Diane Mastrull: Alt-snack entrepreneur tackles obesity

Posted: January 09, 2012

Denise Devine, holder of numerous college degrees and 19 patents, is not a woman of simple ambitions. So it is not enough to describe her small-business objective as wanting to turn a profit. Far from it.

She is out to change eating habits, combat childhood obesity, and, in the process, improve national security.

If you think that last one is a delusional stretch, Devine refers you to "Mission: Readiness," a report issued in 2010 by more than 100 retired U.S. military leaders that found that 27 percent of Americans ages 17 to 24 were too fat to serve in the armed forces.

"Child obesity has become so serious in this country that military leaders are viewing this epidemic as a potential threat to our national security," retired Army Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson is quoted as saying in the report.

It is a jarring conclusion. So is a projection by the American Public Health Association that obesity, if left unchecked, will account for more than 21 percent of health-care spending in the United States by 2018.

Combine all that with the substantial spotlight that Michelle Obama is shining on the nation's oversize children with her "Let's Move" campaign, and Devine considers the time ideal for her company, Froose Brands L.L.C., of Media, and its whole food-based, gluten-free, reduced-sugar beverages and gummy snacks.

Devine acknowledged that the proliferation of information about the hazards of being overweight has thus far "not translated into action" by consumers, particularly parents of young children.

"With kids' products, parents are thwarted at every turn because there's still a lot of junk out there," she said.

Froose is out to help change that. The privately held company was formed in 2008 - but for all practical purposes it began when Devine, 56, the mother of three, started a family 28 years ago and found it virtually impossible to find children's drinks and snacks that had any nutritional value.

"I had an epiphany," she recalled. "There I was, an executive in a large food company, and I couldn't find what I wanted for my own kids."

That food company was Campbell Soup, where Devine worked in finance from 1983 to 1989.

"I saw all these issues about the lack of nutritional offerings for children that were packaged in the right size, in fun, familiar format, that could be marketed with all the pizzazz of the garbage," Devine said. "I just totally believed that it could be done. I saw this almost like a life mission."

Motivated at first by an extraordinarily thirsty son who would drink a gallon of juice "if I would let him," Devine plunged into research on the benefits of whole grains. Then, in the late 1990s, she set out "to make a beverage that looks and tastes like the juice that he loves but has a very different nutritional profile."

She got in touch with the International Food Network in Ithaca, N.Y., product developers for the food, beverage, and nutraceutical industries. Her proposal was not just to throw soluble fiber into juice, but to turn the process on its head: start with a base of whole grain, then flavor it with fruit and fruit juice.

"Impossible," she was told.

Her response: "Try anyway."

What evolved were compositions that could incorporate whole grains or whole vegetables in several nonsolid formats. The problem was "the market was not ready for these crazy ideas," she said. "The notion of functional foods wasn't really happening then."

So Devine, financed by an undisclosed amount of investments from family and friends, focused on developing a number of products to launch when the buying public was ready for them, even managing to license technology to a couple of pharmaceutical companies.

About two years ago, she determined that Americans were "getting serious about childhood obesity" and that the market was ready for Froose - the name is a blend of fruit and juice; the brand's mascot, a moose.

As chief executive officer and president of Froose, Devine built distribution and broker networks and found retailers willing to carry her products. The company - which has about a half-dozen employees focused on sales, research, and development - contracts with food manufacturers in Ohio, California, and Chicago to make its drinks and snacks. Locally, they can be found in Whole Foods and Giant stores, along with a variety of small natural-food shops.

Through a recent partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Devine hopes to get Froose into schools across the country. The nonprofit group, which helps schools make healthier choices about the food they offer, has included Froose gummy snacks on its website of recommended foods.

Devine's recent appointment to the advisory committee of the new MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University's College of Nursing provides her with a platform for spreading the word about Froose to health professionals.

"It's really a very healthy option," Marcia Costello, a registered dietitian and chairwoman of the advisory committee, said of the Froose line.

More products are in the pipeline, including smoothies, pudding alternatives, and breakfast items, said Devine, who plans another round of private fund-raising soon.

During a sampling session Devine conducted at a Giant in Plymouth Meeting last week, Wyatt Steinman, 5, of Gulph Mills, tried gummies and juices and "liked them both," reported his mother, Amy.

Steinman said she made an effort to spare her three children from processed foods and any cereals with more than six grams of sugar per serving, but it is not an easy endeavor, especially for working mothers like her with little time to scour food labels.

"Someone like Denise is making it easier for me to feed my kids healthier," Steinman said. "We need people like her."


Diane Mastrull:

Denise Devine visits a supermarket to talk about her new Froose Brands products and why she makes them. Go to www.philly.com/business


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or @mastrud on Twitter.

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