Nalini Mehta seasons every batch of her Yoga Pops by hand — a personal touch but a labor-intensive process that she'll soon be forced to hand over, given her good fortune.

After five years of building demand for the popped water lily seed snacks, Mehta is hiring a manufacturer to expand into snack aisles nationwide.

"Move over, popcorn," she said.

Yoga Pops sit at the nexus of two trends: "better-for-you" snacking and a growing appetite among Western consumers for Ayurvedic-inspired products.

The flavors of Yoga Pops are meant to match consumers' temperaments, while the texture is similar to puffcorn. It speaks to the demand for all things "wellness" and builds on the ancient natural medicine system of Ayurveda that originated in India.

"Food is medicine, but it doesn't have to taste like it," Mehta said.

At $5.99 per bag, Yoga Pops are priced at a premium compared to popcorn. But even in the face of inflation, 55% of consumers are willing to pay more for food and drink that bring wellness benefits, according to a recent national survey from the Hartman Group.

"But they are more selective in the specific attributes they are willing to pay more for," Melissa Abbott, Hartman Group vice president of syndicated studies, said in a presentation last month.

A few years ago, Abbott said, Ayurveda was emerging as one of three major diet trends alongside keto and bulletproof.

"When we hear from consumers who are following this to even a minimal degree, they report they are experiencing benefits from paying attention to the types of ingredients they are including in their diet," she said.

Yoga Pops are the first consumer product from Route to India, which Mehta and her partner Anita Balakrishnan founded in 2018.

Struggling to gain traction, they were about to walk away from the whole enterprise in 2021. Supermarket chain Meijer approached them, though, to be featured in 260 stores for Pride month.

"That support took us from being in small mom-and-pop stores to the volume that helped us stay on course and grow our business," Mehta said.

Then last month Yoga Pops won a national Good Food Award.

"We're going to be the next BoomChickaPop," Mehta said. "That's the aspiration."

While Ayurveda has become a certifiable trend in Western food and drink over the past few years, it has a long history in its native India.

"Based on the idea that disease is due to an imbalance or stress in a person's consciousness, Ayurveda encourages certain lifestyle interventions and natural therapies to regain a balance between the body, mind, spirit, and the environment," according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. "Ayurveda can have positive effects when used as a complementary therapy."

Minneapolis is no stranger to the ages-old practice. Horst Rechelbacher founded Aveda here more than 40 years ago after being exposed to Ayurvedic traditions in India. More recently, Asavari Manvikar and Marcia Meredith co-founded the Minnesota Institute of Ayurveda here.

"It's hard to understand what to eat, what not to eat, what's creating inflammation in the body," Manvikar said. "Ayurveda is so big on a person's individualized approach. You have to understand your constitution, know the imbalances you are having, tune into the season and practice moderation."

Minnesota-based Panache brand of functional beverages relies on Ayurvedic principles.

"Ayurveda is the food science behind yoga," Ameeta Jaiswal-Dale, Panache's founder, said. "Yoga has become mainstream, but it is just one aspect of healthy living. Ayurveda is another arm to complement and supplement with food as medicine."

In the U.S., the rise of turmeric and ashwagandha has been one of the fastest-growing areas of Ayurvedic influence in food. But, Manvikar said, "Moderation is key."

Jaiswal-Dale, who also teaches finance at the University of St. Thomas, similarly cautions that Ayurvedic benefits come from a balance of minimally processed foods — not supplements.

"The 'pilling' of Ayurveda just doesn't work," she said. "There needs to be some effort and consciousness put into it."

On a recent afternoon at the Good Acre — a shared kitchen and farm resource in St. Paul — Mehta brewed chai tea while trays of popped water lily seeds roasted in the oven.

She says different types of people are going to find a better fit for themselves in the different flavors — curry, masala, truffle and caramel jaggery.

Mehta, who won a James Beard Foundation Women in Culinary Leadership grant in 2017 and has been teaching Ayurvedic cooking classes for 20 years, says Yoga Pops are just the beginning.

Once a co-manufacturer to produce Yoga Pops is found, Mehta has proposed branching into new food categories — chaga mushroom chai, soup and trail mixes — that all tie back to the principles of yoga and Ayurveda.

"People who have done yoga realize there is this other side," she said. "Yoga brings balance on the mat, food brings balance off the mat."