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Gone garbanzo

Palo Altan uses chickpea to create healthful snack foods

In California, healthy living is second nature, so it's hardly surprising when a new crop of good-for-you snacks crowds the shelves of local grocery stores.

One Palo Alto woman, however, has put her own spin on the craze, creating natural, vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, potato-free and corn-free chips from chickpea flour. Now, she sells each 4-ounce bag for $5.99 under the name Tasty Karma at local stores like Piazza's Fine Foods, Sigona's Farmers Market, The Milk Pail Market and farmers markets in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.

Saumil Pandey, founder and CEO of Tasty Karma, began making chickpea chips for her family, bagging them for her kids' lunchboxes, and sharing them with friends and neighbors. At the encouragement of her loved ones, she started selling her snacks at the Sunnyvale Farmers' Market, where she got "a lot of great feedback" that propelled her to a full-time launch in January at local grocery stores, she said.

"When we looked around for snacks, there were not enough healthy alternatives," said the mother of two who is a former Google employee. Pandey left her job in sales for the Mountain View-based tech giant once the demand for her snacks became too overwhelming.

When considering healthy snacking alternatives, Pandey took into account the fact that many people are wheat-conscious. She also worried about genetically modified organisms in corn-based snacks. Soy was a viable alternative, but Pandey wanted her customers to have another option as well. So, she turned to chickpeas.

Beyond chickpea flour -- which Pandey first found out about from her mother and now buys through natural food and whole grain retailer Bob's Red Mill -- her recipes rely on just a handful of ingredients, which she always aims to purchase locally. High in fiber and protein, chickpeas can satisfy hunger pangs longer in smaller servings.

"My mom always fed us chickpeas," Pandey said. "She used to make something similar to pretzel sticks made from chickpeas. I always loved it."

However, when Pandey decided to try her hand at baking a healthy yet appetizing snack, she found "no recipe available for these products online."

"Not many people are actually trying this out," Pandey said. Fast-forward to some 500 batches later, and Pandey transitioned from baking solely for friends and family to selling her best combinations in local grocery stores. Now, she has a few part-time employees and has traded in baking at home for producing her snacks in a commercial kitchen in Palo Alto. In addition to hand-baking, Pandey also hand-packs her snacks.

Throughout the production process, Pandey said she has faced challenges.

"When I thought of selling (my products), I had to think about shelf life," Pandey said. "I had to think about how to preserve the freshness and crunchiness."

But, she said, "I never wanted to add any preservatives."

The ingredient list on the back of Tasty Karma's Garlic & Herb Chickpea Chips is short, with only two perhaps unrecognizable ingredients: guar and xanthan gums, two gluten-free baking essentials that keep baked goods from dissolving into a pile of crumbs. Other than that, this particular chip is composed solely of chickpea flour, rice flour, safflower oil, garlic, Italian herbs, spices, salt and sugar.

Pandey said her customers appreciate the unique health niche her snacks fill. Some have even brought bags of the chips into Whole Foods Markets and asked the natural supermarket chain to carry them (though at this time, Whole Foods does not carry the chips).

Despite her success, Pandey said she is always open to suggestions for improvement. "I'm not a baking expert," she tells her customers. "So if you have any suggestions, any feedback, give it to me!"

Many people are avoiding wheat or gluten products, like Palo Alto resident Zoe Blatchley, who discovered Tasty Karma Chickpea Chips through her niece, who first picked them up at Pandey's farmers' market stall.

"I can eat them without the inflammatory effects of many other foods," said Blatchley, who suffers from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy/Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (RSD/CRPS), a chronic pain condition that experts believe occurs as a result of dysfunction in the nervous system. According to Blatchley, many people with her condition have seen improvements after eliminating gluten from their diets.

Pandey, too, said she has seen first-hand the health benefits of her products. A trim woman, Pandey said she'd always had trouble losing weight, especially after the birth of her second child.

"When I was working on this production ... I lost a lot of weight," Pandey said, crediting her frequent sampling of her snacks. "I lost almost 15 pounds, just by these crackers."

Blatchley, who said she enjoys the crackers about four times a week, likes to dip them in hummus, salsa verde, or tabbouleh, or pair them with olives as an antipasto dish.

"My particular favorite is (the) Chia & Sesame Crunch (flavor)," Pandey said. "The sesame really enhances the flavor."

Other flavors include Quinoa with Cracked Pepper, Zesty Fenugreek and Cinnamon Sugar.

As for future chickpea-based plans, Pandey said she's currently working on developing a nutritional bar.

"There are a lot of bars available, but ... they have a lot of whey protein," she said, describing the ingredient as an "artificial protein" and something she wouldn't give to her kids. "I personally feel ... it's something very very processed."

In addition to adding a bar to her lineup, Pandey also plans to extend Tasty Karma's reach beyond Silicon Valley, expanding throughout Northern California to other specialty food stores. Information on where to find Tasty Karma products is at www.tastykarma.com.

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