How to Turn Specialty Foods Into Gold

Specialty foods is a unique but wide-ranging category with one important commonality: high margins.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

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According to Boyd, this strategy can involve something as simple as a new flavor or color, or it may involve a complex set of performance criteria that, taken together, allow the manufacturer to successfully make a specialty food. As an example, he points to the constant pressure to formulate all-natural and organic ingredients that perform comparably to traditional ingredients that do not meet these more stringent requirements.

"The limited array of compliant ingredients, especially functional ingredients like emulsifiers and processing aides, can make this a daunting challenge," admits Boyd. "Overcoming such limitations requires not simply perseverance but also a substantial understanding of processing and ingredient technology—plus the occasional spark of inspiration."

Drink 'em if you got 'em
Beverages are a category of specialty foods that has grown rapidly in recent years. There have been more and more innovative varieties, but one thing many of the non-clear beverages have in common is soy. As a beverage ingredient, soy has skyrocketed in popularity due in no small part to its versatility and its reputation as a functional food.

"Soy protein has a lot going for it from both a health and environmental perspective, the latter of which is becoming increasingly important with consumers," says Mark Messina,a soy expert and adjunct associate professor at Loma Linda University.

"Our customer base continues to grow in response to our significant portfolio of liquid and dry soy protein ingredients," says Scott Desing, vice president at Devansoy Inc. (www.devansoy.com), Carroll, Iowa.

Devansoy offers both organic and conventional, non-GMO varieties of soy protein suited to a comprehensive category of customers that produce private label soy milk, frozen desserts, healthy cereals and baked goods. "Our development of beverage prototypes, such as Indulgent Soy and 4 Soy, have been a launch-pad for specialty product partnerships between Devansoy and a number of clients," Desing adds.

In the process of creating new and unique dairy alternative beverages, one technical problem arises: If comparable calcium levels are to be reached, there's a risk of calcium sedimentation, which can lead to compromised taste and texture. Gadot Biochemical Industries Ltd. (www.gadotbio.com), Haifa Bay, Israel, developed its Gadocal K form of calcium to enable fortification of soy milk and enrichment of milk drinks with the important mineral.

A patented calcium-potassium citrate compound, Gadocal K is specifically designed for the fortification of dairy alternative beverages so they can be formulated without the addition of any stabilizers. Still, the highly bioavailable form of calcium produces no coagulation of proteins yet can achieve a stable calcium suspension at up to 30 percent of the RDA. This is crucial as one of the main competitive points of dairy versus non-dairy beverages becomes the calcium content.

Pizza, pizza
Two of the top five categories of specialty foods most purchased last year included cheese and pizza. "We worked with a number of artisan cheese makers to create our consumer line of artisan blend cheeses," says Barbara Gannon, vice president of corporate communications and government relations for Sargento Foods Inc. (www.sargento.com), Plymouth, Wis.

Sargento Artisan Swiss

Sargento says specialty cheese by blending its Swiss cheese with the gruyere of another cheese maker, Roth Kase.

"Artisan cheese makers craft their product using traditional cheese-making techniques and fresh ingredients often unique to their particular growing region," she continues. "This gives their products unique, distinctive, robust flavor profiles. We work with the cheese makers to co-develop products ensuring customer expectations are consistently met regarding flavor, melting characteristics, overall quality and food safety. Our team includes R&D scientists, chefs, sensory evaluation and cheese makers; quality managers including cheese graders and procurement specialists. We're also able to contribute our years of packaging innovation expertise, so that end products get to customers and consumers in a user-friendly container."

So what should we look for in specialty food trends of the future? If the health concerns of consumers continue to make inroads, items such as highly functional beverages, exotic ingredients with nutraceutical adjuncts and vitamin-fortified baked snacks consumers can access and enjoy quickly and conveniently, yet still get 100 percent of essential vitamins and minerals every morning.

To this end, baked goods that have gourmet flair will be a typical example. That was the idea driving Vitalicious Inc., (www.vitalicious.com), New York, maker of innovative "vital and delicious" baked goods. First to market with 100-calorie servings, Vitalicious focused as its specialty on a simple mission: to make healthy and delicious baked goods fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, with no sacrifice of flavor or texture — "hidden health," if you will.

The company posts as its long-term mission a continuing desire to "create baked goods that are healthy in many more ways than just being vitamin-enriched -- gourmet-tasting baked goods that provide high fiber, low calories, or without any fat, as well as crucial omega-3 fatty acids and protein."

In the past few years, the number of Americans who are grabbing a snack or a meal on the run is surging. While some may see this as having changed the paradigm for creating true specialty products, they admit there is a need for healthy alternatives that re-imagine a widening class of specialty products. The merging of the two concepts has only served to broaden both categories of foods and beverages into the realm that of "special." And that's a good thing.

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