Ramesh Krish Kumar is a modern-day apothecarist. In his previous job as manager of research and development at Pure Rich Biogems, a health food company based in Singapore, he would study the benefits of herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine, both ancient practices passed down through multiple generations.
With his knowledge of ingredients and a little personal savings, he established health drink brand Asmara early this year. Kumar and his university classmate foresaw a rising demand for “functional” foods among a health-conscious middle-class in Asia. As a result, they established Asmara, which means “love” in Bahasa Indonesia, as a way of bringing the healing properties of natural ingredients to the masses.
The duo formed NU3x, the parent company and driving force behind Asmara. NU3x touts itself as a research and development consultancy company that specialises in food product development, functional foods, nutrition, herbalism, food safety, packaging and marketing.
To date, NU3X has sold “thousands” of bottles of Asmara, which for now is only available through Asmara’s social media pages. Kumar hopes to introduce its drinks into food and beverage establishments in the near future.
Prior to joining the food science industry, the 30-year-old studied food technology and nutrition at Massey University in New Zealand and Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore.
“My father was a culinary chef, so food is always a constant in my life,” says Kumar. “The interest about herbs and spices was brought on by my parents. Those things eventually became my main focus of research.”
Healthy refreshments for those on the go
Asmara’s founders wanted to create a health drink with the best medicinal properties that nature has to offer, without the time-consuming task of brewing herbs and plants for consumption. Consumers want convenience, on top of health benefits and taste, Kumar says.
Asmara currently carries four products: Asmara Astri 33, which features 33 traditional Asian and Western herbs such as turmeric, ginger, gooseberry and liquorice, known for boosting immunity as well as their anti-oxidant properties; Asmara Ashta Berries 8, which contains eight types of immunity-strengthening berries as well as prebiotic fibre, which boosts gut health by promoting good bacteria in the digestive system. The berries are documented to have potent immunity strengthening properties.
Then there is Asmara Asari 7, a bird’s nest drink infused with French rose, Indian ginseng and prebiotic fibre. Bird’s nest is known to improve immunity and complexion, while French rose and lavender help to alleviate stress; and Asamari Asana 6, which
Is basically Asari 7 but without the bird’s nest.
While Asia has no shortage of traditional health drinks, Kumar says it was imperative that Asmara’s products also taste good.
The key is balance. Ginseng, for instance, is naturally bitter. Some superfoods, like açaí berry, are too sour to be eaten on their own. Asmara offsets the strong flavour of these ingredients with natural harmonisers such as rock sugar, honey, lime and lemongrass.
Another objective was to produce drinks that are uniquely Singaporean. Kumar says that while drinks from countries like Thailand, Korea and Japan are widely available in Singapore, the city-state is yet to come up with something that suits local tastes.
He notes that Singaporeans have an adventurous palate and are open to various taste profiles, both East and West. Asmara then created drinks that incorporated both flavours.
“The Korean or Japanese drinks – each of them has their own flavour profile. Thai functional foods tend to be very sweet. In Singapore, we are not used to the taste of artificial sweeteners, so these are important factors when it comes to building our product,” Kumar says.
NU3X conducted several sensory evaluations among Singaporeans, developing Asmara’s product line “like how chefs do” said Kumar. “Based on that we will change up the formula of the drinks until it matches what Singaporeans like,” he said.
Backed by scientific research
While certain herbal cures have been used for centuries, cautious consumers are hesitant to part with their money for so-called health elixirs unsupported by scientific research. And just because celebrities have been seen endorsing certain exotic spices does not mean they are proven to be good for one’s health.
These are nagging questions that Kumar hopes to address with Asmara. He wants to bridge the gap between tradition and science by combining both principles into his products.
“There are always two extremes when it comes to health – the modern versus the traditional. As Asians, we have the affinity to treat health problems with herbs and spices, while the Western ideology banks on results and research. There is always a conflict of both schools of thought,” said Kumar.
Turmeric, for example, is frequently used in Ayurvedic medicine, said Kumar, citing studies from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. The centre’s studies noted that turmeric’s active ingredient curcumin can be used to treat pain and inflammation, arthritis and muscle soreness.
However, research also shows that curcumin is not absorbed well by the body. “So whatever turmeric we are consuming, there is only a very small amount that is being absorbed,” he says.
Research suggests that black pepper can boost absorption levels of nutrients of certain foods, including turmeric, he noted. Piperine, the black pepper fruit’s extract, has been found to enhance the bioavailability of curcumin greatly. Bioavailability is the proportion of a substance that enters circulation when introduced to the body.“That’s where science becomes very valuable,” says Kumar.
And while it has become normal to add probiotics to consumer foods, the use of prebiotics as a way to improve gut health is only starting pick up.
Prebiotics are undigestible plant fibres that act as food for probiotics. The level of probiotics flourishes with high amounts of prebiotics.
“Some probiotics get destroyed by stomach acid and they don’t make it to the gut,” Kumar noted. He decided on prebiotics in Asmara’s products as Singaporeans “don’t consume enough fibre” to ensure a healthy digestive system.
The response to Asmara’s products has been positive since its entry into Singapore’s artisan foods space. In April, Kumar launched Asmara at Food Hotels Asia, a leading food and beverage conference held bi-annually in the region. In August, he left his full-time position at Purerich Biogems to focus on Asmara.
“Reception has been good and we are happy that a lot of people want to work with us. We want to retail at cafes and restaurants, and distribute at events at the same time,” he says.
Asmara’s products retail from SG$5 to SG$9 a bottle. Kumar wants to keep them affordable and authentic, in spite of the lower margins.
He relays how coconut oil, which can be sourced very cheaply and is used widely in Indian and Malay cooking, now costs SG$20 for a jar at a supermarket – all because it was marketed as a must-have food for better health. The West has since adopted the oil, which contains healthy saturated fats and moisturising properties, into daily use and consumption, in everything from cooking to beauty. “The Western world sets the trend, and that is the same thing for lots of Asian Ingredients,” he says.
Considering a glass of cold-pressed fruit juice costs SG$5 in Singapore, Asmara offers consumers good value for money. “It’s got berries, herbs and prebiotics!”