From traditional candies to sliced fruit coated in tajín, spice is a crucial element in many Latin American dishes. When it comes to Mexican food, chamoy and tajín with fruit are one of the tastiest trios to enjoy. But what many might not know is that while enjoying our cultural foods and candies is important, it’s undeniable that diabetes is a common disease that afflicts many Latinxs in the U.S. and Latin America today. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Latinxs have more than a 50 percent chance of developing diabetes, 10 percent higher than the national average, not to mention a higher risk of kidney failure and that’s just in the U.S.
This startling statistic hit too close to home for small business owner Annie Leal, whose own father has been living with diabetes for a decade. She noticed that her dad couldn’t enjoy some of the foods he used to including chamoy and she saw there weren’t alternatives for this Mexican food staple. Leal, who was born in Mexico, was motivated to create her brand, I Love Chamoy, and developed a recipe that uses monk fruit instead of sugar and hibiscus powder instead of Red 40 to give it its characteristic red coloring without the artificial dyes. Popular in Mexico, chamoy is made with fruit, chilis and sugar and is used to add a spicy-sweet kick to fruit, ice cream, and candy. Leal’s chamoy offers customers a taste of the beloved sauce but with a sweet catch: the formula is sugar-free, low-calorie, and has 50 percent less sodium. Monk fruit is between 150 to 300 times sweeter than sugar so a little goes a long way and it has zero calories.
“I never paid attention to the snacks that [my father] had given up until I went to his cabinet of sugar-free candies,” Leal tells HipLatina. “I saw the sugar-free caramel, chocolates, and lollipops, but we were born and raised in Mexico and I just didn’t see any sugar-free Mexican candy. I thought that was really strange. I decided to do some research and was shocked not to see enough options specifically geared toward our community, even though we have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the country. A year and a half later, we’re here.”
Before starting the business from the ground up and running it full-time, Leal had many years of experience in social media production and content creation. Though she knew she wanted social media to be a part of her brand’s marketing and community-building, and was comfortable with that aspect of the business, she had no experience with creating food products. She had no idea where to start creating the formula for chamoy that would have the familiar taste but that would also be “a little bit more accessible to people with different dietary needs and allergies.”
“Everything I’ve ever done in this company has been entirely new for me, as this was my first kind of endeavor in the food industry,” she explains. “So when I was going to launch the business, I was like, ‘Oh, it’s gonna take me a month to figure out’ and it actually took six months. I hired a food scientist because I wanted to make sure that if we were making the claims of saying this product was for diabetics, I had science to back it up. I wanted to make sure that we were following food safety precautions, that our product was safe to sell online and in grocery stores. We went over about 50 different formulas and tested different sweeteners until we ultimately landed on the one we use now with pure monkfruit because we believed it had the best taste and it was also the best ingredient for our customers.”
Despite the challenges and learning curves she had to embark on, it was worth it at the end of the day for Leal to offer a product that is both tasty and healthy, especially a cultural symbol like chamoy. Interestingly, the topping has a centuries-long history beginning in China with “crack seed” snacks, which later popped up in the Phillippines as “champoy,” treats that are made with the same ingredients as chamoy. Then, in part due to Spanish colonization of the islands in the 1500s, it is hypothesized that Filipinos brought the formula to Mexico on Spanish ships, turning it into the popular condiment many Mexicans and their descendants know and love today.
“It represents a lot of the candies that we love. It transports you to when you were young and you had maybe a couple of dollars to go to the corner store and buy your favorite Mexican candies that reminded you of visiting your home back in Mexico. We do everything with a little bit of a kick and a little bit of sweetness, so it’s the perfect representation of Mexican culture and Mexican food,” she says.
But thanks to her business and its resources, she’s also noticed chamoy’s growing popularity in circles outside of the Latinx community and how it’s created a more diverse consumer base than she ever thought possible. In some ways, she’s noticed that her chamoy has become an introduction to Mexican culture outside of the mainstream’s idea of what that looks like, taking away some of the fear people might have about Mexican food and encouraging them to try it in their own unique ways. One of her customers, she notes, even enjoys it on salmon.
“It’s interesting to see how different people enjoy it and how they ultimately appreciate the flavors we’re bringing to this country, ” she says.
Chamoy’s long history and beloved status in the Latinx community, combined with Leal’s healthier formula, has turned her idea into a nationwide success, with bottles sold at HEB stores, a grocery chain in Texas. ILC, based in McAllen, won the H-E-B’s Quest for Texas Best contest in August of 2022 which included a $25,000 cash prize and a coveted place on their shelves. Her operation is family-run with her mom, sister, and dad along with help from a social media manager, who has been able to develop relevant content (including original memes) to reach more consumers. At the start, it was solely Leal who created reels/TikToks to promote their chamoy as well as to share the realities of launching a small business. She’s shared the highs (getting on H-E-B shelves) to the lows (having thousands of dollars worth of inventory stolen from their transport truck) and that’s led to a following of more than 290K followers on TikTok and 30K on Instagram.
But after all of the experimentation, challenges, and triumphs, she knows that a lot of ILC’s success is credited to her social media followers and the wider community she’s built online and in real life. Her satisfied customers have promoted her product through word of mouth and social media marketing completely of their own volition, like making TikTok videos trying out the chamoy in real-time and giving their genuine reactions.
“The extension of our company is really our customer base. Without them, we wouldn’t have grown the way we have,” she explains. “Sometimes when I’m looking at numbers and I’m looking at orders, I have to take a step back and be like, ‘Oh my god, there’s real people buying those.’ When they tag us that they brought the chamoy to their fridge at work or that it’s part of their work snack, I’m reminded that there are real people picking up this product and enjoying it. That’s such a humbling and crazy experience to me. Every single time I see it, it feels unreal.”
After a year and a half, Leal knows she still has a lot to learn and more skills to develop to keep the company growing. But part of her mission is to empower other aspiring business owners to take that leap.
“Everybody’s kind of waiting for the thing to be perfect before they launch it, so my main advice is don’t wait for things to be perfect. Be open to feedback from your customers because they will help you make things better and don’t forget that you’re here to serve your customer and nothing else. Keep a humble and open mind, which will make the journey more enjoyable. Know what you’re really good at, but also be really aware of where you need help. Business owners and bosses can act like they know it all and they don’t wanna show weakness, but it’s so much more powerful to be self-aware of what you’re great at and what you’re not so good at.It’s only going to make you and your business better.”
Looking ahead, Leal reveals that ILC will be available to purchase on Amazon at the end of this month, not to mention that she has been developing two new products for the brand: a mango flavor of the original chamoy formula and a low-sugar Mexican candy, which will both be launching soon.