Krishna Kaliannan was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D) at 17 years old. Just a few years later in 2017, he launched the startup Catalina Crunch from his small New York City apartment with keto-friendly cereals as its first product line.
The company now dominates the natural cereal market, and its low carb cereals and cookies are available in more than 15,000 stores nationwide, including big players like Kroger, Whole Foods Market, Costco, Target, Publix, Albertsons, Meijer, and more.
Kaliannan recently talked with DiabetesMine to discuss life with T1D, his burgeoning company, and why healthy, crunchy foods are important to him.
Let’s get to know you a little bit…
I was born in 1990, so I believe that makes me 31 right now. And I currently live in Austin, Texas!
I’m the founder and CEO of Catalina Crunch. We’re a food brand and we manufacture low sugar/low carb and delicious foods, like cookie sandwiches, cereal, and snacks. As the CEO, I get to do a little bit of everything. I’m really passionate about our products, so I spend a lot of time doing product development work in our formulation and recipe work. There’s a lot to do when you’re running a company.
You also have type 1 diabetes?
Yes, I was diagnosed with T1D when I was a senior in high school. I was getting ready to go off to college and I started to notice that I was more thirsty than usual.
At first, I didn’t really think much of it. I just thought I was dehydrated, but it gradually got worse and worse. Initially, I was drinking water in the water fountain in between classes. And then I couldn’t stay a whole class without having to go to the water fountain. I had about a 25-minute drive home from school, and I would first stop at a gas station and pick up a gallon jug of water and drink the entire thing by the time I got home.
I didn’t drink soda or juice back then and I think I was eating pretty well. It wasn’t like I was eating that much sugar or carbs… I was also exercising a lot, but this all went on for a couple of months.
Then, I got admitted to the University of Pennsylvania, which is where I went to college, and I was supposed to attend their new student orientation day with my parents. The night before, I was walking around and collapsed. My parents took me to the hospital and my blood sugar was around 900 mg/dL or so, and I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. I spent 2 to 3 days in the hospital, missed the entire new student orientation, and then flew back to California with a bunch of testing equipment.
How do you manage your T1D?
I use needles and pens, I don’t use a pump. I have a CGM [continuous glucose monitor], which I use sometimes, but I go on and off of it. Other times, I just like pricking my fingers and doing it the old school way.
I switch it up a little bit. I’ve found that the easiest thing with diabetes is to stick to a standard way of eating. When I’m not traveling, I usually follow a pretty standard way of eating, which helps with managing my blood sugar.
When I’m traveling, it’s more difficult, which, unfortunately, I travel a lot for my job. It becomes more challenging because when you’re in the airport or get somewhere late at night, the only option for food is fast food, and you don’t necessarily know what’s in the products you’re eating. That’s why I usually use my CGM when I travel so I can have a constant read on my blood sugar.
What inspired you to create Catalina Crunch?
When I was diagnosed, I realized that if I ate low carb, it made it a lot easier to manage my blood sugars. Now, this was back in 2010, and at the same time, I’d been diagnosed with epilepsy, and my doctor recommended trying out a keto eating regimen to reduce the incidence of seizures.
I found that keto is great for diabetes, so I stuck with it, but there weren’t a lot of low carb, low sugar options in the grocery store. I was stuck to eating nuts and deli meats, but I missed all of the American “classics,” like Coco Puffs, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Oreos, Smuckers, so on. I couldn’t eat a lot of that because of the high carb and sugar counts.
I especially missed the crunch that those foods have. I found myself eating a lot of mushy cheese and meats, which doesn’t give you a lot of crunch. That’s what ultimately led me to start the company. I asked, “Why can’t there be a line of really great tasting, low carb/low sugar snacks and cereals? Something that tastes great but won’t spike your blood sugar?”
Did you have a background in food science or preparation?
None whatsoever, but I decided to go for it. I taught myself everything as I was going along; it was a learning process. I studied science and math in college and was very drawn to that, which helped a lot with recipe work.
Now, in seeing the industry and how it operates, I think our key to success is the volume of work that I did in the early days. We really wanted to make sure that it was as great as it could possibly be. For example, I had tested hundreds of different vanilla extracts to find just the right one, rather than just kind of picking a standard vanilla extract and using that for our product.
There’s a lot of work that took a long time, but it paid off in our great-tasting products.
What went into creating your first recipe and product?
I loved eating Coco Puffs growing up and I loved eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch, so I immediately started working on chocolate and cinnamon-flavored products. Things I thought lots of folks like. Something about cinnamon for breakfast just works really well, and it goes really well with sweet things, too, and then everyone likes chocolate.
I actually first started by making cereal in my kitchen in my own apartment. Initially, I was making it for and eating it myself, I hadn’t even considered starting a food business. I had friends who got interested in it. They were complaining to me with the same complaints I had, like, “I’m trying to eat low carb/low sugar, but now I’m just eating eggs every day for breakfast, and I’m getting bored.”
That’s when I started introducing them to my cereal and giving it to them in Ziploc baggies, and they got really interested in that. I would make it on the weekends and then give it out to my friends during the week. One day, one of my friends told me, “You know you could actually turn this into a business.” And that’s eventually what I ended up doing.
How did you transition from cereals to other foods?
I was always hoping to eventually launch more products because it’s not just cereal that lacks low carb and low sugar options. But, you can’t launch too many things at once, then you don’t make anything that’s good, you just have a whole bunch of mediocre stuff.
We started with the cereal, and that was 3 years of just selling cereal because we had to figure out how to really make it taste great. We’ve had to scale up our volumes, which was quite a process, and now that we’ve really ramped that up and have a whole team at our plant, it helps us make those products and I’ve had more time to focus on other things.
Wasn’t there a lot of competition?
When we started, no, we were the only ones making a product like this.
Now, there are certainly other competitors and big companies that have launched similar products so there’s a lot of competition now, which is good to see. Because lots of competition means lots of options for consumers.
I wish I’d had all of these options back in 2010 when I was diagnosed, but I didn’t then. That’s why we have a different situation today. There’s no better feeling than filling a need in the market that doesn’t exist. Meeting that need yourself and then watching them kind of copy you after the fact has been exciting to see.
What makes your flavors and textures different?
One is we have it right in our name, “crunch.” We have the crunchiest cereal on the market. I was really adamant about that because of how important I feel like the crunch is to the eating experience. I got so sick of eating mushy things, like cheese and meat. We have the crunchiest of all the cereals now, which I see as a point of pride for us.
We’ve also done a really good job with making the products taste great aside from the crunch. We really worked on making the flavors taste really good. Folks feel excited about eating our cereals, it’s not something they have to eat, but something that they choose to eat because they really want to eat it.
What kind of feedback have you received from the diabetes community?
We have several folks on our team that are also T1D.
We’re trying to make our cereal for everyone because we believe that eating low carb, low sugar is the future. We believe that’s the way that everyone should eat, not just diabetics, but it’s especially important for diabetics and they can more easily see the benefits because they watch their blood sugar all the time. Whereas people that don’t have T1D can get away with more changes to what they eat and not be as aware of the effect on the body.
When you start a company, you end up starting with a group of people that are super passionate initially. I had a lot of people emailing me saying, “I’m diabetic, too, thank you so much for making the cereal.” It’s great to see fellow diabetics helping each other out.
There were other niches as well, like folks who were having brain surgery or brain-related diseases, and others with IBS or IBD problems who were looking to avoid sugar. A lot of our early customers were from those communities. A lot of them have stayed with us, and I’m very grateful for that.
That’s been inspiring to see, especially now, as we sell in all major grocery stores. We have tens of millions of customers at this point, but I do try to keep in mind that group of diabetics who were supporting the brand in the early days.
What advice would you give about living and eating well to other T1Ds?
Eating a low sugar, low carb lifestyle makes it easier with T1D. The fewer carbs you eat, makes it easier to manage your blood sugar and, in turn, save money. Also, making sure that you’re consistent with your exercise as well. Consistency is really key with diabetes. You get into a groove that works well for you, whereas if you’re making changes all the time, it becomes really difficult.
What are the main ingredients?
At the center of all their products, Catalina Crunch uses “Catalina Flour,” a mix of pea protein, potato fiber, corn fiber, chicory root fiber, and guar gum. Catalina Flour helps to keep the carb amounts low, but still create delicious snacks and cereals. Depending on what you are eating, their products also may feature tapioca flour, sunflower oil, baking powder, salt, stevia extract, among others.
How many carbs per serving?
- Cereal: 14 grams of carb/serving (1/2 cup)
- Cookies: 11 g of carb/serving (2 cookies)
What makes them better than other keto offerings?
It’s right in the name, Catalina Crunch. The company promises the crunchiest keto products on the market.
What are T1D customers saying about blood sugar effects?
Overall, people with diabetes have reported favorable blood sugars after eating Catalina Crunch. “We’ve had some loyal diabetes customers from the start,” says Kaliannan. “They really enjoy our products because they realized it wasn’t causing huge spikes in their blood sugar and they didn’t have to take a lot of insulin to enjoy it.”
What’s the cost?
One case (4 packs of cereal or cookies, or 5 packs of snack mixes) cost $49. On the Catalina Crunch website, you can also order a subscription service to save 20 percent.
Where to buy?
Catalina Crunch’s cereals, cookies, and snacks are available in 15,000+ stores nationwide. You can use their store locator tool to find a store near you.
You can also purchase their products directly on their website or from Amazon.