As appearing in| March, 2023 | by Mark Gokavi

Ph.D. candidate Bri Risk, a dietician, chef and business owner, lives nutrition, food science and athletics

Runner. Cyclist. Outdoor adventure enthusiast. Bri Risk is all of these and is dependent upon proper nutrition to perform at her best. There was an obvious gap in food products available to fuel athletes, so Birota Foods was born.

Risk, a Colorado State University Ph.D. candidate in the College of Health and Human Sciences, has long been passionate about nutrition and physiology.

She started her education at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY after working her way through the food service industry in her younger years.

“I’ve been working in commercial kitchens since I was a little tyke,” Risk said. “I mean, I have very fond memories of getting screamed at by French chefs that I was moving too slow or not executing proficiently. These seemingly harsh interactions were instrumental in developing my work ethic and attention to detail that spurred me to continue being passionate about food.”

After receiving an associate’s degree in baking and pastry, Risk continued to evolve working through multiple facets of the food industry including various positions in restaurants, hotels, catering, and management. She worked as a private chef focusing on specialized diets and spearheaded the research and development department of a mid-sized food manufacturer.

Tripling down

The self-identified “disgusting multitasker” doubled, or more accurately, tripled down. Risk graduated for the first time from CSU in 2012 with a triple concentration major in food science, dietetics, and nutritional science.

Afterward, Risk did a clinical dietetic internship and gained further valuable experience under an integrative and functional mediation physician before opening her own dietetic practice with eventual board certification in sports dietetics working with athletes and those with autoimmune issues. She and another sports dietitian co-founded Birota Foods to create tasty, functional food products for athletes and the general public. Birota Foods was founded in 2017.

“Our cocoa was the brainchild of the other co-owner after he was out on his bicycle on a cold day. He was craving hot cocoa to warm his soul, but also wanted something that wasn’t packed with sugar and would give his body reprieve after such a tough ride,” Risk said. “So the basis of each and every Birota Foods product is to have a functional benefit. For instance, our Smart Cocoa and Smart Creamer options can raise endogenous ketone concentrations to help the body adapt to using fat as a fuel source. We continue to test our products with the ultimate goal of giving our customers steady energy throughout the day.”

Risk has been active in sports such as ballet, swimming, dressage, volleyball, cycling, weight lifting, rock climbing, martial arts, trail running, Crossfit, freestyle snowboarding, and Ironman triathlon. By the end of 2024, she’ll likely have her Ph.D. in exploring the link between the microbiome and cardiovascular disease. Her lab’s research received an honorable mention during the 2022  graduate student showcase and she was featured here.

“I am nutrition. I am food science. I am athletics,” Risk said about how she answers when someone asks what she does for a living. “That is who I am. That is what I do. That is what I breathe. I don’t have this secret innate desire to be something else. Nutrition is what I do. So when someone asks me, ‘What do you do with your life?’ it’s really hard for me to answer that because I do all of it, right? It’s really ingrained into my spirit.”

Birota’s product line

“I’m really, really picky about our ingredients,” she said. “There are so many potentially harmful additives used in food manufacturing that do not fit into Birota’s trajectory and mission statement. It took over a year to source the right ingredients for Smart Cocoa, and 90% of ingredients did not initially meet standards to make it to formulation testing. We have a zero-tolerance policy for any ingredient that could cause harm.”

Birota’s answer to the packet-and-marshmallow brands is Smart Cocoa, which is touted as including “great tasting, functional ingredients that support metabolic flexibility, mental focus, and steady energy levels throughout the day.

The heavy chocolate aroma comes from a blend of red and black cocoa with a hit of cinnamon to elevate the senses overlaying a robust backbone of coconut powder for a rich and creamy mouthfeel. The functional benefit derives from caprylic acid MCT(medium-chain triglyceride) oil and D-ribose which are quickly absorbed by the body as direct sources of energy. There are three different options including an unsweetened version, the original with a hint of stevia, and a “Kick” version spiked with chile powder, orange peel, and caffeine upcycled from coffeeberry fruit. If coffee is more of a preference, Birota also offers a Vegan creamer with the same functional benefits as the Smart Cocoas.

To round out the breakfast routine, Birota offers a seed-based no-oat, oatmeal touted as Smart Noatmeal. With 14 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber, “It’s going to stick to your ribs. A bowl of instant oatmeal may only keep you full for about an hour in which you are quickly rummaging through the cabinets looking for something else to qualm the hunger pains. This can cause an energy roller coaster throughout the day of energy spikes and crashes.” Smart Noatmeal is designed to address energy fluctuations. It contains D-ribose to sweeten (which decreases blood sugar vs spiking as seen in traditional sweeteners) and is made without the top 8 allergens to be as approachable as possible to a general audience.

Moving forward

Risk said that their target audience is anyone who is interested in fueling their body well. Birota may have started as an athletic food line, but is a great option for anybody. All of Birota’s current products are compliant with Vegan, paleo, keto and other diets alike. Risk said that she has a chai tea formulation on the back burner that aids in blood circulation with reduction in muscle fatigue that will hopefully launch in the next year.

“I think there is a gap between knowing nutrition, knowing physiology and knowing food. And if you can bring all those gathered together, you can create something really powerful to reach more people. That is where I started, to know the food, to know the body.“  Risk said that her return to school, the pandemic and a plan to take over full operations at Birota have stalled the company’s growth, but that education takes precedence and the company can still reach the community with the current product offerings.  Lux Life Magazine named Birota Foods the best-tasting cocoa and creamer company in Colorado. Risk said it was an honor to receive the nomination, as it is an acknowledgment that they are fighting the good fight and customers enjoy Birota’s products.

Available at Lucky’s, The Howling Cow Cafe

Just as she likes to find local ingredient sources, she said the Fort Collins business community is incredibly supportive of start-ups. Lucky’s Market off College Avenue has been continually supportive of selling Smart Cocoa and four flavors of Smart Noatmeal. “They really go out of their way to help us reach a broader audience.”

In addition, the Howling Cow Cafe located at Morning Fresh Dairy in Bellvue serves up Smart Cocoa fresh to customers. Ask for it latte style with a layer of frothed milk on top while sitting outside enjoying the views.

Risk hasn’t picked a career path after her next graduation, but she plans to be open to possibilities to see where the adventure takes her.

“I am always looking for the next step. Because at the end of the day, for me, I  think about why are you here? What are you trying to get at? What really makes you satisfied?” she asked. “I think it boils down to the hope that my career will have a positive impact on society. If I can improve someone’s life, however small, then that little spark can help drive better well-being that manifests to a healthier society.”

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.