Ramadan fast inspires a Philly food business

Imran Posner is hoping the Ramadan Bar he developed with best friend, Farid Sanders, will become a fasting-prep staple for Muslims during Ramadan.

As a Muslim, Imran Posner heads into the monthlong observance of Ramadan with one primary professional objective: not to let his daily fasting from dawn to dusk make him too testy. No client wants a grouchy psychiatrist.

“Working with patients, I didn’t want to be moody or irritable when I’m trying to be caring and compassionate,” said Posner, 38, who has a private practice in Bala Cynwyd and works for a nonprofit mental-health organization.

Over the years, the Merion native has experimented with many foods during Ramadan, which begins the evening of May 26, to come up with an effective combination for the suhoor, the meal to be eaten before sunrise. He has usually settled for oatmeal and bananas, and sometimes a protein bar, to carry him through a day of fasting — and work — until the iftar, the substantial meal after sunset to break the fast.

Farid Sanders, Posner’s best friend, has spent years going through the same fasting-prep experimentation.

“Different cereals. Different foods. Different liquids. … High protein. High-fiber diets,” said Sanders, 39, who grew up in Philadelphia’s Overbrook Farms and now works in procurement for Johnson & Johnson in Switzerland. “The reality is just none of it really helped. I had certain periods I’d wake up in the morning and my stomach was already grumbling.”

The two started brainstorming five or six years ago, with a goal of making eating for the fast “more manageable … to sustain you for the day or not make it so burdensome,” Posner said. What they came up with is Ramadan Bar, a product specifically made for an admittedly narrow niche that they hope one day becomes a snack with broader appeal.

“I could see a pivot at some point to say the product Muslims are taking to help them survive Ramadan can help you in times when you don’t have time to eat,” Sanders said.

Ramadan Bar is a proprietary mix of complex and simple carbohydrates and soy protein, blended with chocolate, to help control blood sugar for up to nine hours. “Last the fast!” is its tagline. The key ingredient is uncooked cornstarch, which clinical studies on snack bars containing it (including the Ramadan Bar) have shown to be effective in sustaining blood-sugar levels in diabetics.

Each 150-calorie bar has a wrapper depicting a night and morning sky. A four-bar box sells for $9.99 at http://www.ramadanbar.com, where 90 percent of sales have originated since Posner and Sanders first produced their bars for Ramadan 2015. That year, 10,000 boxes sold; last year, 20,000. They marketed through online advertising and international magazines, and by attending food expos and industry conferences.

Their goal is to get on store shelves — so far they are in some Canadian Walmarts — and be the fasting-prep choice for 100,000 Muslims a year. Current users total about 1,000, said Posner and Sanders, whose company is Fajr Foods. With an estimated five million Muslims in the United States, “I think supermarkets are missing an opportunity to sell to a very food-focused group during that time of year,” said Posner, referring to the period of Ramadan.

But first things first. “We want to make sure we’re building and getting loyal consumers that are coming back every year,” Sanders said.

Millennials are likely to be the most receptive group, said Terry Crossan, a registered dietitian who teaches food chemistry at St. Joseph’s University and has counseled a number of clients with diabetes and eating disorders through the fasting rigors of Ramadan, which can throw off blood-sugar levels.

“I don’t think your older generation is going to buy into the tenets of a bar,” Crossan said. “I think an older population is going to look at this as a newfangled thing.”

As to the nutritional benefits of the Ramadan Bar, her review was mixed. With just one gram of dietary fiber and three grams of protein in the bar, Crossan said she isn’t totally confident its blood-sugar sustaining powers would last nine hours. Also of concern was the inclusion of maltitol syrup, a sugar alcohol that can potentially have a laxative effect, she said.

“Nothing is a big, red flag,” Crossan added, saying she likes that the bar is only 150 calories and low in fat (three grams) and saturated fat (1.5 grams). Another plus: The sodium content is just 80 milligrams. “That’s fantastic.”

Calling the bar market “unbelievable” with the number of new entrants trying to appeal to different tastes and needs — non-GMO for some, gluten-free for others, for instance — Crossan said consumers of all types are looking for simple and wholesome, with five ingredients or less, and with stevia instead of sugar.

“Every day I come in, somebody is calling with something new,” said Crossan, who plans to include the Ramadan Bar in her lessons next school year.

At Drexel University, Eram Albajri, 30, and Manal Naseeb, 31, both pursuing doctorates in nutrition, had not heard of the Ramadan Bar and said they would need more information before deciding to incorporate it in their diet for the upcoming Ramadan period.

“We have been doing this tradition for so long,” Albajri said. “We never thought bars. Why now?”