California has long sought to replicate New York’s world-famous bagels. From the low-calcium Manhattan tap water to the specialized boiling techniques, countless West Coast shops have struggled to re-create the signature crust and texture of the fabled deli staple. Now, a new celebrity-backed bagel venture has stopped trying.
Instead, it’s making a bagel that’s quintessentially Los Angeles: a round piece of bread with a hole in the middle, and 90% fewer carbs.
The unusually healthy bagel is the creation of BetterBrand, a startup that has raised more than $5 million. Its investors include Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s firm, a founder of driverless car business Cruise and streaming platform Twitch, the “Shameless” actress Emmy Rossum and Patrick Schwarzenegger, son of Arnold. The company is currently in the late stages of raising another, several-times-larger funding round, its chief executive said, declining to give the new total or the valuation.
Aimee Yang founded BetterBrand after experiencing the guilt that’s attendant with eating normal food. “I’d literally dream of this world where we could eat what we wanted and never have to worry about weight gain,” said Yang, BetterBrand’s chief executive officer. “It really consumed so much of my mind space and was such a point of anxiety. Enabling us to eat what we want is so incredibly freeing and empowering.”
Now, Yang wants her company to be the “Beyond Meat of carbs.” BetterBrand follows a long line of venture capital-backed companies seeking to reinvent the food we eat, from Soylent’s meal replacement beverages to Upside Foods, which has raised more than $600 million in its quest to develop lab-grown meat. Athletic Greens, which makes a green powdered vitamin blend, vaulted to unicorn status earlier this year. And vegan burger startup Impossible Foods was valued by investors at $7 billion.
Low-carb bagels aren’t exactly new – similar products exist on shelves at Walmart and Kroger. But Yang has a grander vision. Whole Foods started carrying the bagels last month, about a year after BetterBrand began selling them online, and the company plans to soon offer its products in stores across Europe and Latin America. Eventually, the company hopes to not only remake bagels, but a variety of bread products, like pretzels.
While the company makes most of its money from direct sales at the moment, Yang expects its wholesales business to grow. In addition to expanding to other grocers in new markets, Yang said she is in discussions with airlines to place the bagels in airport lounges.
BetterBrand has a natural home in Los Angeles, the city that’s both health-obsessed and gourmet, and which also brought us companies like Moon Juice – the venture-backed wellness brand that sells supplements like Magnesi-Om and Sex Dust. BetterBrand says each of its bagels contains the same sugar content as a stalk of celery and the protein content of four eggs. The bagels come in familiar flavors: classic, everything, cinnamon, chocolate chip and, for the fall, pumpkin spice.
Of course, some bagel purists resist the new creation. “I would not call it a better bagel,” said Emily Winston, the owner of Berkeley, California-based Boichik Bagels, who recently sampled a BetterBrand’s classic flavor that she ordered on Instacart. Winston spent years trying to re-create the New York-style bagels of her childhood, the result of which is her bakery. Winston described the Better Bagel as “foamy,” “spongy” and “almost like cotton.” “It’s like a mirage of a bagel. I’d eat them before I starved to death,” she said. But, “I don’t think everyone’s going to start eating these and stop eating regular bagels.”
In a taste test, Bloomberg staffers found that the classic bagel was, by a wide margin, not better than a regular bagel and, remarkably, had almost no flavor at all, except for an aftertaste of margarine. The hallmark of a bagel, a dense and chewy interior, was instead lightweight and turned gummy upon chewing, making it difficult to swallow. Topped with cream cheese, though, the experience hardly improved. The chocolate chip version was not significantly redeemed by the cocoa bits.
One of the selling points for the Better Bagel is that it’s both lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein and fiber than its traditional doughy counterpart. One testimonial on the company’s website notes, “I never would’ve imagined not feeling guilty after eating two bagels.” But dietitian Alissa Rumsey warned that prebiotic inulin fiber, a key ingredient in the bagels, doesn’t get absorbed by the body. Too much could lead to trouble. “I could see this causing constipation for someone,” said Rumsey, author of a book called “Unapologetic Eating” who resists labeling food as inherently good or bad.
Yang said her goal isn’t to make bagel-eaters feel guilty. “Us transforming the bagel is definitely a celebration of the product itself,” she said. “It’s about addressing a feeling I think a lot of people relate to, and turning that feeling that already exists of guilt or anxiety into a sense of freedom, or empowerment or joy.”
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