Through our back and forth emails we ultimately discovered that we both live in Westchester County, just a few miles apart. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to sit down with a local, plant-based entrepreneur, to talk about his business.
JL Fields: Arshad, you and your family drastically changed your diet when your son was diagnosed with autism and gastrointestinal issues. How did you go about making those changes?
Arshad Bahl: When my son at age two was diagnosed with autism, we had no idea of what autism was – the initial read was devastating - but instead of worrying about what caused the illness, I focused on how to get my son recovered from it. Being pragmatic and goal oriented was the only option I knew to avoid being an emotional wreck. Any family that has a young child who does not speak, cannot be potty trained, has no eye contact and has a hard time making friends knows how incredibly difficult autism can be on the child and the family.
My son had severe gastrointestinal issues and would strain for hours before he went to the bathroom. The stool was not hard or soft – it was just the passage that was hard. We took him to leading autism gastrointestinal specialists and finally one of them advised us to look into dairy-free, gluten-free and unprocessed food options. Within a few weeks of removing dairy and gluten, his stools starting returning to normal! Once we removed the highly processed foods (a lot of gluten free foods are highly processed- so read labels carefully) we started seeing better eye contact, and other behavior changes. His teachers mentioned he was responding better to the speech, occupational therapy and social skills class. My son is eight now, he is in regular classroom with kids his age.
JLF: Do you have advice for other families with young children who are transitioning to a plant-based diet?
AB: My advice to all parents with children on the spectrum:
- Get off dairy, gluten, processed foods and more importantly follow it with them. My daughter who is 2 year younger than my son follows nearly the same diet and I follow the same diet – it is important for the child not to feel singled – they have enough coping to deal with anyways – they need every bit of family support they can get.
- Substitute coconut milk or almond milk for dairy – choose vanilla or chocolate milk. Stay away from soy milk. My son loves the Zen almond milk puddings (available at Whole Foods).
- Buy gluten-free pizza crusts from Udi’s and make your own pizza in minutes. Use Daiya vegan cheese and good toppings – like veggies and if your kids are not vegan then some grilled chicken.
- Get them on probiotics and digestive enzymes – made a huge difference in the bowel movements for my son.
- Be creative – I use a home waffle maker to make chocolate waffles that would cost 5x in a store. Start with Trader Joe’s Gluten free Brownie mix – add apple sauce instead of oil, add 2 scoops Trader Joe’s green powder, add 2 tsp chia seeds, add 3 super ripe bananas (mashed), add 2 tbsp of Sunwarrior vegan protein powder – and you have an superfood waffle that tastes incredible. I make 2 dozen large waffles every week – both my kids love them – as breakfast and a snack.
- Be flexible – my daughter is crazy about Haagen Dazs ice cream. So we will go there a couple times a months and get 1/2 sorbet and 1/2 icecream – my son will take a digestive enzyme after. The key for me is to get them both the same item, so that my son doesn’t feel like his is being singled out.
JLF: Why did you start Amrita?
AB: I started Amrita in late 2011 after speaking to a lot of athletes who were seeing great improvements in their results going gluten-free and dairy free. But as I was making the energy bars, I was asking my kids to test them ( kids can be brutally honest!) I found that their school was nut-free – so I switched from nuts to seeds in the bar. I also went ahead and removed soy, based on all the research I had done around negative impacts of soy, especially the soy isolates that are used in many bars. Since I was going down a very different route to making this bar – it involved nearly six months of trail and error (more errors!) to get the flavors, textures and consistency right. The bars are packaged by hand. They are blended versus being baked to preserve the enzymes and they contain no dairy, no gluten, no nuts, no soy and no preservatives. The bars contain generous servings of chia seeds and vegan rice protein to give a nutritional balance of 60% carbs, 25% fats and 15% protein – which is ideal for endurance activities for athletes or busy people.
JLF: Is Amrita just for endurance athletes?
AB: Amrita is enjoyed by busy parents before a workout or on their way to work or as a snack. I always keep some in the car and in my desk to avoid snacking on junk foods. Kids love the bars too !
JLF: You’re based in Westchester – where is your product made and where can people purchase Amrita?
AB: The bars are locally made in Port Chester, NY. People can purchase the product in various sporting stores, natural food stores and soon at the White Plains Whole Foods (mid November). They can also order online and avail themselves of free shipping.
JLF: What’s next for Amrita?
AB: The next biggest project is to scale production based to demand from existing stores, online orders and new vendors like Whole Foods.
I am a strong believer in supporting grassroots sports and have created an “ambassador program” for athletes. Right now I have teams and individuals ranging from cyclists, triathletes, runners, mountain bikers, yogi’s, and team sports like soccer and ice hockey. I am looking to aggressively grow in the sponsorship of new sports. If people have interest, they can email me.
I also believe in giving back to the community, especially the special needs community, so I am working on a program with Autism Speaks to donate 5% of our profits to the organization.
I love supporting a local, plant-based company and Amrita is easy to get behind because the bars are nutritious, delicious and are indeed great for endurance and recovery. My husband, a triathlon coach, recently took two bars out on a 50-mile road bike ride. He found them tasty, easy to eat while on the bike, and easy to digest; the bars sustained him for hours during and after his workout. While less athletic, I do like to have a quick, easy and healthy food option when I’m on the go. I’ve grabbed an Amrita bar on my way to the train station in the morning and am easily sustained until lunch.
Plant-based event alert! Comfort Restaurant in Hastings on Hudson is hosting a POP-UP event featuring a Vegan/Vegetarian menu! Chef Lynne Pascuale will be offering up an exciting three-course meal ($26) tomorrow night (October 26). Check out the menu here – reservations are required: 914.231.7711.
I Eat Plants columnist JL Fields is a certified vegan lifestyle coach and educator. She shares plant-based education, recipes and cooking techniques, as well as animal rights information and resources, on the popular blog JL goes Vegan. Her original recipes have been featured on Foodbuzz, BlogHer and Meatless Monday. She is the editor of the community blog Stop Chasing Skinny. JL is the founder and lead consultant for JL Fields Consulting and serves on the board of directors of Our Hen House. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Google+.