Sarah Sohn, a passionate animal rights advocate inspired by a craving for animal-free marshmallows, began her quest in 2005. Three years into the sweet quest to create vegan marshmellows, Sara can now rest comfortably knowing that the Sweet & Sara vegan marshmallow is 100 percent animal-free and equally as delicious. Although she’d prefer to put the past behind her, Sara sat down recently for a moment to update us on her success and the bittersweet history of this young company and the ordeal caused by an unscrupulous company’s false claims.
Sara’s moment of enlightenment about eating animals came at the age of 14 and she responded by shunning many of her favorite foods, including rice crispy treats, for which her family had quite a fondness. “I remember eating a lot of junk food,” Sara recalled, “and as I was getting older there weren’t very many vegan versions of the fun things. [There was] brown soymilk, carob bars. It was very depressing. I’d go to parties and feel left out, and I realized there were some things missing. I remember thinking about what I’d do to get a rice crispy treat.”
While attending NYU and studying political science, Sara was still eyeing a career as a veterinarian and was working for an animal rights organization whose mission it was to fund academic and corporate researchers who’ve found alternatives to testing on animals. After graduation, Sara worked as an accounting assistant, but her commitment to animal rights and vegan eating remained at the forefront of her thoughts (and so did those rice crispy treats!).
Soon after, she decided to create a vegan marshmellow in her own kitchen. When she asked her parents to invest in her company to begin large-scale production, Sara says her parents wondered if they were crazy to do so. Eventually, trusting their daughter, they invested all of the money they had been saving to purchase a house in order for Sara to start her wholesale company.
Meanwhile in California, another woman had set about creating her own version of the vegan marshmallow using the same kosher gelatin available for the last 50 years from a St. Charles, Illinois company by the name of Emes. Both women picked this particular gelatin from Emes because it created the characteristic puff and airiness needed in their recipes. Because the popular “jet-puffed” alternative contains an animal-based gelatin, it is not acceptable for those whowill or cannot eat animal products. Unlike those gelatins, which typically contain pig and cow connective tissue to ensure a gelatinous texture, Emes purported to use “seaweed” in their formula. The Emes Company had been marketing their vegetarian gelatin for over 50 years, heavily marketing to kosher and faith-based vegetarians.
The two marshmallow companies were enjoying brisk retail sales of their delicious treats to grateful vegans, vegetarians and allergenic eaters everywhere when information began to surface that an independent food scientist had published evidence that the Emes gelatin contained animal proteins. The California company was the first to hear about it, and they sent their product and a sample of the Emes gelatin out for testing to an independent laboratory. After confirmation that the gelatin was, in fact, animal-based, they ceased production and announced the results of their tests. Sara remembers getting the phone call from a friend who, after hearing the news, called to tell her about her competitor and the information about Emes. Sara says she immediately felt sick to her stomach, ceased production and sent in her products for testing, which ultimately confirmed her worst fear.
The California entrepreneur ultimately chose to seek another career while Sara went back to her kitchen and spent a year actively experimenting with natural and organic ingredients in order to develop a bona fide vegan marshmallow. “I had no choice,” Sara stated, “because we had spent all this money. We maxed out the credit card for one whole year while I was experimenting seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day.” The weight of paying monthly rent on her 650 square foot New York City wholesale space was a heavy burden on Sara during that time. Without a product to sell in order to restore the family’s investment, Sara was unable to give up or give in to the pressure. Mercifully, she finally found the right combination of vegetable-based ingredients to give her marshmallows sufficient puff and creaminess while holding their shape.
A year later, from their new 7,000 square foot bakery in New York City, Sara and her staff of seven have just moved into their new space and Sara was practically breathless at the end of her workday as she spoke about the excitement and relief she feels in finding an honestly vegan recipe. Production is back to a full-time schedule and the marshmallows are still mixed in small batches of 30 pounds with every step of the process being done by hand, from the mixing, cutting and packaging. Still a family business, Sara gets more than financial assistance from her parents as they and her sister choose to join her in the bakery on their days off as well.
While a majority of the ingredients Sara sources are organic, she hasn’t any immediate plans to seek an organic label for her products. For now, Sara’s spends copious amounts of time researching vegan-safe sugars, chocolates and all other ingredients for her products.
As if it wasn’t enough to have satisfied her own cravings, Sara’s been flooded with praise from customers, old and new, for her vegan victory. “I’ve had parents calling to say thank you for allowing their kids to be normal,” Sara said. One grateful parent posted on a vegan web log: “Sweet & Sara save the day! I haven’t gotten my order yet, but they went above and beyond to make sure my son has marshmallows with the rest of his class next week. Sweet & Sara rock my socks!”
How do they taste? And perhaps more importantly, how do they toast over an open fire? In a very unofficial experiment over this author’s wood stove, the marshmallow toasted more slowly, perhaps because of the freshness (moisture content), but the final result was a more than satisfactory sweet indulgence of the ooey-gooey kind. In more unofficial testing with Co-op staffin the store, the general consensus was that this (unroasted) marshmallow was more satisfying than the alternative due to its creamy texture and richer flavor.
Sweet & Sara marshmallows are found in the refrigerated section (near the Soy Yogurt, across from the dairy coolers). The are refrigerated to preserve the creaminess and texture, according to Sara. “But it’s best to eat them at room temperature,” she said. Some more experimentation proved that the marshmallows can easily withstand being out of refrigeration for at least six hours and still retain their creaminess and texture before they being eaten (experimentally, of course).
As for the Emes Company (whose owners or representatives are nowhere to be found by any of the would-be litigants or the Illinois Attorney General’s office), Sara has adopted a healthier attitude about their karma, “What goes around, comes around, but” she added, “who in their right mind would do that? [Vegetarian gelatin is] not even a lucrative business!” Sara has surely found a recipe for success by acting on her convictions and making a career of it. As she summed up at the end of our interview, “A cruelty free company is so cool. I love what I do. It’s fun!”