What people want



As consumers’ preferences change, Cargill is launching new products that satisfy their wishes

By Tom Vandyck

“What’s in my food, where does it come from and is it good for me?” These are questions more and more people ask when they roam the supermarket aisles.

They’re not just looking to buy the cheapest, most convenient products. Instead, they give careful consideration to what’s in their food, how it was produced and if it meets their definition of “healthy.”

Consequently, revenues for organic, gluten-free and non-GMO foods are up sharply, and the number of new products that carry such claims on their packages keeps growing accordingly. Meanwhile, many of the old mainstays are struggling.

“In large part, this is about lifestyle, values and what people decide is healthier for them,” said Cargill executive vice president and food and bio-industrial ingredients leader Frank van Lierde. “It’s our job to deliver ingredients and help our customers create products that are in line with consumers’ changing demands.”

Van Lierde says that while Cargill isn’t straying from its foundational food ingredients businesses, it is looking to invest more in specialty products with high growth potential and attractive margins. It isn’t alone.

“We have conducted studies across food companies, restaurants, supermarkets and convenience stores, and the very clear trend is that growth is coming from lower-calorie, ‘better for you’ foods,” said former food company executive Hank Cardello, a senior fellow and director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative at the Washington-based non-partisan think tank The Hudson Institute and author of Stuffed: An Insiders’ Look at Who’s (Really) Making America Fat.

“If you want to grow, you want to be in that space,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you have to abandon what you’re currently selling, but if you don’t get involved, you leave growth on the table.”

According to Cargill’s vice president of food technology Kerr Dow, consumers are mostly looking for transparency. “They want to see simple labels — ingredients that are familiar, recognizable and expected. That’s not a sudden change. It has been gradually evolving over time. With each passing year, it becomes less of a fad and more of a longer-term trend.”

To complicate matters, consumer preferences aren’t always rational. For example, many people favor gluten-free products even if they haven’t been diagnosed with gluten intolerance. And even though study after study confirms that foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are safe, much of the public still seeks to avoid GMOs.

“Cargill’s approach has been evolving along with the marketplace,” said Dow. “Where we might have waved off objections that didn’t square up with the science in the past, we now recognize that values and perceived health benefits help determine consumer decisions and, therefore, our customers’ needs.”

The company’s portfolio is adapting accordingly.

“The point is, we need to become better known for products that address different consumer preferences,” said Dow. “We could say, there’s no scientific, food safety or nutritional basis for non-GMO products, and they cost more, so why would we make them? The simple answer is: it’s what a growing number of people want.”

According to Cardello, a company like Cargill would be remiss if it didn’t make the most of the opportunity. “The profit motive is aligned with the kinds of products that are healthier, and that’s something you don’t see too often,” he says. “I view it as the classic win-win situation. If Cargill could take the lead on advancing better-for-you versions of the products that people already like, it would be good for you and good for your customers.”

Read on to learn about a few ways that Cargill is rising to the challenge.

The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are widely known. In adults, they may support intestinal and cardiovascular health. In children, they are thought to help brain formation. The trick is: how do you get enough of them?

Omega-3s are usually found in fish, which is why an estimated 35 percent of Americans take fish oil pills. Now, Cargill is offering IngreVita™ canola oil infused with omega-3s from fish.

“Consumers tell us they are looking for added nutrition in the foods they buy, and there is a growing awareness of the benefits of omega-3s,” said Kristine Sanschagrin, marketing manager for Specialty Seeds & Oils at Cargill. “IngreVita is perfect for manufacturers looking to include long-chain omega-3s in their food and beverage formulations.”

As an added benefit to food makers, the oil has a 12-month shelf life and it is sensory neutral, which means it doesn’t taste or smell like fish. Now customers can boost the omega-3 content in their products just by switching up their canola oil.

The next step is already in the works. At Cargill’s specialty seed innovation lab in Fort Collins, Colorado, the team is developing a canola variety that has the omega-3 built right in from the start — no fish required.

Honey is hot these days. As shoppers look for ingredients they recognize, its popularity as a natural sweetener is on the upswing. According to the USDA, demand for honey in the U.S. has gone up by 53 percent over the last five years. But honey also finds itself at the somewhat uncomfortable intersection of two nutrition trends. While it’s a familiar product that’s easy to explain, it also packs about 17 grams of sugar per tablespoon.

Cargill’s Truvia® Nectar provides a sweet solution. Blended with stevia leaf extract, honey and cane sugar, it has 50 percent fewer calories per serving than sugar. Stevia extract, made from the leaves of the stevia plant, is a sweetener that is 250 times stronger than sugar, yet it carries zero calories. That means it only takes half as much Truvia® Nectar Stevia Sweetener Blend with Honey to achieve the same sweetness as honey.

“If your recipe calls for two tablespoons of honey, you can achieve the same sweetness with one tablespoon of Truvia Nectar,” said AJ Aumock, global marketing lead for the Truvia® brand. “The result will be just as sweet, but you’ll save yourself half the sugar.”

Truvia® Nectar can be used anywhere honey is used: in hot and cold coffee and tea; with fruit, yogurt and oatmeal; in smoothies, marinades and dressings; and in muffins, biscuits and all kinds of other baked goods. It’s available to U.S. consumers for purchase at select supermarkets and Target.

Lots of people want less sugar in their food. At the same time, they want their food to taste the same. The key to successful reduced-sugar products is to keep the sweetness, but ditch the calories.

Earlier this year, Cargill launched its latest next-generation sweetener, branded EverSweet™, which has no calories, doesn’t affect blood sugar levels and, in testing, was virtually indistinguishable from real sugar. Unlike some artificial sweeteners, which can have hints of sharpness, EverSweet™ sweetener has a “round” flavor and it doesn’t leave funny aftertastes. That makes it perfect for use in beverages, dairy products, smoothies and a host of other foods.

The sweetener gets its taste from Reb M and Reb D, natural compounds that give the stevia leaf its sweetness. While Reb M and Reb D aren’t new, they used to be hard to come by in sufficient quantities for large-scale applications, because the stevia plant only produces them in trace amounts. Then Cargill developed a fermentation process that uses yeast to produce the same molecules.

“We now have the ability to produce enough quantities of EverSweet to serve large food and beverage customers,” said David Henstrom, vice president of health ingredients at Cargill. “It’s perfect timing as more consumers want products that support a healthier lifestyle.”

As part of its commitment to reduce the use of human antibiotics in food production, Cargill is making strides in meat and poultry.

The company recently announced it will be eliminating 20 percent of shared-class antibiotics, those deemed important for both human and animal health, from its four U.S. beef cattle feed yards and four additional feed yards operated by Friona Industries, which supplies the company with cattle. The total number of cattle involved annually is approximately 1.2 million.

“Our decision took into consideration customer and consumer desires to help ensure the long-term medical effectiveness of antibiotics for both people and animals,” said John Keating, president of Cargill’s beef business. “We need to balance those desires with our commitment to ensure the health of animals raised for food, which contributes to the production of safer food.”

The move builds on Cargill’s 2014 decision to eliminate growth-promoting antibiotics from its U.S. turkey business, including the HoneySuckle White® and Shady Brook Farms® consumer brands. The company will continue to explore alternatives to antibiotics that could further reduce their use in meat and poultry.

“We have an obligation to ensure that sick animals do not suffer, and that we prevent them from becoming ill,” said Keating. “But we’ve listened to consumers and our customers, and we’re working with others in the industry to find ways to continue to reduce antibiotic use.”

On the feed side, Cargill is looking into using essential oils as a natural way to improve gut health in poultry. Research conducted at Cargill’s global Animal Nutrition Innovation Centers found essential oils may be a viable alternative to antibiotics in some cases.

Corn syrup is used as a sweetener and thickener in everything from caramels to pecan pie to chocolate. Most of the corn used to make it today is conventionally grown, meaning the plants have been genetically modified to resist pests and disease. However, as consumers seek products made without genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, food makers are increasingly looking for suppliers to deliver corn syrup that fits the bill.

That’s a tall order, given that 93 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified. But when a large confectionery customer asked Cargill to deliver non-GMO corn syrup for its chocolate products, the company delivered.

“Our challenge was to find enough non-GMO corn to fill the volumes the customer needed, at prices that wouldn’t break the bank for either of us, since non-GMO specialty crops command a premium on the market,” said Chris Simons, sweetener product line leader, Starches & Sweeteners North America.

Processing was a further complication, since non-GMO corn must be completely segregated from conventionally grown corn. A specialized European firm was hired as a third-party verifier.

Production started in relatively small volumes, but as word spread, more customers have asked for similar ingredients. “We were the first U.S. supplier of non-GMO corn syrup,” said Simons. “Now we’re in the position of balancing demand with the limited availability of non-GMO corn, but we see a lot of potential to grow.”

Published August 30, 2016