Like millions of workout enthusiasts around the world, Tom Zummo was well aware of the popularity of coconut water as a post-workout replenisher.
But one intense run on Lost Dog Wash Trail near the McDowell Mountains got him thinking about an alternative. It also altered his career and sparked a trend in the healthy-water space.
In 2013, Zummo started True Nopal Cactus Water, which makes True Nopal, the first and top-selling cactus-water brand in the world. In doing so, the Scottsdale entrepreneur also created the cactus-water category.
Since then, cactus water has become the “it” natural beverage and contends to de-throne coconut water as the industry’s king.
Nine months before launching his company, Zummo was running the trail. Prickly pears were in bloom and, like most Arizonans, he saw them everywhere from dusty paths in the wilderness to residential driveways. But this time, they caught his attention.
“I thought it was amazing that this plant could thrive and produce fruit in a desert without a water source,” Zummo said.
Like his other endeavors, the veteran business owner dove into this new project wholeheartedly. He discovered that prickly pear water has the same antioxidants as coconut water, as well as the electrolytes, vitamins and minerals that make coconut water so appealing to athletes.
It’s also the only plant in the world with all 24 known betalains, which are anti-inflammatories and clinically proven to reduce the effects of a hangover, Zummo said.
Bringing the drink to market
Zummo discovered that prickly pear was available on the market in pill supplement form but not in a pure, ready-to-drink beverage. As a result, he created TrueNopal, a lower-calorie (18 vs. 45 per serving), lower sugar (4 grams vs. 11 grams) and no-sodium alternative to coconut water. The flavor also tends to be more palatable for many.
Zummo played with adding agave and other sweeteners and flavors. But in the end, the 100 percent all-natural formula was the winner. The fruit is sourced from the Sonoran Desert, which spans Arizona, California and Mexico.
Tom Zummo was the pioneer of the cactus-water industry. He would like to see cactus water unseat coconut water as the industry king.
When True Nopal Ventures launched, it was the only cactus-water producer in the world. Within 90 days, its product went national. Now, Zummo said, there are as many as a dozen around the globe.
True Nopal is in 9,000 stores worldwide. Locally, it can be found at Whole Foods, A.J.’s Fine Foods, Fry’s, Safeway, Sprouts — which was the first to carry the beverage — and others. It can also be found in the United Kingdom,Ireland and New Zealand. A partnership with distribution powerhouse Suntory International promises to expand that reach. It’s also available via Amazon.
Growing demand has pushed organic and natural food and beverages into the mainstream, which has helped create traction.
“Before, you had to go into Whole Foods. But now, you can go into any Safeway or Fry’s and see sections for organic and natural,” Zummo said.
Coconut water still dominates a global $2.7 billion plant-based water industry, but sales of alternatives like cactus water are predicted to more than double by 2020, according to food and drink consulting firm Zenith Global.
And, industry publications like the Cassandra Report predict cactus water to be the next craze that is poised to “steal coconut water’s crown as the plant-based beverage of choice among young consumers.”
The company has experienced 100 percent growth each year since launching, Zummo said.
“They say timing is everything,” Zummo said. “We came at a time when people were more health conscious about what they are consuming. Coconut water paved the way.”
Educating consumers about cactus water
Yoga instructor and mindful fitness coach Donny Starkins said he’s been hooked on cactus water after being introduced to True Nopal eight months ago by his girlfriend. Starkins also gives it to some of his clients, who include yoga students and professional athletes who prefer the taste and nutritional value to coconut water.
“The fact that it’s better for you, it catches their attention. Most of my clients are very active,” said Starkins, who lives in Phoenix.
Starkins said he never liked the taste of coconut water so he mostly stuck to regular water after workouts before his transition to cactus water. He’s not a soda or juice drinker, so having that ice-cold hint of sweetness is a treat, especially after a hot yoga class.
“I constantly feel hydrated. To be able to have that natural fruit taste is good, but I know that it’s better for me, too,” he said.
Zummo’s True Nopal created a beverage category that focuses on the needs of a health-conscious consumer. It also has drawn attention to a plant that many Arizonans take for granted, but one that most people around the world have never seen in person.
Tom Zummo owns Scottsdale-based True Nopal, which produces and distributes prickly pear cactus water. He started the business in 2013.
“The prickly pear’s been used for thousands of years for its (beneficial) properties. … I’d like to think we helped bring the prickly pear into the spotlight and created some awareness,” he said.
True Nopal’s marketing plan incorporates an educational component to areas that are as far from cactus country as one can get. Recently, that included someone donning an 8-foot prickly pear cactus outfit and strolling the streets of London handing out samples to passers-by and answering questions about this exotic fruit from the desert West.
“In Arizona, we’re surrounded by cactus. It lines the streets, … it’s on your mind here. Most around the world have never seen a cactus in their life, let alone consumed one,” Zummo said.
He has started, owned and run several businesses spanning multiple industries, including restaurants, real estate and mortgage companies. But Zummo said this one in particular gives him a special boost.
“The main reward is when we get emails and testimonials from people saying how this makes them feel … to know we are providing them with a healthy alternative,” he said.
What: True Nopal Ventures.
Where: 8255 E. Raintree Drive, No. 300, Scottsdale.
Interesting stat: Although U.S. soda sales fell for the 11th year in a row last year, coconut water sales rose 27 percent, according to market research firm Technavio.
Details: 480-636-8044, truenopal.com.