal experience for all of us, and it requires all of us to be brave on a daily basis. Have an uncomfortable but honest conversation, try something new, talk to someone who looks different from you. We can't let fear run us down. So, we all have to be brave.
The best, zaniest part of being Caroline: I always try to make sure that work is, ultimately, fun and rewarding. Also, I am a karaoke queen.
Caroline’s NYC Faves:
Splurge Restaurant: Atomix
Healthy Restaurant: ABCV
Nightlife Spot: Duet 35 for karaoke
Fun Activity: Karaoke and Daybreaker
Calming Activity: A day at King Spa and Sauna in NJ
Fitness Studio: My apartment!
Yoga Studio: Yoga to the People
Athleticwear: Girlfriend Collective
Athletic Shoes: Brooks for running, Nike for fashion
Book:This is New York by Miroslav Sasek
Online Resources: Ted Talk Videos, anything by Tim Ferriss