Have you heard of Super-foods? They are natural, healthy foods that contain a high quantity of nutrients (think berries, cinnamon, almonds, flax seeds) and have been steadily and globally promoted by the natural foods movement as the stuff of the future. That’s all really neat, but how can a climber in the middle of a mountain pass, urgently needing an energy source, get access to something like that? What about a musician who’s about to perform for two hours non-stop, and needs a meal that will provide energy but not make her drowsy? What if you have a ton of meetings today and simply can’t go out to catch lunch? Catering to busy people around the world, companies have created “superfood mixes”, which are pulverized servings that can be added to water, milk, smoothies, for example, to quench both thirst and hunger at the same time. One of these companies is the Finnish Ambronite, and we go deep into the forest evading bears, wolves, and squirrels to talk with co-founder Simo Suoheimo about super-foods, sustainability, healthy choices, and the urgent need to re-evaluate our relationship with food.

Hi, Simo! Why are we at Nuuksio National Park?

I wanted to be interviewed here because nature is my source of inspiration. Whenever I feel stressed or overwhelmed, I like to come here to spend the night and quiet down. This is us, as human beings, we come from this. As I see it, my mission is to help people reconnect with the environment, and with being at home in their bodies and minds.

Tell a bit about your origins.

I was born in a small town called Kemijärvi, within the Polar Circle in northern Finland. As a kid I also lived in Zimbabwe for two years, and in Katmandu, Nepal.

Pretty exotic. Why were you there?

It was because of my dad. He was doing research on sustainable agriculture, the natural regeneration of tropical trees. Finland is pretty advanced in the field of forestry -especially sustainable forestry- so it was a development project he had: academic research on how to make the agriculture more sustainable in countries where they usually burn everything down and then start over, versus doing it in a modern way, ecologically sustainable both for people and for the environment. He was focusing on the regeneration of sal (a tropical tree) because it plays a significant role in the local economies. There I began to grasp how the ways we run things in one place affect people in other places. And of course I was going to school, making my first international friends, which also contributed to my interest in global issues.

Are you still in touch with them?

Yeah! Through Facebook, I reconnected with my old friends. They’re in Nepal, Ethiopia, Japan… We stay in touch.

Then you came back to Finland?

Yeah, we came back and stayed in Kotka, southern Finland, for a couple of years. My family spent a lot of time outdoors, in the forest, picking mushrooms and berries, and my dad did a lot of game-keeping (deer and moose) which is hunting to keep a sustainable environment. Spending time with the whole family in nature -just like my grandparents have also done- has always been my source of inspiration. It has shaped my upbringing, and the things I’ve been drawn into.

Also in Kotka, which is a coastal town with lots of fishermen, I set up my first business! I used to go fishing with friends (I was on 2nd or 3rd grade) and digging a lot of earth-worms. So I thought to set up a cardboard box kiosk, in a parking lot in front of a shopping center, and sell worms to fishermen! That was my first own company, answering the calling for entrepreneurship! (laughs) My parents thought it was a bit odd, but they supported me. They wrote on the wall “No need to dig! Get your worms here for 5 Finnish Marks!”

After that we came to the capital region, in Espoo. I went to high-school, did an exchange in Germany. I was interested in different languages and cultures. Then I went to Aalto University, to the Product Development and Information Service Economy program, because I was looking for tools to create something on my own. Even at a previous job interview in Toronto, while I was still studying, they asked me “what would be your ideal project” and I blurted “TO DEVELOP MY OWN PRODUCT!” which had nothing to do with the job at hand! (laughs)

How did Ambronite come to exist?

It was born out of a realization, from three different people who were coming from different directions.

Mikko is a founder of the Quantified Self community in Finland, which is part of a global movement. It merges different fields like health and measuring technology, medicine, and sports sciences, for example, and the fundamental idea that anyone can use these to measurably improve their lifestyle, transform their physical and mental condition, and even manage and prevent disease. It began in Silicon Valley, as a kind of modern look at how, for example, food and daily habits affect performance. People self-measure their sleep, their perceived happiness and stress levels, things like that. Mikko was passionate about that stuff, and founding the bio-hacking chapter here in Finland at the time. We met on a railroad trip aboard the Trans-Siberian.

Arno, the other co-founder, was studying with me at Aalto University. He’s into outdoor sports, and just recently completed an Ironman triathlon. During his military service he was a diver in the Navy’s special-forces. His interest was in sport nutrition: proteins, what helps you to recover fast, and to gain strength and agility. He was noticing that supplements were not the optimal way, so he turned to modern health and medical sciences, and to natural compounds that give better results because of their availability, etc.

So one day the three of us were sitting in front of the Kiasma museum, and realized we were all working on the same problem: food and human performance! How could we use modern nutritional sciences and sources we have available, to create a new kind of food that would help people thrive?

What about your goal?

Ah! I was trying to solve a personal problem.

I was an outdoors guide. I’ve guided a couple of hundred people on wilderness hikes around the polar circle, and also on activities like free skiing, alpine skiing, and climbing. In week-long expeditions food plays an essential role of your experience, and even of your survival. In self-supported hikes in the wilderness, where the nearest town can be hundreds of kilometers away, food becomes a safety matter.

From this need I was just trying to figure out what would make the perfect lunch smoothie, or lunch porridge, or snack bar. I was looking for a solution for myself, not for a business idea. I was researching a lot of info online, discussing it with my friends in medical science, and so forth. I was thinking “this can’t be that hard”. There are so many ingredients I love to cook with, that I’d love to have with me all the time -not only in my own kitchen where I can spend more time in making food- but also when climbing a mountain, or skiing in the Arctic wilderness. So I started doing mixes. I did I ton of them while I was in Switzerland. Then we started to talk with Mikko and Arno about it.

Was it a commercial idea at this point?

No, not at this point. I was noticing a lot of interest in the bio-hacking field and into the research of food and nutrition in Silicon Valley, with many companies looking at sustainable ways to produce protein (there is a global shortage of protein). A great part of the world-wide environmental crisis we see today is caused by extreme abundance in parts of the world, where 50% of the food goes to waste, from farm to fork. Developed countries are slowly becoming more conscious of their unsustainable ways, both health-wise and environment-wise, of producing food.

So the longing for transparency was there, the science was there, and also the fact that we can amplify human performance and human life with optimal nutrition and optimal food. Re-imagining food in a future format felt not only appealing, but possible! We wanted to see if we could create a kind of future food product, optimized for human health, fit into a modern lifestyle and format. One to make people healthy and happy, and at the same time be more sustainable and effective, incorporating age-old ingredients we already know have a host of health benefits. We were all attempting to solve our own problems, not trying to create a company at all.

How was the transition into a product?

At the time we also had Mika and Tapio, university friends, working and mixing the first Ambronite versions with us. The transition happened on Restaurant Day 2013, in Helsinki. We created our first mix at Arno’s place, a very basic one, then set up a couple of tables and a blender and presented it to the world! (laughs) It sold out very fast, people were really interested. So we believed we really had something going on, from different points of view: the smoothie movement, health movement, optimizing human performance, bio-hacking, and also from the interest in a deeper understanding of where does food come from, and what does it do to you and for you.

Later that summer we set up a very basic web page, where people could pre-order some of this “food from the future” (it was really a spreadsheet where you could input your order). Then we applied to the best startup accelerator in the region, Startup Sauna, on the Aalto University campus, and we got in! In the fall of 2013 we went through the turning point: from solving our own problems to founding a company, to see how far we could take the challenge of producing a food of the future that would help people live life to the fullest.

What is Ambronite? Is it a super-food?

It’s a drinkable meal, real food in a drinkable format. A mix of ingredients, each playing a role in creating a complete nutritional profile. It’s an answer to the questions: why are we not getting minerals, protein, healthy fats from the best, most pure sources? From the most bio-available sources, which coincidentally are the most delicious ones? Gourmet almonds, berries… So it does consist of items that people call super-foods. If it helps someone to call it that way, to reconnect with the fact that we have been eating stuff from the forest for thousands of years, maybe there’s some merit to call it that. Others identify health-impacting foods as super-foods. I talk about real food myself, but I guess it’s just terminology. And hype.

By combining all our understanding of food with the latest medical and nutritional knowledge (we have an MD PhD in our team as an advisor) and selecting real food ingredients that we have enjoyed for thousands of years, in ways that meet all the needs of the human body and mind, we developed a product that has zero waste, genuinely makes you feel good and serves your health, and makes you more productive and happy in busy situations.

Alright, cool. But I remember that scene in ‘The Matrix’ when they’re eating a horrid goop, the cook says “it has everything your body needs” and another character quips “it doesn’t have EVERYTHING your body needs”. Meaning it’s not enough for us to load energy into our bodies to keep going, we also look for delight in the experience of eating.

Of course, eating is a fundamental pleasure of human life! It has a massive social influence in every culture: the creation of the food, the sharing of the food… Food is a sacred thing for many people, so the roles and implications are vast, not necessarily connected to the ingestion of food itself. Food plays different roles at different moments in a person’s life as well… The idea is not to eradicate conventional food, but to create something that’s there, wherever you are, in a hurry or possibly making an inferior choice, like fast-food, or snacks, or not eating at all, all of which are detrimental to your good health, and to the environment (by the way it’s produced).

Are we eating too much, you think?

We are, unfortunately. We don’t have a healthy respect for our food, nor understanding of where does it come from, what does it do to us. Food has become a source of bottomless gratification and mindless consumption. So for me it’s a mission to reconnect people with all this, with nature, as part of my community work with scouts and NGOs. Being connected to the source of your food, and knowing what has happened for the food to become a part of your daily existence, it’s at the very core of what we’re doing here. If we don’t care where our food comes from we end up in this unhealthy relationship, with huge bowls of food to stuff ourselves with.

How does Ambronite address this? After all, it’s just some green powder in a sealed pouch.

That’s interesting to discuss. We’re very passionate about where our ingredients come from. Most of it comes from the Arctic forest, from Finland and the Nordic countries (the oats and the oat protein come from Sweden). Logistics and efficiency are a big thing for us, since many ingredients don’t grow here. Some come from southern regions, like California. Bilberries, also known as wild blueberries, are hand-picked within the polar circle, near the place where I was born! So we share our story, why we exist, how we feel about connecting to nature, and each and every ingredient, source country, and the story behind it, why it’s there, both functionally and historically, where does the food originate.

So I guess it’s to be expected that some people will ask “aren’t you guys doing exactly the opposite of what real food is like? You’re making powder!” We believe it’s the closest thing to real food there is, we’re super passionate and transparent in curating its origins. We put in great effort to give people around the globe the access, in every situation, to berries we can get here. (Simo points at the woods we’re standing at) But in a week they will be gone, out of season! How do we give a North-American mother, or to any busy person, access to this? We have to do it in a way that maximizes the trust in the source. In a way that doesn’t produce excess waste. If we shipped it fresh, 50% of it would end up in a waste bin. But when we dry it—the oldest preservation method we know of—it preserves the deliciousness and the quality of the nutrients. Our ancestors have done it for millennia, because it makes sense!

Another aspect we recognized when the company began to take shape is that the food system as a whole, as it exists today, is broken. There is material abundance, but also deprivation of health. Our food is killing us in the west, and at the same time there’s a vast inequality in the production and distribution of food: massive waste, non-sustainability, and much of it comes from how we treat it, how we don’t have any love to where it comes from and no respect for the people who create it. It’s cheap, we can throw it away, right? Tons of food shipped into massive warehouses in the US, people driving their SUVs for one hour to pick up the groceries there, and then drive back! It doesn’t make any sense…

So by asking “how can we do this smarter, with minimal waste?” we created a system where people can order online. It gets shipped as energy-efficiently as possible to your door, no need to drive an SUV to a shopping center the size of an aircraft carrier to buy food, much of which eventually will go to waste.

Where are the ingredients put together?

Here in Finland, in Vaasa. We have a partner who specializes in the gentle care of real foods, and in packing the pouches. Arno, my co-founder, is our recipe mastermind, and spends time with his tall chef’s hat in the kitchen formulating the stuff.

How do you make it into a powder?

Most of the ingredients already come in a fine, ground down format, so much of it is just mixing it properly and packaging it into these special, three-layer laminate pouches, that don’t let any particles or air inside. It keeps all the ingredients, nutrients, and taste fresh.

Manufactured in Finland, shipped globally?

Yeah! Global availability is one of our main concerns. To get it into the hands of people who want to enjoy nature daily, sport enthusiasts, or very busy people.

Is part of the goal to replace food with this?

No, absolutely not. That wouldn’t make sense, I don’t live that way, it’s not who I am. It’s about reconnecting with those good things that I love and making them more available in different situations. It’s like building a habit, any kind of habit. Take exercise, for example. Or for kids, brushing their teeth or flossing. It doesn’t come from your doctor, your parents, or your friends. YOU implement it in a permanent way so that it becomes second nature. Humans seem to be poor at making good decisions, so we need easy steps that can be incorporated into our daily routine, without making it an extra burden. Something that doesn’t need a lot of time and effort to prepare.

Teenagers have often problems with food. They wake up in the morning with either no appetite or willingness to prepare a healthy breakfast, then they go zombying around until four, when they grab a greasy cheeseburger somewhere.

And snack bars and energy drinks instead of food. It’s about recognizing the impact of our daily decisions and about policy, how to help them choose well. True transformation is to incorporate behaviors into your daily routine, then do them automatically. We have lots of young people using Ambronite, too.

How do you use it, yourself?

For me, it’s something I enjoy two to five times per day, depending on my activities. I enjoy cooking, so I typically cook larger portions during weekends. I’m now very excited about a new Dutch oven I got, to prepare fresh produce with it! So for me, Ambronite is my breakfast, something I like to enjoy in the mornings. And also during rock climbing or exercising or seeing friends. If we’re not going for dinner, I want something I know my body can use, that will make me feel great but not bloated and not interfere with my activity. Which is not only the ability to move the body, but also to focus. We got a lot of feedback from musicians, for example, who tell us that Ambronite is the only thing they ingest before rehearsals, or before a show, because it doesn’t make them bloated, sleepy, or reduce their performance as players or singers, like a regular meal would.

We need to understand how, on an micro-level, a meal will affect your life in the next two or three hours. And on a macro-level, how your diet affects your entire life, all those “small” choices. Everyone knows we should be eating healthy, and sleeping more, and drinking more water. But in truth, how many people are doing it? We can go on and on with the research, doctors telling us what to do, but unless we have real, tangible choices we can make as busy people, unless someone creates them and makes them easily available, we’re not going anywhere.

By now it should be obvious that research and good advice haven’t given us killer abs and an amazing physique, or banished many common diseases we’re still seeing around the world. So it’s about making good choices actionable. I believe transformation, becoming your own inner super-hero in life, is not a movie montage. It’s about the little choices we make every second of the day. That’s the real path.

How much does it cost? Because people end up deciding with their wallets, always.

Oh, absolutely. A breakfast-size Ambronite is about 2 euros. Compare it to basically anything in terms of quality of food, health, performance, what it actually does to your body, and I think it’s an amazing deal. I would have loved to have this available decades before, but it didn’t exist. So we had to create it!

Does the formula change, with time?

Yes. We’re always trying to improve the taste and the texture. Many ingredients remain the same, others change. At first we used to have raw, powdered-down cacao nibs, but we switched to a better, more sustainable source for the same nutrients.

I’m sorry to say this, but it tastes like ashes. It got better when I started to mix it with smoothies, but isn’t there a way to make it more appealing?

It’s the beginning of the journey, and we’re all the time working on ways to improve the taste. We listen to people’s ideas and suggestions, so it’s a valid criticism. I myself like to mix it with berries that I pick here, lingonberries and blueberries, and sometimes I add oat milk. My girlfriend makes pancakes out of the banana flavor… It’s very versatile.

What happens if an ingredient is not available that season? I was talking about this with the Kolmen Kaverin Jäätelö guys; for their ice-cream they use berries, and each season they taste differently due to humidity, sunshine, rain, pesticides, and so on. What I mean is, harvests are unpredictable.

Taste can be so different season to season, it’s true. I really respect what the KKJ guys are doing. So yeah, the ingredients come from nature; if something goes wrong at the origin, they may be unavailable, so we have to try to prepare in advance. For example, we need to provide healthy fatty acids, and almonds have the perfect fatty acid profile. But one time there was a drought in Turkey, where the nuts were coming from, so it was made clear to us how interconnected the whole thing is. One harvest fails, the ingredients fail. We suffer, but the people in those regions, whose livelihoods are depending on the crops, those are the ones most affected. Cost-efficiency, sustainability, and logistics are super-important for us.

If people adopt Ambronite, does it create a dependency on a product / company?

It’s a huge responsibility, we definitely think about it. We’re always calculating how much can we produce, how much can we source… But in a deeper way, we’re on a mission to give people more support, knowledge and inspiration into looking into their consumption choices in general. We’re building a much bigger movement here, something that goes way beyond selling a novelty. We’re committed to help people make choices in life that actually serve their personal well-being and affect the whole planet. To create a more direct channel between the source of food and the person consuming and enjoying the food, has a powerful impact at economical, health, and global logistic levels. When people begin to value where food comes from and what efforts it takes to get it, they are much more reluctant to waste it.

How big are you aiming to get? Is Ambronite going to be available in supermarkets one day?

There are many berries to be picked. We chose online distribution because we wanted to make it efficient, something that’s available in your life on demand. We wished not only to re-imagine the food, but also the distribution of it and other products in the future. That’s a big part of why we’re doing this in a non-conformist way instead of the traditional way, to pitch to large supermarkets and create the whole cycle all over again. We want to predict how much of it people will need, and provide it as ecologically and economically as possible. Some food chains have offered Ambronite, that’s not off the table, but as a whole, we’re trying to solve the problem of unsustainable food in the world. I hope when Elon Musk takes off with his fleet of rockets to Mars, they will take Ambronite with them!

How’s competition? Is there anyone else in Finland?

We are the only ones doing this in Finland for now. And even though food is the biggest market in the world (so of course there is international competition) we’re currently creating a new market for functional foods with a focus on health, so we’re actually in the market-making phase. Even if there’s a bunch of other guys doing a similar thing with synthetic drinkable meals, I see them as also creating the market for everybody. We’re all asking whether traditional food choices or Big Macs are the answer. So a zero-sum game is simply not the case in regards to food, current or future. We’re building a profitable, sustainable, and growing business, which is the way to make a big impact. You can play all you want with different methods of creating impact, but at the end of the day it’s about building movements, and good businesses are a great vehicle for that. We talk to our competitors all the time. We love competition!

Who buys Ambronite in the world?

The US is our number one market. Germany, the UK, Europe, are huge markets. We have a partnership in Korea in the works. Lots of orders from the rest of the world. China, Japan, Thailand as well.

Do you travel a lot because of this?

Yes, we do. My co-founder Mikko was recently in Korea. We travel a lot in Europe, and in the US. Our main markets, of course. We want to know how they are doing, to connect with them. I like that, it’s one of my traits, to talk with people about challenges and help them solve them. It’s a natural way of going around the world. I am an extrovert, an explorer. I enjoy to discover different ways of human existence, and share the treasure of those explorations.

Now that the product is more or less designed, and the delivery system in place, what’s your job?

To let people know about it! (laughs) But this whole thing is not really about pushing a product. I publish a podcast, and write articles in our websites, and very little of that content deals with food, or the product. It offers ways of improving our lives through exercise, meditation, good sleep, better indoor environments, and healthier habits. Some of it is so basic: most people don’t get enough water during the day. They don’t sleep in a healthy environment, or don’t get enough sleep. Some sit down for long periods of time, when it’s healthier to stand. So a lot of it is about being conscious of our health, and of our surroundings, and incorporating healthy choices into our lives. And that’s certainly something that, as a busy guy and as someone who’s drawn passionately into projects, I often have neglected in the past. I didn’t understand how badly it was affecting me.

There’s tons of tough stints as an entrepreneur, but what inspires me is that I believe in our mission. Every week people drop by our office or send emails telling us we’ve helped them to a healthier balance and choices in life. To reach their goals, be it an olympic medal or losing some extra weight, becoming healthier. Just being able to help one person means so much. But if we can do it efficiently and systematically, we can help the whole world!

Where does the name Ambronite come from?

From ambrosia, which means “food of the gods”!

The Ambronite website offers more information about the product, and also articles and podcasts about healthy choices and lifestyle.