I Scream, You Scream We All Scream For…Soy Delicious!
The Satya Interview with Mark Brawerman
September 2005 Issue

Let’s face it, as much as we like to say bad things about dairy, ice cream is pure joy and one of the hardest novelties to give up. Long-time vegans remember the bad old days when eating dairy-free meant dessert-free or fun-free. But one of the best things to happen to veganism is so delicious, that is Soy Delicious.

With flavors like Cookie Avalanche, Chunky Mint Madness and Chocolate Almond Brownie, Soy Delicious is the Ben & Jerry’s of the vegan world.

Headquartered in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, Turtle Mountain has been specializing in the production of these dairy-free all natural frozen desserts for the past 17 years, and their products can be found in natural food outlets in all 50 states, as well as Canada, Virgin Islands, Australia, the UK, Japan, and Korea.

A stop on the Decadent Dairy Free Road Tour.

With dairy-free Lil’ Buddies “ice cream” sandwiches, chocolate covered vanilla almond bars, pints of Purely Decadent goodness, and fruit sweetened and no sugar varieties, Turtle Mountain reigns as the leader in providing indulgences to those with moral convictions or dietary restrictions.

Once specializing in hand airbrushed dresses, Turtle Mountain CEO and founder, Mark Brawerman, left behind a San Francisco garment manufacturing business when he made the personal choice to go vegetarian. Brawerman was determined to make the world a better place with soy and also wanted to help turtles while he was at it. Feeling that the issues of the ocean are huge and often neglected, Turtle Mountain donates some of its profits to the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Soy Delicious connoisseur Sangamithra Iyer chatted with the nondairy king Mark Brawerman about daring to be decadent, dairy-free and delicious.

How did you first get interested in soy?
After I closed my garment business in San Francisco, I went on a trip to Hong Kong and Singapore. Prior to that time, I was eating the typical American diet— steaks, hamburgers and Italian foods. But while I was in Hong Kong, I started to eat very differently—no carbohydrates, just protein and vegetables. I ended up losing 20 pounds very quickly. That was the first time I became aware that there was a connection between what one ate and one’s health.

Over a period of three or four years, I became self educated in natural foods, vegetarianism, living lightly on the earth—all very basic concepts that have been around for many years. When I went to the South Pacific in 1980, I became aware of all these wonderful creatures—the chickens that were around the home—and came back and thought about having a chicken meal. I thought about the chicken I just saw, and I just couldn’t do it anymore and became a vegetarian.

When did you make the switch from creating clothes to creating dairy-free desserts?
I decided I didn’t want to be in the garment business anymore. I wanted to do something with soy, something that would help people.

I met with William Shurtleff, of the Soy Center who wrote the Book of Tofu. He was a big inspiration. The Farm Foods Company, which manufactured a product called Ice-Bean, had just gone out of business and the product was no longer available. I said, “Gee, this is a great product, why don’t I figure out how to make it?” And so I did. It took me all summer, but in 1980, I created a product called Jolly Licks in San Francisco and distributed it myself to 120 natural food stores throughout northern California.

That’s how I got started making nondairy frozen desserts, and in 1987 Turtle Mountain became incorporated.

According to your website there are some exciting marketing trends in the natural foods dessert world—54 percent of the market is dairy, while 46 percent is nondairy and growing.
In the health food industry, products that are called nondairy desserts total 46 percent of sales. That is outrageous, because when you go to the supermarket side of the business—in the real world—you are only looking at a few percent.

The major players are Tofutti, Imagine Foods and us. Their sales have been down and our sales have been up.

What do you think is the secret to Turtle Mountain’s success?
Well in the last couple of years, nobody has really innovated. We brought out our Purely Decadent pints—which are basically Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen-Dazs done as a nondairy product.

We also did the first organic soy product, then the only entirely fruit juice sweetened product, and recently our no sugar added diabetic-friendly Carb Escapes product.

I think also, we are such perfectionists in what we do, that we push everything to the limit and I think our flavors are much better.

So what is your favorite ice cream flavor?
Personally, the Cookie Avalanche, Turtle Trails and Chocolate Obsession. I’m a chocolate person. Those are the ones that I have problems with if there is a pint in the freezer.

With ingredients like chocolate, is there a commitment to fair trade?
We have not explored fair trade chocolate for specific reasons. We’ve spent a lot of time finding a cocoa that really tastes as close to chocolate ice cream as we can find. Consumers expect it to taste the same every single time. There are many kinds of cocoa powder from different parts of the world. And the best tasting powders are alkalized [made less acidic] through what’s called a Dutch chocolate process [treated with an alkalizing agent to modify its color and give it a more mild flavor]. If we use fair traded cocoa, we’ll have to buy it in huge quantities—way beyond what we need economically—and will probably end up with cocoa that is not similar to the blend that we’ve got, and doesn’t taste as good.

I’m probably giving you a more involved answer than you want to hear, but there are economic and taste reasons why we haven’t done it. We don’t buy enough cocoa to justify that kind of a commitment. We are not that big of a company.

Is there a commitment to GMO-free and organic ingredients?
First of all, anything that is certified organic implies that everybody has done everything they can possibly do to prevent GMO contamination of the product. We buy organic products and are third party certified, so we are doing everything we can with organic materials to make sure there is no GMO contamination, and we avoid ingredients like corn that we know would present an issue.

Are there other environmental concerns with food production that Turtle Mountain is addressing?
We are buying sugar that has been manufactured without animal products for refinement. We are not using any dairy ingredients, so that has a huge effect on the environment both in terms of animal issues and environmental issues, from minimizing the fossil fuels used to bring animal feed back and forth and dealing with all the pollution of the fertilizer, and waste of the animals.

All of us nondairy manufacturers make our products in facilities that also manufacture ice cream. There is a type of testing called neogen that measures down to the parts per million in terms of antibodies of dairy protein present. We vigorously sample test our products for the presence of dairy. None of our competitors do that. We’re concerned that we not have an incidence of dairy contamination. If you don’t watch yourself and wash out the equipment real well, you could kill somebody if someone highly allergic eats the product. We go to tremendous extents to constantly be checking these plants.

Where does the name Turtle Mountain come from?
I wanted to have the name Turtle in the business. I was in the Nature Conservatory store in Berkeley and saw a book called Turtles by Archie Carr. I opened up the book and there was a chapter called “Turtle Mountain.” I thought that was such a great name. In the chapter it talks about a place in Nicaragua that borders the ocean where the sea turtles come in every year to lay their eggs. The Indians in Nicaragua refer to that place as Turtle Mountain. The legend was that as long as the sea turtles come in every year to lay their eggs, all is well in the world. And as you know, all of the sea turtles are endangered. All is not well in the world and the ocean.

What was the inspiration for the Dare to be Decadent Dairy Free Road Tour?
We’re the largest nondairy frozen dessert manufacturer in the world, yet we are reaching one percent of the American population, when 15-20 percent of that population cannot eat ice cream because it makes them sick—they are lactose intolerant.

We are barely scratching the surface. How do we reach people when they don’t know we are out there? The idea came that we would get an RV, decorate it like one of our pints, and build a special trailer that holds 13,000 samples. So we go to events with thousands of people and hand out samples of Purely Decadent.

And their reactions?
People are dumbstruck. They never realize that a nondairy product can taste like ice cream. They are dumbstruck with the nutritional differences between our products and Ben & Jerry’s or Haagen-Dazs. We have no saturated fats. There are so many stories within a story when you start looking at our company and its history and the products.

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