Cocoparadise was championing healthy desserts before the healthy eating movement took off. Concepts like using natural ingredients and ditching refined sugars and preservatives have been part of the brand’s essence since the beginning, so Cocoparadise founder Valerie Chiu knows a thing or two about how to indulge guilt-free. Valerie shared with us her insights on how the healthy eating landscape has changed since the brand started in 2013, and where the health movement is going.
8Shades: What inspired you to start Cocoparadise?
Valerie Chiu: My journey started in university, in the UK. Like many students, I really cut loose- I drank a lot and generally didn’t take care of my body. When I came back to Hong Kong, I went for a health check up; when I did, I was told that I was overweight for my age and had fatty liver and that if I didn’t lose weight, I would need to be hospitalised. That was really the wake up call for me to start taking better care of myself.
At the beginning, I didn’t know much about losing weight. I was working out, but I was eating pretty much just boiled chicken and broccoli and I realised that eating like that is not sustainable. Coincidentally, around that time, I met a trainer who offered to teach me more about nutrition. I learned that I can still eat the foods I want, it’s just about learning the right kinds of foods. I started avoiding processed foods and refined sugars and started eating more natural foods and it changed my life. I didn’t even know who I was, I started having more energy, getting to school on time and finishing my work. I thought, “this is amazing, I didn’t know I had this in me!”
At the time (around 2013), nutrition and health in the UK was far more advanced than in Hong Kong- it was the norm. You could find gluten and dairy free stuff pretty easily, but it was different when I came back to Hong Kong. I found clean, healthy food, but it was all so bland! I have a massive sweet tooth, so I started making my own healthy snacks. I’m from Thailand so I decided to use coconuts in my treats, since it’s a staple food for us that’s also really healthy.
I moved back to Hong Kong to pursue a business venture that I had started in university, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out, which made me question what I wanted to do with my life. To figure that out, I was going to a boxing gym, which had a cafe that I was always at. I gave them some of my recipes and one day, they invited me to do a pop up to showcase my snacks. When people started asking me about them, I wondered whether my passion could become a business. From there, I got orders for weddings and baby showers and started doing more pop ups!
In the beginning, it was really difficult. At the time, a lot of people just didn’t understand what I was doing and I was relying purely on the taste of the products to move forward. What saved Cocoparadise was attaching my story to it, my personal health transformation. I posted a picture that I had been holding on to for maybe two years; I didn’t want people to think that it’s all about looks, it was more about how good I felt internally but people connected with the picture and they started believing in what I was doing. My mission is to prove that healthy food doesn’t have to suck, that it can be enjoyable. You don’t have to restrict yourself, you just need to be more aware. When you gain awareness, you start to have better control of your life.
What would you say makes Cocoparadise unique in the dessert market?
Generally, there’s a lot of junk in the dessert market. It’s difficult to find desserts that are satisfying, but have clean ingredients. I always work to ensure that the ingredient lists on the products are healthy and easy to understand – no gibberish!
A lot of my products come from things that are missing in my diet. I’m lactose intolerant, but I love ice cream, so I’ve created a new line of vegan ice creams. There’s a lot of vegan ice creams out there, but what’s missing is that they don’t taste like ice cream- they’re not creamy and they don’t have the same texture as traditional ice cream. Also, if you read the ingredient lists on a lot of other vegan ice creams, they’re long and confusing. Ours are short and sweet- no fillers, everything is natural. This does mean that it has a shelf life of only three months, but you know that what you’re consuming is healthier.
With Coco Paradise, you can indulge yourself without the guilt that often comes with eating sweets, we take the “guilt” out of “guilty pleasures.”
How are you working to make Cocoparadise more sustainable and what are your personal sustainable ‘hacks’?
Honestly, when I started the company, I wasn’t really thinking about sustainability, I just wanted to share my mission of helping people eat healthier. As I started to build the business and talk to more people, I then became a lot more aware of packaging and realised that I have a responsibility to make a positive change.
It started with small things, the products used to be packed in plastic, but now they’re packaged in cardboard, and lined with plastic foiling. Cocoparadise is not a perfect company and I’m always working to be more mindful of its environmental impact. I’m slowly improving the packaging, but I’m also concerned about food waste. Right now, plastic helps to improve the shelf life of the products, which is especially important since I don’t use any preservatives; it’s tough to find packaging that is sustainable but extends the shelf life. So I’m working to use less plastic and we’ve cut back significantly on food waste.
Personally, one clear change for me is that now whenever I have the option, I usually go for vegan choices and eat plant-based. I started this business mainly because of my passion for cooking and my mission to inspire others to also live a healthier and more balanced lifestyle to really help educate others to be more conscious about their health and well-being. But it’s about time that we also understand that all of this is interrelated, and it’s time to give back to the world that has given us so much. I would say growing this business, I now know and understand how even the smallest decisions can make a huge impact, so it naturally plays a huge role in my personal life choices.
Cocoparadise was one of the first in Hong Kong to champion healthy desserts, what’s changed in the time you started up until now?
Health has proved not to be a passing trend. When I first started Cocoparadise, I was going to health shows in Bangkok to source ingredients. At first, there was a tiny corner dedicated to healthy items. Each year, the corner got bigger and bigger until it was a whole section of the show, which made me know I was on the right track! It also made me even more aware of ingredients and the suppliers I work with.
I think COVID really caused a shift in thinking about healthy eating and sustainability. When something affects you or your friends and family, you really wake up and become more mindful of your health. And when you take this journey, you don’t want to go back! I was really worried that COVID would affect Cocoparadise negatively because I obviously couldn’t do any pop ups, but I was so wrong. I started sharing my story more and people started to appreciate what I was doing even more because they understood the concept.
What do you foresee as the future in clean eating?
Oh, I think it’s going to be the norm! It’s certainly already the norm in places like the UK, and while Asia is slow, it’s definitely catching up. More and more people are realising how important food is and when you start getting this awareness, you can change your life.