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Santa Maria Sun / Eats

Bars of health: Local baker Taino Sweets takes a new direction with Nutri-U

BY SHELLY CONE

Quinoa, edamame, and dark chocolate have become buzz words in the health food industry appearing on dinner plates increasingly often. They generally don’t appear in candy, but when they do they can make a surprisingly complementary component that satisfies the craving for something sweet. 

One Santa Maria business is scoring big with its combination of healthy and indulgent. Taino Nutri-U is a line of no gluten, no sugar or low sugar candies for people who don’t want overly sweet treats and want to incorporate more healthful ingredients into their diets. The healthy treats were introduced by confectioner Johavany Kurukawa, owner of Taino Sweets, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary.

“They are for people who don’t want to eat as sweet and want to be more healthy in their life,” she said.

Kurukawa herself is one of those people. Though she began with her flagship Puerto Rican cookie product, Kurukawa’s own healthy habits inspired her to create the healthy snack alternatives.

Like Kurukawa, for more than a decade my family and I have been making food swaps and conscious buying decisions. Our overall diet is well-thought out with high regard to how food affects our health. However, sweets—those are sacred. When you are making well-intentioned sacrifices for the betterment of your health, you’ve got to indulge here and there. My here and there is chocolate and cookies.

Kurukawa likes to talk and enjoys chatting with her customers. She pours that enthusiasm into her edible creations. With an exotic accent and exuberant personality, it’s hard not to like her, but would I like quinoa bars? Could dates really cure my ravenous sweet tooth? 

I would soon be pleasantly surprised.

Recently, she pulled out samples of her Nutri-U health bars and laid them on the table in her kitchen where she does most of her baking. She talked about the positive feedback she’s received from the community and even some preliminary interest from an organization wanting her to provide them as part of healthy meals for children.

The bars have a naturally sweet, not processed flavor that comes from the cranberry, dates, and cherries. Nuts and seeds plus edamame, quinoa, and chia provide texture. The dark chocolate bars have an intense flavor punctuated with the richness of Brazil nuts. 

The recipes for the bars were born out of Kurukawa’s love of taking a recipe as inspiration and then completely changing it. She knew she wanted something with those healthful ingredients but experimented with naturally sweet substitutes to add flavor. 

That’s been her method with Taino Sweets, a line of mantecaditos or Puerto Rican shortbread cookies she started last year. The cookies are traditionally made with a lot of sugar, which Kurukawa cut by 60 percent in order to make them healthier. She then expanded to include 21 different flavors like almond, peanut butter chocolate, guava, and coconut. 

“I love to create new things. If you give me a recipe, I change it totally, my way. I love to play with recipes,” she said. 

Kurukawa dresses up the small round cookies with hand-piped icing and sprinkles. Other cookies get a dab of guava jelly. She painstakingly squeezes the icing in wavy patterns across each one with a heavy focus. 

Kurukawa, who’s self-taught, said she enjoys baking for the peace it gives her. In addition to making sweets, she is a writer and published children’s book author, so quietly focusing on the task of baking is calming.

“I’m a very creative person. I like baking because it’s a distraction for me,” she said. 

Other products she makes include traditional Puerto Rican candies like coconut macaroons, in which she uses coconut cream, flour, no eggs, guava, and mango. 

“So now the cookies are healthier, have more flavor, and are still good,” she said. 

Taino Nutri-U is run out of her home, which suits Kurukawa fine. She said it allows her to strike a balance between work and family. “I get up at 7 a.m. and work. And maybe I’ll work until midnight but in between that time I get to spend time with my family, cook dinner, and do groceries with my husband,” she said.

At least that’s the situation for now. In order to expand, Kurukawa has been in talks about leasing kitchen space. Constantly whirling with creative ideas, Kurukawa said she already has a vision for future product lines. Soon she hopes to turn her focus to creating a line of natural dog treats.

Taino Nutri-U and Taino Sweets products can be found regularly at the Santa Maria Farmers Market and at the First Friday Artisan Market at Allan Hancock College on the first Friday of every month.

Sun contributor Shelly Cone likes chocolate with her quinoa. Contact her via the interim editor at clanham@santamariasun.com.