If you’re intent on upping your plant-based intake game, you’ve probably found it possible to snatch up organic, ethically, and sustainably sourced fare. But what if you want to stretch those ideas into your supplement cabinet? Up until recently, you might have had a harder time, but now you can thank Ora Organics.
Founded by Ronald Chang and Will Smelko, the line not only offers supplements using only plant-based and organic ingredients, but also a supply chain and packaging approach that maintains the same high standards. Looking for an Omega 3 spray with a package that grows wildflowers? Ora’s got you. Want to feel sure everything you put in your body is truly healthy? Ora’s got you there, too.
SBS talked to Chang and Smelko about how they dug into this untapped arena, why it’s so critical to extend your product demands to supplements and how supplements can support your overall approach to health.
SBS: How did the two of you join forces to create Ora?
Ronald Chang: I was born and raised in Santa Barbara, and my parents came over from Taiwan. After being a civil engineer, my dad quit to join the restaurant industry. He ended up owning and operating spots throughout Southern California and Baltimore. So, I grew up watching the beautiful dance and chaos between food, cooks, and front of house staff. I also spent a lot of time with my grandmother who instilled a deep respect for food in me. But I also saw the dark side, since my family was focused on taste and not health. My dad and grandma both had type 2 diabetes, and my uncle died of a sudden heart attack in his 50s.
I never thought I’d go into food. I went to UCBerkeley, where Will was my roommate, and afterward I took a consulting job. But like my dad, I soon switched to food and went to culinary school. Still, supplements were far from my mind. But when Will approached me with this idea that you can make supplements from food, my mind was blown. Nutrition from food…it makes so much sense!
I had to jump on board, taking the skills I learned in culinary school to a new home. Now, I focus a lot on flavor profiles. In concentrated ingredients and supplements, even a slight pinch more or less can completely change the product. My second focus is on sourcing. My culinary education taught me to always know where your ingredients come from.
Will Smelko: I grew up in San Diego, and Ron and I met in high school before living together at Berkeley. Berkeley is a food movement mecca, having nurtured Alice Waters and Michael Pollan. I took food courses, but none of it sank in. I was eating fast food, and it wasn’t until after college when I watched ‘Forks Over Knives’ that I made the spontaneous decision to be vegan.
Professionally, I was doing strategy and operations for large companies, and I saw that dark side of Fortune 500. But I learned a lot about quality control and the massive need for nutritional transparency. I saw the same need for supplements without synthetic additives, and so I joined with Will in a dream team.
SBS: Out of all areas in the wellness and nutrition world, why did you choose to focus on supplements?
WS: A lot of it stemmed from my own experience. When I was a vegan, I wasn’t a good vegan. I wasn’t getting balanced nutrition. I would eat broccoli and kale for dinner, adding maybe hummus and later vegan cashew ice cream. I started developing heart palpitations. I didn’t know what was going on. Flash forward, and I had several doctors working on me, analyzing my blood. Turns out I was really deficient in B12 and iron. I realized, not only did I need to focus on a better diet, but I also needed to take supplements. For example, if you aren’t eating fish, the only bioavailable form of Omega 3 is from supplements. We found algae is one of just a very few bioavailable, vegan sources.
So that’s how it started. We’re really attracted to the amazing work going on in all spaces like healthy delivery. But we didn’t want to be getting in their way. On the other hand, we didn’t see people stepping up to create supplements that a customer like myself needed. They didn’t exist. Even if there was a slightly organic option, it had a gelatin capsule with fillers. They got halfway there. But there was nothing that met the clean food ideal. So we made it.
SBS: What are the key markers of Ora that make it so unique?
RC: It’s the whole package: Every ingredient comes from plant-based source entirely. There are no synthetic materials, whereas some other premium companies spike products with synthetic choices. Then, we also have an emphasis on sustainability. Our core nutrient categories include omega three fatty acids, probiotics and plant-based proteins, and we’re doing a lot more in functional space with organic greens.
Then, every aspect of our supply chain is sustainable, even our packaging. For example, the waste-free box of the Omega 3 spray can be put in a quarter inch of water. Then watch wildflowers grow! We don’t see anyone doing anything like that. Even though it’s a huge industry, we’re doing things like biodegradable packaging, and I’m so happy I could use my skills to supply the greatest change I can.
SBS: What are some confusing, misleading, misused industry words shoppers should beware of?
RC: It really bothers me when a company says they’re food based, but then they’ll include yeast cultured items. Anything yeast cultured means they’re taking yeast, throwing in synthetic ingredients and then re-extracting the ingredients. That’s how they’re getting away with the term ‘food-based.’ There are also so many fillers created in the last few decades, and we have no idea what their long-term effects are. So, the key is knowing what each ingredient is. Not to say that every chemical out there is bad, but if it’s not from plant-based food, then we won’t put it in our product.
SBS: What are your tips for people hoping to add healthier habits into their life?
RC: Will’s approach was to go more cold turkey. But I grew up eating anything I wanted, focusing on just flavor. So in my mind, start with small wins. Take one little thing, and try to build up momentum. Get rid of sugary drinks, and then give yourself a pat on the back. And after you’ve done that for a few weeks, add another thing, like one less meal without meat. Take baby steps!
Also, it’s not just all about food and nutrition. The mental aspect is extremely important including getting enough sleep, doing yoga, or meditation.
WS: Our product and releases have reflected our desire to help our customer make easy transitions and still get the nutrition. For example, we tried to move away from capsules and toward liquids, sprays and powders. But our customers were mad! So, we listened and kept the capsules. Whatever makes it easiest. So in that way, it’s about having that conversation. Think about the most important health areas: digestive, sleep, focus, energy and Omega 3s. Identify the areas that need help, and target those in your changes.
SBS: Since this is clearly a new area in the wellness food arena, what were the biggest obstacles in getting Ora off the ground?
WS: Creation and education were the most difficult. It took us almost two years to work out the supply chain. That included the time to first figure out what the most cutting edge tech was plus how to use it to scale on a regular basis. Plus, since we were looking for organic, quality suppliers, we required a ton of vetting, certification and documentation for everything from ensuring the absence of GMO, testing for gluten and the highest quality in all ingredients.
Then, if people have been doing something for years or decades, don’t think you’ll be the one to convince them that swallowing capsules without thinking isn’t a good idea. It will be a hard, uphill battle. For example, I’ve given talks to the foodiest of the foodiest. I make a habit to start the talk asking about who takes vitamin C or B, and typically half the audience raises their hands. Then I ask if anyone can tell me where the vitamin comes from…the actual source. And it’s always crickets! Someone might joke, ‘the sun,’ but they’ve never answered correctly.
So clearly, you can spend time building an organic, plant-based supply chain and have the process working, but you still need to educate customers on why they should care. You don’t want to be taking additives, coloring, and coatings on a daily basis because it messes with your digestive track. Being on ‘Shark Tank’ was amazing because it was 7 million mainstream American customers we were able to communicate with.
SBS: Personally, what are your favorite Ora products?
WS: Now, I’m vegan-ish, as I call it. I’m more focused on clean eating than anything. So if I do eat eggs, I focus on sourcing and quality, and I still maintain a strong emphasis on plant-based eating. Having tried a lot of different proteins, the way our protein shake impacts my digestive system is head and shoulders above others. It includes a full spectrum of digestive proteins, not just all pea or all rice, and that creates a balanced protein. That’s really been a functionally different experience for me.
Also, perhaps TMI, but I’ve had candida, yeast, and fungus problems, on and off. I would be lost without our probiotic in helping to handle those issues, and I’m not the only one who has had that experience.
RC: I love one of our new products that made for pre-workout. I drink it everyday for energy and focus. It has several different sources of energy including matcha tea, yerba matte, organic adaptogens and green coffee bean. It helps with stress relief and cognitive function, which helps me power through the workday.
I also love the probiotics, and for me it took about a month for the effects to kick in. The first few weeks I had slight discomfort, since it’s basically cleansing the bad microbes out of your system. But then, I’ve never had more energy or felt more lively and focused. My body feels more in tune. I also saw a cognitive function boost from our Omega 3 after just a few days.
Will’s San Diego Favorites:
Healthy Restaurant: I love natural grocery stores’ salad bars, like Jimbo’s…Naturally and Stehly Farms Market.
Splurge Restaurant: Plumeria Vegetarian Restaurant in University Heights
Yoga Studio: Yoga Loft in Little Italy
Athletic Shoes: Nike (with special custom orthotics for my strangely high arches)
Calming Activity: I love hikes. I'm an especially big fan of the woods and mountains outside of San Diego, but there are also some great hikes along the cliffs near Torrey Pines State Beach.
Fun Activity: Tennis. Ron and I like to play a variation of tennis called non-stop tennis. It requires us to run around the court for nearly an hour or so until we tire ourselves out.
Will’s SBS Mantra: Be Healthy. All too often last year I became so work-obsessed that I allowed my health to slip. My focus this year has been on remaining balanced and staying in tune with my body so I can reduce stress and maintain great health.
Ron’s San Diego Favorites:
Healthy Restaurant: Cafe Gratitude
Splurge Restaurant: Café 21
Yoga Studio: Yoga Loft
Athletic Shoes: I still have the Adidas Pro Models I had in high school.
Calming Activity: I just discovered meditation! Everyone really needs to try it, and go in with an open mind!
Fun Activity: I grew up playing basketball. We’re also very lucky to have some incredible musicians at Ora Organics, so we occasionally jam out on the piano, guitar and vocals.
Ron’s SBS Mantra: Be Bold. If you want to change the world, you need to stand for ideas that others would say are crazy or impossible. That's the biggest lesson I've learned since starting Ora, and I have to give credit to fellow co-founder Will Smelko for pushing me past my comfort zone to dream bigger.