Gracie and Sophie Tyrell had a very personal reason for creating their healthy snack brand Squirrel Sisters with no sugar added.
The 2015 launch of their company was directly linked to Sophie’s diagnosis with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a potentially life-threatening heart condition, and her recovery from major heart surgery.
Sophie was an active 25-year-old who loved endurance runs and bike rides, trekking mountains in the UK and working hard in her marketing job, until a free health check at work in April 2012.
“I was told I had a potentially fatal heart condition, which makes your heart beat abnormally fast,” explains Sophie. “I was told I was a walking time bomb who could drop dead at any moment unless I had surgery. I was terrified.”
Sophie needed an operation to seal an extra valve in her heart but the first operation in May 2012 didn’t work and a second was scheduled for September 2012 — giving her body just a few months to recover. She was sofa-bound at the apartment she shared with younger sister Gracie, who had gone from flatmate to carer. Left with little to do or enjoy she turned to food to lift her spirits.
“But anything I ate that contained processed sugars made me really ill,” remembers Sophie. “Even the smallest bit of ketchup, which many people don’t know contains sugar, would put me back in bed. I would become miserable, so I knew I had to make a change to my diet if I wanted to get better.”
Even after her second surgery, Sophie was reacting so badly that it became clear that she could not tolerate any refined sugar in her diet. Gracie, who was determined to find her some treats that she could eat, she started experimenting with her own recipes that were healthy, tasty and naturally sweet.
“I spent a good few years researching ingredients and brands when creating treats for Sophie, and it was clear that there was a huge gap in the market for genuinely good for you, great tasting snacks,” says Gracie. “The majority of snacking brands add syrups or sugar alternatives to their products, such as date syrup and coconut sugar, which in some cases can be just as bad if not worse than refined sugar.”
So, what was Gracie cooking up in the kitchen? “I knew a lot about the benefits of natural ingredients because our mum has always been interested in health foods, and I knew I wanted to make something that tasted like a brownie because that was Sophie’s favorite treat,” she explains. “So I went on a mission to develop a brownie alternative that tasted amazing but had no added sugar and lots of other health benefits too. We get the sweetness in some of our snacks by using dates, which are much better and not metabolized in the same way as refined, processed or ‘free’ sugars. This is why we have been certified by Sugarwise, an international authority for sugar claims.”
The snacks, named after a blog the sisters kept together, have gone on to win numerous awards for their great taste.
“When I first tried the Cacao Brownie I couldn’t believe it, it was rich, smooth, chocolatey and the perfect sweetness,” recalls Sophie. “I felt really good after eating it too and full of energy. They satisfied my tastebuds as well as my health.”
The sisters decided to start selling the brownies through their blog in 2015 and haven’t looked back since, expanding to 2,000 retailers all over the UK and then moving into markets such as the US and now the UAE — all without any outside investment.
”During lockdown we received a lot of enquiries from retailers in the UAE who were looking for products that contained no added sugars and products that were suitable for those following a vegan and gluten-free lifestyle,” says Gracie. “The UAE was starting to crackdown on sugary foods due to rising obesity and diabetes stats. Covid also had a huge impact; health is now at the forefront of everyone’s minds.”
And they’re keen to spread the word about cutting out refined sugars.
“Sugar, in the quantities that it’s currently being eaten, is having a detrimental effect on our health,” explains Sophie. “There is evidence to suggest that sugar is the cause of many serious diseases including cancer,” explains Sophie. “Not only that but it is a contributing factor to diabetes and obesity. We are trying to make a difference by creating a healthy alternative, no added-sugar snacks that taste great so you won’t feel like you’re missing out if you swerve the usually sugary snacks that are piled high in most supermarkets.”
How to avoid sugary treats
Sisters Gracie and Sophie Tyrell are keen to spread the word about the negative impact sugar has on our bodies — and help educate people on ways to eat much less of it. Here are their top tips:
Don’t be tempted by the ‘offers’
When you visit a supermarket, ignore the bulk deals on processed, sugary foods, usually these promotions are run by major brands that have huge budgets and don’t care about consumer health. It’s hard to not to be tempted by such ridiculously good offers but remember that your health is an investment.
Look out for ‘healthy’ sugar alternatives
There are a lot of brands that claim they are healthy when in fact it’s just good marketing. Look out for the sugar alternatives such as coconut sugar, brown rice syrup and date syrup etc, these are still ‘free sugars’ and have no nutritional value. You can read more about the different types of sugar alternatives here.
Make your own
Making your own food gives you total control of what goes in it. We all have busy lives so preparation is key. We like to use Sunday night to make our lunches for the week, like big batches of soup and salads. Complement your meals with one of our sweet snacks.
Be aware of how you feel
Food plays such an important role in our mental and physical health. Once you see the impact that eating well and avoiding too much refined sugar has on your overall wellbeing you will be amazed and want to continue feeling this good.
• Squirrel Sisters treats are available at Spinneys now.
Devinder Bains is journalist of 20 years, working as a writer and editor on some of the biggest national magazines, newspapers and online publications in the UK and the Middle East. She specialises in women’s empowerment, fashion, race, culture and travel, and as a qualified personal trainer and nutrition coach, she is an expert in health and fitness. She splits her time between freelance writing and running Fit Squad DXB – Dubai’s largest personal training and wellness company.