It’s been a while since suppliers filled 50-lb. sacks with commodity ingredients and left them on the loading docks of food processor customers. These days, the door next to the dock is open to ingredient suppliers who want to come into the lab or test kitchen, understand the unique needs of the R&D team and even participate in the formulation of a product under development.
There has never been a time when ingredients were so plentiful, but also so complex and even customized. Even "commodities" such as starch and salt are getting specialized. In many applications, individual ingredients have been replaced with "solution sets" of many ingredients, with their effects on each other carefully considered.
Despite the thinning of food R&D departments, more of their time and effort is being devoted to understanding the ingredients and solution sets that come in their back doors. Few companies want to abdicate control over ingredient selection and application. But there’s a lot of formulation knowledge in those ingredient companies, so why not put that knowledge to work?
"Suppliers have a wide range of expertise and personnel who can augment the skills in the packaged goods company’s organization," Victoria de la Huerga and Elizabeth Topp of Wild Flavors wrote in Accelerating New Food Product Design and Development. They suggest involving your suppliers (at least) at four key stages:
- Conceptual stage: Use suppliers as a sounding board and a place to get ideas.
- Scoping and definition stage: Suppliers can provide conceptual samples for use in qualitative work during the product definition phase.
- Product development and refinement stage: Many suppliers can provide formulation guidance for the complete product system, not just recommended levels for the ingredient they supply.
- Commercialization and launch: Supplier technical personnel can provide assistance with troubleshooting during production start-up or when issues occur during production. Suppliers often can identify a copacker to manufacture the product.
- Whether it’s the ingredient arm of one Top 10 food processor collaborating with the product development arm of another Top 10 firm, or a multibillion-dollar, multinational ingredient supplier helping out an entrepreneur, collaboration is the name of today’s product development game. Beyond just the cliched win-win, the collaborations we chronicle here are wins for consumers as well.
Size does and doesn’t matter
MolliCoolz LLC was pretty much a small development company with a product concept and a hurdle to overcome when it first met up with representatives of Cargill Inc. - at $75 billion in sales, one of the world’s largest privately held firms. MolliCoolz (www.mollicoolz.com) was developing cryogenically frozen ice cream beads, but wanted to ship and retail them at normal freezer temperatures instead of the -40°F special freezers that relegated a competitor (Dippin’ Dots) to sports and entertainment venues.
Keeping the ice cream beads intact and free-flowing at around 0°F would enable MolliCoolz to be shipped in conventional trucks and sold at convenience stores and even at grocery stores for home consumption. Bryan Freeman, president of the Stockton, Calif., company, learned Cargill (www.cargill.com), Wayzata, Minn., had not only some relevant ingredients but some patented technology that would make the product a reality.
Cargill not only helped reformulate the ice cream pellets but licensed some patented technology that enabled MolliCoolz to develop a unique spinoff product for foodservice. "This shows what can be accomplished when a small, entrepreneurial company teams with a large company like Cargill," says Freeman.
Cargill researchers improved the formulation with a unique mix of stabilizers and other ingredients, and the higher freezing temperature was achieved. In just a matter of months - in time for this past summer - the improved MolliCoolz product began rolling out to more than 12,000 grocery stores nationwide, as well as at water parks, arenas and sports stadiums.
They come in nine flavors, including a three-flavor banana split variety, packed four single-serve packages to a box. They’re also sold as single-serve packages at thousands of convenience stories, movie theaters and other venues. The ingredients used span the broad portfolio of Cargill’s offerings and include cocoa powder, stabilizers, sweeteners and flavors.
"The products have been very successful and it’s clear we will only expand distribution next year," says Freeman. That is, if he’s not too busy with the instant milk shake product. That one he never saw coming.
Years before meeting Freeman, Cargill scientists had developed intellectual property around a somewhat similar ice cream pellet for making milk shakes and smoothies. Cargill’s ice cream beads could be mixed with milk in a simple shaker to create a milk shake - without the use of a blender. The key was Cargill’s Daritech stabilizer product. But Cargill never commercialized the end product.
"Cargill had the advanced R&D and cryogenics experience that nobody else had, and MolliCoolz had a way to commercialize it," says Freeman. "Most importantly, the Cargill team ‘gets it’ – they understand our business, speak our language and were clearly committed to our success."
So after getting familiar with Freeman’s work in ice cream pellets, the big company licensed the technology to him and helped him further develop the milk shake pellets. Together they came up with a product initially aimed at foodservice, especially quick serve restaurants, that was easier to handle and mix than bulk ice cream and didn’t require the purchase of an ice cream mix dispenser.
Employees just scoop the beads into milk or pour in premeasured packets of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry beads – or a neutral base bead that enables the restaurant to create unique milk shake flavors. With simple mixing – even just shaking – a thick milk shake results.
The milk shake product won’t be in widespread distribution till next year, but Freeman thinks it will be a hit with small operators who cannot afford expensive milk shake-making equipment or locations that need to devote their labor to frying burgers or other things rather than mixing shakes. "I cannot emphasize enough the already strong commercial response to this product idea," Freeman says.
Currently, MolliCoolz and Cargill are working on bringing this milk shake concept to retail shelves, offering consumers a "milkshake in a cup" that needs only to be shaken to be enjoyed.
MolliCoolz and Cargill are putting their heads together to determine what’s next on the cryogenics horizon. They’re working on a new bead for MolliCoolz that will be put into soda, resulting in a creamy float. "We’re getting close," said Freeman. "Picture this – a local movie theater selling beads to consumers to pour into their soft drinks for an instant fizzy float. That’s exciting news for the category, and Cargill continues to help us push new ideas forward," he said.
A similar situation – a vendor-developed concept awaiting a food processor – is under way at Stash Tea Co. (www.stashtea.com), Tigard, Ore. It should result in an early 2008 launch of the first probiotics in hot tea, possibly the first probiotics in any nonrefrigerated application.
At March’s Natural Products West Show, President/CEO Thomas Lisicki met Mike Bush, vice president of business development at Ganeden Biotech (www.ganedenlabs.com), Mayfield Heights, Ohio. Ganeden had a patented probiotic - Ganeden BC30 (bacillus coagulans) - that is dormant when dried and kept at room temperature. But heat, such as the hot water used in making tea, activates the bacterium, which also survives digestion. Bush was looking for just such an application as Stash Tea.
"I had never thought of the idea, never even heard of the possibility of using probiotics in tea, until I met Mike," recalls Lisicki. "There were some technical issues to work through, especially how to handle the probiotic, and we had to work through labeling, was it natural and kosher, how to manufacture the product. I flew to their laboratory in Florida to get a better understanding of it.
"Early next year, Stash Probioteas should be on the market," Lisicki promises. The same probiotics may be in a cereal bar - if Tsudis Chocolate Inc. can find a retailer interested in its prototype product.
"As a contract manufacturer, we’re always trying to differentiate ourselves and offer our marketing company and their retailers a product that’s innovative," says Peter Tsudis, president/CEO of the Pittsburgh firm. He believes a cereal/nutrition bar with probiotic benefits will be a hit for the right marketer.
"Ganeden Biotech had to tell us how to process with the probiotic. We of course need to heat syrups and ingredients in our manufacturing process, but we couldn’t heat the probiotic above 95°F without activating it [and that would have been too early in the probiotic’s life]. Their people came out to Pittsburgh to get an understanding of our operations, and they helped us design the manufacturing process. Then we made a batch, sent it to their lab and, sure enough, enough of the bacteria survived to have a positive impact on your digestive system."
Now Tsudis is marketing the probiotic cereal bar to retailers and branded product marketers in hopes of a contract for next year.
Go to the grain experts
Tyson Food Service knows chicken, all right, but the R&D folks are not experts in breadings and batters. So when the goal was to develop chicken patties and nuggets with whole grain breading, they turned to an ingredient division of ConAgra Foods Inc.
"We wanted our school foodservice customers [to be able] to serve whole grain products," says Barbara Jirka, customer marketing manager for Tyson Food Service, (www.tyson.com/foodservice), Springdale, Ark. "Kids are discriminating customers, so the challenge was to find a nutritious whole grain product that has the taste, color and texture kids like."
Although Tyson started requesting whole grain flour very early on, some suppliers didn’t have one, or they didn’t have the quantities needed.