St. Louis-based beverage line Karuna is inspired by traditional Chinese herbal medicine arts
When Angela Zeng moved from China to St. Louis in 1996 to earn a PhD in pathology from St. Louis University, she began to realize most Americans were over-consuming sugar. After completing her doctorate and a stint working for a pharmaceutical company, she landed a job with China’s top producer of apple juice concentrate. These experiences, together with a lifelong interest in traditional Chinese medicine, inspired her to create Karuna, a line of low-sugar beverages, in 2016. “Karuna means compassion [in Sanskrit],” she said. “It’s one of the foundations of Buddhism. You have to have compassion in order to have happiness and longevity.” Now, with a production facility in downtown St. Louis, this CEO is learning the ins and outs of the retail beverage space. Here, Zeng chats about drawing on different cultures’ nutritional science, the unique ingredients used in her blends, and why she doesn’t have an exit strategy.
“Since I was very young, I was drawn to Chinese traditional medicine. When I first visited an herbal store, it looked more interesting compared to a toy store for me – the aroma, the way it’s arranged – you have to weigh everything on a super-cute small scale. … I was only 5 years old when I started experimenting with herbal remedies myself.”
“My first remedy was [a cream] to apply on my fingers during cold winter days. It didn’t work – it made it worse. My mom had to take me to the clinic. She said we’d never do it again, but I never gave up.”
“I was always very entrepreneurial. I started the first flower shop on my campus in Shanghai. … [Years later], I got the opportunity to help a Chinese company [Hengtong Juice] to build their franchise here. That allowed me to get into the juice industry. Our clients were very large: Coke, Pepsi, everyone on the list.”
“When I looked at [Hengtong Juice’s] products, I started to understand why the general population has so many health issues. There’s such high prevalence rate of diabetes, obesity. … If we don’t address this issue, it doesn’t matter how much medicine we develop or how much we spend on health care.”
“I know people love juice – orange and apple juice are everywhere, but they’re made from concentrates and really high in sugar, so I started thinking, ‘Can I do a low-sugar, high-fiber juice?’”
“Everything is designed on traditional herbal medicine arts – what we learned over thousands of years and generations of testing and experimenting. I do research the medical function and the clinical data behind each ingredient, but the taste has to be suitable for Westerners.”
“I always use at least one ingredient that’s treasured in [Chinese] herbal culture. For example, goji berry, mung bean sprouts, a berry from the Himalayas called sea buckthorn berry – very high in antioxidants, tons of benefits.”
“The juice is shelf stable. It’s not cold-pressed. … We use lots of roots, vegetables, skins. We don’t use processed ingredients.”
“On the other side, it is true the heating process destroys certain vitamins. The most notable one is Vitamin C, which can go down about 20% [when heated], but many others are heat insensitive.”
“What I learned quickly as an entrepreneur is that you have to remain very flexible and open-minded. There’s always this big risk factor – how to balance a very unique ingredient formulation that makes your product stand out but not scare your consumer away.”
“For me, it’s less about pure business, like trying to sell my brand to a large company. I was more thinking seriously about what health benefits and functionality I can bring to the table, researching each ingredient from a health standpoint. People ask, ‘What’s your exit strategy?’ And I never really thought about that. It’s not about the money; otherwise, I should stick with what I was doing before.”
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