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.
When ConAgra Food Ingredients launched Ultragrain whole wheat flour in 2004, combining whole wheat nutrition with the taste and texture of refined flour, it began to change consumer perceptions about whole grains. The flour starts with a specially grown variety of white wheat with a sweeter, milder taste and lighter color than traditional red wheat.
It’s milled with a patent-pending process that retains whole grain nutrients such as fiber and protein, and has four to five times the levels of B vitamins (niacin and thiamin), potassium, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, fiber and increased antioxidants, including 12 times more vitamin E than refined white flour. But it accomplishes all that while still delivering the fine granulation and texture of white flours.
Breads were one thing, but a chicken-breading application was a new challenge. Tyson’s R&D team collaborated with ConAgra’s R&D team to refine this application of Ultragrain.
"They developed several formulations that could stand up to long holding times without drying out or getting too dark in color and without the whole grain dark specks, which kids don’t like," says Jirka. "It took some time to come up with the right formulation, because we use school commodity chicken. Ultragrain has an even color consistency, and the texture also met the kids’ approval."
Taste is still the most important factor for kids and affects their desire for the product, she emphasizes. "Our whole goal was to offer nutritious products that taste good to the students, meet the operator’s goal of serving nutritious products and our goal of taking the costs out of the supply chain." The result - Whole Grain Chicken Nuggets and Whole Grain Chicken Patties – "was a win for all three goals," Jirka says.
"We tested the product in three different school districts around the country, and it was tasted by more than 500 kids," says Jirka. "Served at school in their normal lunchtime setting, prepared and served by the staff just as they normally would, it received a 98 percent approval rating. We knew we had a win. This product, launched last year, has been a top seller. We sold so many pounds, it exceeded our expectations. Actually, it was a three-way win, for kids, operators and for us."
As for upcoming new products, Jirka says Tyson has had a request to develop a whole grain product with a hot a spicy flavor profile. "Ultragrain allows us to use flavor profiles to extend options for our customers."
"Kids who are in elementary school now will grow up accepting a more nutritious school lunch," she says. "By the time they get into high school, the whole profile of school lunches will change. I really hope that the emphasis on child obesity now will have a positive effect down the line."
It was pure coincidence, but the same week in late August that Dunkin’ Donuts announced it was switching to trans fat-free frying oil, so did Cork’s Old Fashioned Donuts. While Cork’s is just a one-store operation in Albany, Ore., the bakery runs all night producing donuts for local grocers, convenience stores, espresso shops and the hospital in its home town. The hospital was a large account the donut baker might have lost if it had not switched to trans fat-free frying oil.
Owner Paul Fraser recalls hearing concerns about trans fats at the International Baking Industry Exposition the year before the labeling requirement for packaged foods. When the rule went into effect (January 2006), people at his hospital account started to hint they would like trans fat-free donuts.
Fraser says he tried several low- or zero-trans oils. "The process of switching was trial and error. We tried a liquid shortening, but that gave us a soggy donut. Then we tried a palm oil, but the flavor was off and the mouthfeel wasn’t as pleasing. I kept asking my Bake Mark [supply company] rep, ‘Do you have something new yet?’ "
Eventually, that something was NovaLipid from Archer Daniels Midland Co. (www.admworld.com), Decatur, Ill. The NovaLipid line is a suite of zero- or low-trans fat options tailored to customers’ needs, including blended base stock oils, naturally stable oils, tropical oils and ADM’s enzyme interesterified shortenings and margarines. For Cork’s Donuts, a cottonseed-soybean oil blend was the solution. "We gave it a try and we’ve never looked back.
"Since switching to a trans-free donut fry, our customers have been commenting on how much better our donuts taste," he notes. "The neutral flavor also was a selling point. We don’t want anything influencing the flavor of our donuts."
Fraser says the products are less greasy. "The oil is light and the donuts don’t draw nearly as much shortening. We’re ordering 35 percent less oil." Plus, the cottonseed oil blend has a longer fry life and helps employees maintain a more consistent product quality – something Fraser describes as a "big challenge" in his business.
Just after the switch, Fraser landed his biggest wholesale account: a major hospital in Corvallis, Ore., he’s been calling on for several years. It was his move away from trans fats that sweetened the deal.
ADM worked a lot more intimately - and comprehensively - when a large U.S. bakery customer asked for help in creating a line of better-for-you versions of its existing well-known sweet snacks. Although ADM has helped scores of customers with product formulation challenges, a chance to start from scratch on developing an entire line was an unprecedented prospect and one the company’s R&D people were eager to tackle.
ADM put on the task its bakery application experts, who are familiar with the firm’s hundreds of ingredients. High on the list were ingredients with the potential to impact the customer’s enhanced health and wellness profile while remaining compatible with the product’s taste, texture, visual appeal and consistency. Attention also had to be paid to how ingredients work together, the impact on the label and affordability. In addition, ADM wanted to make certain the proposed concepts would meet Kosher and Pareve food requirements.
Testing combinations of ingredients such as cocoa, specialty sweeteners, enrichments, flour, emulsifiers, wheat starches and wheat protein isolates, ADM’s application scientists were able to achieve the "looks like, tastes like" quality for the products and presented finished product prototypes for the customer.
But could the products withstand the rigors of the production line? Since time to market was an essential ingredient and production lines were busy during the day, the first pilot batch was produced at the bakery’s facility at 2 a.m. Line employees were no doubt surprised to see ADM’s bakery application experts alongside at the plant to check the equipment, taste the results and offer feedback for optimal results.
Last year, the line of no-sugar added and low-fat goods debuted, and the products fared so well that additional better-for-you sweet snacks are on the drawing board for the bakery and ADM.