One of the objectives of The Breakfast Bowl is to observe and comment on trends affecting the cereal industry. On several occasions, including as recently as two months ago, I have probed into hot cereals, and have wondered when someone is going to truly disrupt this rather boring market segment. Occasionally there are signs of innovation, but most of what we see with hot cereal are just endless variations of oatmeal.
After my last post on the topic, I was contacted by Claudio Ochoa, one of the founders of Native State Foods, a recent startup that specializes in somewhat unusual hot cereals based on pinole. To help me understand and assess this new product, Ochoa had several samples sent to me to try.
So, what is pinole (pronounced Pih-NOL)? The company bills their product, branded as Purely Pinole, as an ancient Aztec power food. According to Ochoa, who himself grew up in Honduras eating this concoction, it originated over 500 years ago with the Aztecs, and is still a traditional food in parts of central America. Pinole is made primarily from ground wild purple maize, and then roasted alongside other ingredients such as cacao, cinnamon and allspice. It is cooked with milk, and eaten as a porridge.
For Ochoa the appeal for pinole is much greater than his desire to rediscover a comfort food from the past. Apart from its novel taste and texture, the value of this product is also found in its nutritional qualities. Most notable about pinole is that it is high in protein, fiber and antioxidants. And it addresses all kinds of other contemporary concerns such as being vegan, gluten-free, and without any artificial ingredients. One group of people who have used this formula for years is endurance runners, but Ochoa and his partner, Angela, are hoping that word gets out to many others as well.
Native State Food was founded about two years ago as a side business, but they are working hard to establish the brand and create a line of products built around this power food. The packaging and marketing are done with excellence, and the story of Purely Pinole reaching back to the ancient Aztecs adds a sense of intrigue. Distribution, however, is still quite limited. Apart from their online store, Purely Pinole is only sold in stores in California and the northeast U.S. at this time, so there is limited exposure. Over time they hope to expand beyond that, but are not in a rush. They are focusing on active weekend warriors looking for performance foods, and young moms looking for something nutritious for their families. Their product line is currently limited to three flavors (original, blueberry+banana, and tart cherry+lemon), but soon they will be launching Grab & Go Snack Cups in four additional flavors that can be prepared in the microwave and eaten on the run.
Overall, I have enjoyed my pinole experiences. Trying something unique in contrast to the many predictable hot cereal choices out there has been in itself fun. I cannot say that I would want to eat Pinole every day, but definitely as an occasional treat. The earthy flavors and spices make for a hearty breakfast, but there is flexibility to use this in other recipes. And, speaking personally, I must admit that I felt real good after eating pinole - not something that one say after eating many other cereals.
The biggest challenge that I see for Purely Pinole, is just getting people to try something new and different. And, with that, learning how to cook it, and taking the time to do so. It took me a few attempts to get the knack so that the porridge thickened just right. (One of the lessons I've learned in all this is: make sure you follow their instructions to dissolve the powder fully!) I also found that that with the basic mixes, I needed to definitely add some sweetener (i.e. sugar, honey, etc.) to make this fully palatable. I also tried mixing in some fresh fruit, which added a wonderful touch. To be honest, the tastes of the Grab & Go cups were my favorites, although the serving size is quite small. They are designed for a quick snack, but at 110 calories, not enough for a full breakfast.
If you are looking for a truly unique cereal for breakfast (or any other time), I would encourage you to give Purely Pinole a try. This is not for the sugared cold cereal fans, but for those who want something hearty and nutritious, it just might become a new favorite of yours!