While chocolate is a feel-good treat for many, it also carries health implications if eaten in excess. The same is true for so many of the sugary foods we love to crave.
But the female-founded team at Raleigh’s Spring & Mulberry is reimagining the way we see sweets entirely. Instead of using sugar, Spring & Mulberry has created chocolate bars that are sweetened with dates. There are five flavors, all with no added sugar: suhum dark chocolate; lavender, bee pollen, rose petal; mixed berry; mango, urfa chili, black lime; and medjool dates, pecans, Himalayan salt.
The luxury, better-for-you chocolate brand stemmed from Co-Founder Kathryn Shah’s own health experiences. She first discovered the sophistication of dates and dried fruit when she visited Dubai in 2012. There, she said, dates are ingrained in the culture of gifting and celebrations, which was a huge contrast between the way dried fruits and nuts are presented in the United States, usually in the back of grocery stores.
And when Shah was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018, she began exploring what other avenues beside Western medicine might help supplement her treatments. A significant amount of evidence showed that sugar can encourage the growth of cancer cells, but that foods high in antioxidants like fruit, nuts and cacao could benefit chemotherapy outcomes.
So Shah made the leap—she quit sugar and has never looked back. But that didn’t mean seeing her friends and family eat their cherished high-sugar desserts was any easier.
“There was nothing on the market to satisfy my sweet tooth,” Shah said. “Everyone else in my family was celebrating holidays with cakes and pies, and I had nothing to eat.”
Shah first began experimenting in her own kitchen with dates, nuts and cacao. Sensing there could be a larger market for this, she and Co-Founder Sarah Bell, who had product development experience from Harry’s and siggi’s Icelandic yogurt, brought Spring & Mulberry to life as a company to explore sweets beyond sugar.
After Spring & Mulberry’s beta test last summer in a local market, the startup officially launched their chocolate bars nationally in March. They are located in specialty food and home goods stores around the country, with local stores Edge of Urge in Raleigh and Bowerbird Flowers and Apothecary in Durham being just some of 15 nationally.
Their customers care about health and wellness and keeping harmful ingredients out of their foods, both buying the chocolates for themselves and as gifts, Shah said.
“The core idea was always there that health and wellness has taken over every category of grocery, from milk to chips, to crackers, to soft drinks—but it felt that the dessert category was really one or two steps behind that,” Shah said. “In sweets, often you’re having to make this trade off between something that tastes good and something that’s supposedly better for you.”
One of the most exciting parts of Spring & Mulberry’s story so far has been listening to customers and tweaking the product to fit those needs, Shah said.
“You have to have a vision and be confident in your vision and putting it out in the world,” Shah said. “But you also have to, at the same time, listen to customers and take feedback. They call it pivoting, but you’re constantly pivoting because you’re constantly learning and adjusting.”
During the pandemic, there’s been a subset of the population that is looking to eat healthier more than ever. But sweet cravings still persist. With Spring & Mulberry, consumers no longer have to choose between eating healthy and enjoying a sweet treat, and that’s part of the company’s overarching mission.
Tackling the “sugar crisis”
“There’s definitely a sugar crisis in America,” Shah said. “Americans eat four times the amount of daily recommended sugar. And sugar is linked to all sorts of diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. I think our long-term mission is to transform America’s relationship with sugar but do that in a way that’s very inviting, allowing them to discover the beauty and pleasure of whole ingredients and to reset their palates to a different type of sweetness.”
Once you eliminate sugar from your diet, foods with sugar taste overwhelmingly one-note sweet. But Spring & Mulberry has a more flavorful and nuanced offering, Shah said.
With both of Spring & Mulberry’s co-founders having lived in New York for more than a decade, coming to the closer-knit business community in the Triangle has been refreshing, according to Shah. The startup participated in NC IDEA‘s LABS program in 2020-2021 and last fall was a finalist for one of NC IDEA’s $50K SEED grants.
“There’s really this vibrancy in the community, both from the universities as well as from just the growing nature of the Triangle that you want to be here because you’re excited about the future of the community,” Shah said. “But it still does feel like a community.”