Founder's goal to have Aussie children enjoy food with less sugar

Mel Hetherington on her fight to have Aussie children enjoy food with less sugar

sugar

With 1 in 4 Australian children either obese or overweight, Mel Heatherington set out with a mission to make some healthy changes for her kids.

The former Coca Cola business partner turned her knowledge of products and manufacturing into a passion project, joining forces with a fellow business partner to build their own company; No Nasties Project; which aims to reduce the national intake of sugar by 500 tonnes each year while also donating $50,000 for food education in schools.

Women’s Agenda sat down with Heatherington for a chat about the launch and what she’s learned in the process.

You were at Coca Cola for almost 10 years. What’s one or two things you learned during that time that has since stayed with you and which you take into your role at No Nasties Project?
Customer-centric thinking was always at the core of who we were at CCA. I always followed this philosophy through when I worked in HR for the business, what are our customers wanting to achieve and how can I help them achieve that? One of the things I was lucky to manage and be involved with was lots of multi channel projects at CCA – I became really good at connecting the dots, creating relationships, executing on timelines. For a startup such as ours – these things have been invaluable. My job is now a huge number of projects that need to be delivered and managed.

How did you meet your co-founder, David Andrew? 
We had some mutual friends who suggested we catch up for a coffee as I was looking to go back to work after having my second child. I remember having to follow him up several times for our first meeting but lucky I was persistent, the rest is history! We started out working in this dingy old office upstairs on Toorak Rd above a fish and chip shop. I went in being willing to do anything and everything that it took to learn the ropes, including taking a huge pay cut – but I didn’t care! We were packing orders and doing in store sampling sessions – we old had 5 x SKU’s at this time. Now we have 2 businesses and 18 SKU’s with more to come.

Why are you so passionate about removing 500 tons of sugar from Australian diets? 
I know we can make a difference in this space. We can make it easier for parents to make better choices for their families and this was an area I found hard to navigate as a parent. It is a complex world of nutritional panels and legislation around food labelling and I saw that no one had stepped into this space. It continues to astound me how much sugar is in common household products that people continue to purchase as they are not aware or there is no other option in the market. It would be almost irresponsible not to be passionate about this now that I can see a clear path to how we can achieve our mission and help others.

Generally, how do you think Australians are eating? Has it improved in the last decade or so?
I think in the 80’s there was a lot of food manufacturers that added sugar because it was cheap and gave flavour. I think we are now facing the brunt of trying to claw back from that but it is hard to change consumer’s palate. Nine out of 10 parents are conscious about reducing sugar in their kids diets, however 1 in 4 kids are now overweight or obese and there is a disconnect in these stats. If you look at the health isle and sugar free options in the mainstream supermarkets you can see this is changing and an exciting place to be.

Do you think the pandemic has changed the way Australians eat?
I do. I know there is more focus on households budgets, I think people are looking for more value options and smarter choices. Australians have lost businesses and jobs and are less reliant on eating out and focused on saving money by eating at home.

How did the partnership with Disney develop?
We wanted a platform that we could use to get our products to become well known to more families in Australia. It is quite hard to market sugar-free to the mainstream, people can be wary about healthier products as well and we had the opportunity to use something that people were familiar with to make them feel safe about the switch to sugar free. I know from my kids if they see products with Frozen or Marvel Avengers characters on them they instantly want to put them in my trolley! I have to do a double check to make sure I am happy about their choices.!

How has motherhood changed the way you approach eating and food?
Being on the front end of product development I am very aware of the packaging, preservatives and additives that go into all food and that definitely contributes to my food choices for our household. For me it is all about balance and nutrition – making sure there is balance of whole foods / fresh fruit, protein and veggies but also options when you don’t have time and can reach for something that you know isn’t loaded with sugar and preservatives!

Have you ever had a mentor? If so, what did they teach you?
Mentors don’t have to be formal relationships. I have gravitated to people that have helped me through different parts of my life – in a work and personal sense. It could be friends, colleagues, leaders or family. Whether it be returning to work from having children, helping me become more commercial in my approach, building my self-esteem in the workforce, or reflecting on where you want to go and how to get there. You have to be deliberate about what you need and from who – this is the key. Some of the best insights come from my girlfriends that are in the same situations as I am, navigating careers and family – these are invaluable. When you are struggling – they push you up.

What’s the most challenging aspects of running an Australian business? 
Competing priorities. We want to do it all but with limited resources. The ultimate challenge, how do we do things smarter and differently without the big budgets. It forces us to do things others can’t – like launching our Sugarfreezies Original’s within four months to market. Also, it’s really hard to find the right people that suit the culture that we have here. There is nowhere to hide with a small team – you need high performers that are capable on a number of fronts….. 

What advice would you give to women who are thinking of starting their own business? 
Make sure you have an inner circle of experienced friends and mentors and business contacts to work through your ideas. I think women are really good at prioritising and organising and executing, but often not as good at pushing themselves outside their comfort zone and taking risks. 

I’m generally a pretty conservative risk taker but have learnt working with David that we wouldn’t be here had we not pushed ourselves. Being real about what’s possible within the time you have, knowing you can’t do all of the things you want to do but being conscious about what you choose to spend your time doing. Not just in a business sense but also personally. 

For me, I have to put my kids to bed, I want to be there on their first day of school or when they need me. Do I need to be there everyday for the day to day – probably not, but the key is working out what is important for me.

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