We’ve decided to interview the founder and CEO of sineafoods, Dr Ruzicka. You can look under the hood and find out many interesting things and what preceded the beginning of company and what are our goals.
What led you to found the company SINEA foods?
It all started when I discovered that I was headed towards the ills of the modern human lifestyle, meaning obesity, pre-diabetes and high blood pressure, with all of their nasty consequences. Since there is no such thing as a vegan diabetic (Type II diabetes) and an obese vegan is a rare sight (like a unicorn), I came to the conclusion that the only possible escape route would be to adopt an exclusively plant-based diet. It was the 8th of October, 2016, and there I was at a fast food stand at a trade fair in Hannover. I took my plastic fork, flicked my bockwurst off the paper plate right into the trash bin and just ate my French fries with ketchup. That’s how it all started.
But I soon found out that the vast majority of vegan foods and meals in stores are almost inedible – they don’t taste good. That led me to two responses: one, I began cooking for myself and two, I got the idea of risking a few million Czech crowns to establish and launch my own company, which would develop and produce exclusively plant-based foods that are delicious, really super delicious all the way to excellent (to paraphrase the classification in the mushroom edibility scale).
So the initial impetus was my health, but my motivation soon expanded in two other dimensions: the ethical to religious aspect, and the environmental aspect.
Allow me to expand slightly on that thought, kind readers:
The second dimension (the ethical to religious aspect): I believe that it is bad to kill and abuse animals unless your life depends on it, which is not the case in our situation. We don’t have to kill or abuse animals to nourish ourselves well – hopefully also with the help of our company in a few years from now. I believe that we are all members of one big family and that it is the work of some great coincidence or (Creator’s) wheel of luck that I just happened to be born as a human being. I could have just as easily been born as a dog, trout, crow, slug, pig or turtle. Humans were given the mental capacity to achieve enlightenment, which enables us to see clearly and realize this. Other predators which hunt were not given this capacity, which does not negate what was said above. A marten doesn’t understand it, but a human should or could understand it if s/he wanted to.
When you take it to the next level, you realize that we don’t have the right to abuse animals and submit their existence to the purpose of being consumed at the very end of their lives – think of poultry “breeding”, the bestial way pigs are kept, the cruelty of taking calves away from cows and the life of a milk cow at the trough. Do you know anything about the horror of slaughterhouses, the dread of the road to the slaughterhouse and so on…? WE CAN LIVE WITHOUT IT – that’s our motto.
And the third dimension: Earth, nature, the environment. The devastation of the Earth and the rapid rise in the endangerment and extinction of species is caused by two factors: the loss of habitat, i.e. human expansion at the expense of other species (transforming natural environments into fields, plantations and industrial or urban development) and the spread of industrial farming characterized by over-fertilizing, use of pesticides and herbicides and genetic modification of plants that prevent any other living things from sharing their biotope and habitats.
The idea that farming could be limited solely to the production of plants for direct consumption, meaning there would be no need to produce feed for animals (and rejecting the perverse idea of producing fuel from cultivated plants), is amazing. It could signify a reversal in the trend of extreme devastation of nature as we have known it.
Overfishing and the plundering of oceans and seas is another issue.
Last but not least, I would add a cultural obscenity kept alive mostly by somewhat degenerate nations – i.e. whale hunting – which is absolutely unimaginable and unnecessary from any normal person’s point of view.
If we stopped producing meat, milk and eggs, there would be a lot of resources, space and energy left over to feed humanity, even with our population growth.
And what does SINEA actually mean? Is the word feminine or masculine gender, is it an animal or a thing? :)
Sinea is an acronym composed of the Latin word “sine”, which means “without” and “a” which stands for “animalibus”, which is the 7th case in Latin (ablativ) of the word “animalia”- animals, so it means “without animals”. I think this new word Sinea is feminine gender like Medea or Casiopea.
Why did you choose to go into this sector, why didn’t you invest into something completely different? The food industry is an entirely different game than laboratory medicine.
I’ve been working in various aspects of in vitro and diagnostics for more than thirty years, which seems like an unbelievably long time to me. That includes three years studying at a university in Germany before the Velvet Revolution. It probably doesn’t come as any surprise that after that length of time, you reach a point that is kind of akin to married couples after thirty years – they question whether they are still head over heels in love with each other.
What is your perception of the healthy lifestyle issue in the Czech Republic? Do you think it’s a growing trend or on the contrary something that is still too new?
The trend is definitely growing and it’s not just a fad. It will persist and grow stronger.
Do you believe that plant-based eating really has a positive effect on human health? Isn’t it just a short-term response, where after a longer time the body develops a deficiency of nutrients, minerals, vitamins, etc. in reaction to a vegan diet?
I don’t like to just think something – I try to know it. Based on everything I know, and this knowledge is all from reliable sources (high-end publications, studies and experiments underpinned by quality statistics), shifting to a vegan diet is clearly beneficial to human health. The reasons are only partially known. An important factor is the change in the composition of intestinal bacteria species, which is actually extremely important for our metabolism. There is a dominance of species that positively affect many processes; this is often through the production of vitamin- and hormone-like substances that act against mechanisms which lead to excess weight gain, diabetes (insulin resistance and glucose), dyslipoproteinemia (good and bad cholesterol, etc.), atherosclerosis, hypertension and most likely even malignant cancers. The intestinal species that dominate when humans consume an animal-based diet produce substances that are often toxic, like tetramethylammonium and many others. They have the opposite effect.
Many animal-based components of food have been tested directly, not through the gut microbe – experiments on rats show that the presence of lactic protein casein in the diet leads to an increased incidence of tumours. Other studies blame a milk protein, beta-casomorphin-9, for significantly increasing oxidation of LDL (“the bad cholesterol”) and the emergence of atherosclerosis (coronary disease, large artery coronary disease and hardening of arteries in the brain).
A high-fibre diet prevents the development of colon cancer, a disease in which Czechs ranked ‘number one’ just a few years ago. I could go on like this for hours.
In conclusion I’ll share one sad bit of news: if everyone adopted a vegan diet the producers of toilet fresheners would go bankrupt, which would make me sincerely sad. If SC Johnson knew, he’d have me shot.
About deficiencies – it’s not that bad. It probably isn’t an issue at all unless a person’s diet is monotone, which is a recipe for malnourishing yourself. There is a huge quantity of calcium in plant-based foods – that is not an issue at all. Vegans have a lower tendency to develop osteoporosis than people on a classic diet. Nor is Vitamin D a problem if you include single-celled fungi like yeast in various forms or get processed Rhizopus oligosporus, a fungus that ferments legumes and “makes” tempeh. And probiotics in various living cultures and for instance sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi are like an edible pharmacy. A deficit of Vitamin B12 could develop in vegans and everyone should monitor their own level. Taking a B12 and a Vitamin D supplement just to be safe is a good idea. It’s definitely a thing to do while pregnant.
In your view is the array of foods available to vegans and vegetarians on the Czech market sufficient?
No, it isn’t, but it’s getting better. Retail chains have gone crazy and refuse to offer anything other than cheap foods and so many plant-based foods don’t get in the door. But there are a lot of specialty stores and e-shops are becoming more and more popular.
You travel a lot; where do you feel most comfortable? I mean in the sense of being able to eat well and where getting vegetarian food is not taboo?
Almost everywhere I go people are willing to improvise and make something vegan that isn’t on the menu, with the frequent exception of the Czech Republic, where restaurants are one part dull and one part lazy and you usually can’t get anything that isn’t on the menu. I just spent four days at a resort on the island of Fiji and the chef pulled out all the stops to come up with creative dishes for me. And he had loads of other work.
What is your goal with the SINEA brand? How far do you hope to take it?
My dream and goal is to grow Sinea into a global brand, not just through global distribution and marketing, but with a physical presence in most countries where development and production would be based on local traditions and needs. By the end of the year I’d like to see Sinea available in Germany and the USA and then we can expand further. I think there’ll be growth potential in the East as well. And the Chinese are gradually becoming more like other people, which will definitely bring on big changes.
Do you look for inspiration abroad? How do you choose products made by other companies that you offer alongside Sinea brand products?
At different trade fairs we come across products that fit our portfolio and we add them to our selection, often with the producer’s original brand name. We have almost thirty products like that. We have five different meat alternatives, for example, each made from a different plant-based protein, and vegan whipping cream. All of these products require a large investment and substantial expertise.
How do you decide to develop a new product?
We have development plans for particular product groups or areas that we gradually add content to. We started with cold sauces like mayonnaise and we’re gradually adding new flavours. We began with tartar sauce, chili, curry and garlic and now we’re adding barbeque, truffle, horseradish and we plan to add more. This product group will also include mayonnaises that are dressings and e.g. hollandaise sauce, which is eaten with asparagus.
Other product groups like salads or spreads began in a similar way, with a traditional product like Italian, French, potato or devil’s salad, or Budapest or chive spread, and we are expanding into other major foods like chickpeas and yeasts and also going in totally innovative directions like e.g. use of “artificial” caviar.
We have a developed family of vegan cheeses, which includes gouda, cheddar, gorgonzola and goat cheese. We have them in original, smoked and marinated versions. We are also thinking of ways of offering the first two as pre-breaded cheeses for frying.
Other product groups that we will develop are ready-made soups, sauces and ready-to-eat meals, yogurts, yogurt milk, kefir and kefir drinks, meat alternatives and meat products like burgers, hot dogs, salami, bacon and more. The only remaining groups are bakery goods like various cookies, crackers, breadsticks and other similar items, and sweets including chocolate and chocolate-based products.
What does the product development process look like, all the way from development to market launch?
It’s a bit different for each product group. For instance, cold sauces were developed when we discovered what we consider to be the best egg substitute. The flavourings mimic standard recipes and in the case of flavoured mayonnaise, the given flavour is added and the intensity is calibrated through a series of tastings with a larger group of participants.
The group of vegan deli socialist realism-era products like Italian and French salad and Budapest spread came about when we discovered substitutes for the animal-based ingredients and retained the other parameters of original non-vegan recipes. Then it was just a matter of getting the sweetness or sourness of the final taste exactly right, where individual preferences vary quite a bit.
Unconventional salads, spreads and dips are developed through an open creative process from a given base ingredient and secondary components. We develop a “draft” version, which raises all sorts of objections that are then gradually eliminated until most of the jury gives it a thumbs-up.
Cheeses, for example, were first developed as a plain emulsion of starch in oil, and we found that the starch can and should have multiple ingredients and that the final composition must be fine-tuned, but despite all our efforts the final product was not any better than the competition’s. Then we discovered two steps that made the cheeses exceptional: a way of adding aroma using sophisticated non-dairy aromas and mainly, adding a certain ingredient which will remained unnamed that made the final product very similar to real cheese. We then tried to smoke the cheese, marinate it in spiced oils, and bread it in an eggless three-step breading process and the results were fantastic.
Upscaling can be a large or even huge dilemma. Things that are easy and fast to make on the scale of let’s say one kilogram can be very complicated to make on the scale of tonnes and multiples of tonnes.
What do you see as the greatest benefit of your products? Why should customers buy them instead of the competition?
We have just one maxim and it’s very simple: it’s got to be good and taste good. If it isn’t, if vegan food isn’t good and de facto can’t compete with animal-based foods, we will never be able to fulfil our mission – to help people stop eating animals and their “derivatives”.
How do you currently view the Sinea brand, what stage is it in?
We are in the genesis phase but I believe that even now after just a few months Sinea is beginning to establish itself, even though we haven’t had time to realize most of our branding plans yet and our portfolio is only at about 10% of what we plan.
And what customer perception should the Sinea brand evoke, both among customers and business partners?
Like Shimano in winches, La Prairie in cosmetics and Husqvarna in motor saws.
Which Sinea product is your personal favourite or the favourite of people close to you?
Self-flattery is unattractive, but I can’t help myself. Our tartar sauce and mayonnaise are absolutely delicious and the best in the world. I am also really excited about our cheeses, which will be launched soon. Our hard non-fermented cheeses will be the best available in their category. I would love to name our other products too, but that would exceed the scope of the question.
Looking at our imported products, I consider e.g. Schlagfix as a miracle product.
What do you like to do when you’re not managing the company? :)
I spend almost all of my free time outside with my dog, or dogs, on outings, walks, hikes and mushroom picking when they are in season. Between November and April I try to take two to three short vacations in tropical areas for fishing
(catch and release, don’t worry). Otherwise nothing spectacular – I try to always be in the middle of a good novel, often German or English, to keep up with the languages. I like to listen to some of my favourite authors time and again – Bulat Okudzhava, Leonard Cohen and a few others – and I keep coming back to poetry – Blatný, Skácel and Halas – three geniuses from Brno.
Thanks for the interview.