Innovating Gluten Freely

by Lucy Sutton
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Developing gluten-free products and living on such a restrictive diet both require overcoming challenges, but to address those challenges and make the lifestyle easier, General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, now shares its expertise with the gluten-free community through its website GlutenFreely.com. The site includes facts about celiac disease and the gluten-free diet in general, recipes, coupons and an online store.

As R&D director of General Mills’ Baking Division, Amy Abouelenein leads product development for the company’s Betty Crocker, Bisquick and Gold Medal brands, for which General Mills has developed gluten-free products. Ms. Abouelenein has worked at General Mills since 1989 and now leads the company’s R&D initiatives.

Maija Aittola currently serves as marketing manager for new ventures at General Mills. She has worked on brands such as Cheerios, Pillsbury and Nature Valley and helped build General Mills’ international businesses in Southeast Asia.

In this exclusive interview, Ms. Abouelenein and Ms. Aittola offer their advice on developing and marketing gluten-free products.

Baking & Snack: What are the Top 3 challenges of creating gluten-free products?

Amy Abouelenein: The top three challenges for creating gluten-free products are:

1. Replacing the functionality gluten performs in baked goods. For example, gluten is a protein that provides the structure, shape and height, and chewiness in bread. Without it, bread loaves are often small, with a dry and crumbly texture.

2. Managing the supply chain. This requires strong collaboration with ingredient vendors to ensure incoming ingredients meet our gluten-free requirements.

3. Managing costs to keep products affordable for consumers. Ingredient costs for gluten-free products are higher than those of ingredients widely used in mainstream products.

Often a combination of ingredients such as rice flour, potato starch, gums, etc., is required to replace the functionality of gluten. While we haven’t found the magic bullet that replaces wheat flour 1:1, ingredient suppliers are continuing to innovate in this space.

If a baking company that has never worked with gluten-free products wants to start, what should its first step be?

Maija Aittola: Manufacturing products that are gluten-free is complex and requires deep technical knowledge of food processing. To ensure that a food is gluten-free, a company must make certain the product does not contain ingredients that have gluten and must have measures in place to prevent cross contact of ingredients with gluten. Cross contact refers to potential mixing of grains during harvest, storage, transportation or manufacturing. The Food and Drug Administration’s proposed regulation defines “gluten free” as containing less than 20 parts per million (ppm) gluten. This is a very small amount. From operations to ingredient sourcing to marketing, it’s a commitment that involves the entire company, and at General Mills, we’re proud to have made that commitment with hundreds of our products.

How can a baking company come up with a gluten-free product that still tastes good?

Ms. Abouelenein: At General Mills, we have more than 90 years of baked goods expertise, including a rich understanding of consumer preferences in this area. We use our sensory expertise to, in essence, fingerprint these consumer preferences. We can then use these fingerprints to help us target the consumer’s preferred flavor, texture and appearance of a baked good such as brownies or cookies. We strive to create gluten-free products that meet these targets and deliver the taste consumers have come to expect from our Betty Crocker and Bisquick brands.

For instance, to achieve our innovative line of Betty Crocker gluten-free baking
products, we experimented with several technical levers including the formulation of the product and the consumer preparation directions. The R&D team leveraged the company’s expertise in dessert mix ingredients and preparation as well as consumer food testing while conducting more than 75 experiments and creating more than 1,000 samples.

Which products are the most challenging to translate to gluten-free?

Ms. Abouelenein: The most challenging products to make gluten-free are those that need to retain air to deliver on their structure such as breads and cakes. Denser baked goods, especially those with a fair amount of chocolate such as brownies, are less challenging.

What is the size of the market, both for gluten-intolerant consumers and for those who use a gluten-free diet for other reasons?

Ms. Aittola: Celiac disease affects about 1% of the US population, and currently there is no cure except to adhere to a gluten-free diet. These individuals have no other choice but to seek out gluten-free food options. In fact, one of the factors in General Mills’ decision to pursue gluten-free products was based on feedback from our customer relations department that noticed the growing number of consumer inquiries about food sensitivities that centered around whether items contained gluten.

Experts also believe there is a separate portion of the population that has a related and poorly understood condition known as gluten sensitivity, which was noted in a study by the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. Some people also seek out gluten-free products because they have family members with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity or because it’s part of a lifestyle choice. We know it’s not going away. Given the statistics from our medical partners, millions of individuals need to be gluten-free, and diet is currently the only way to manage that.

In recent years, as the dialogue around gluten has elevated. We believe consumers are becoming more aware of gluten. Obviously, our medical partners have played and continue to play a key role in helping to raise awareness and provide education around celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.

Which products that GlutenFreely.com distributes tend to be most popular?

Ms. Aittola: While we can’t share specific sales numbers, our assortment of General Mills gluten-free products, including the gluten-free Chex cereals, four varieties of Betty Crocker dessert mixes and gluten-free Bisquick are top-selling items because not only are they great-tasting but versatile. In fact, GlutenFreely.com has an assortment of recipes to create things like gluten-free Chex Mix snack options or an amazing cornbread recipe with Betty Crocker gluten-free yellow cake mix. And the Betty Crocker’s gluten-free brownie mix was named the “Best Brownie Overall” by Epicurious.com.

I noticed GlutenFreely.com has customer reviews available for its products. How influential are those?

Ms. Aittola: At General Mills, we’ve always valued customer feedback, and it’s an important part of fulfilling our company’s mission to nourish lives. For GlutenFreely.com, reviews and community feedback are as equally important, as we continue to find ways to help these consumers lead a gluten-free life.

Out of necessity, individuals who follow a gluten-free diet have developed a highly integrated online community. In fact, our Twitter and Facebook communities provide great insights into the gluten-free life and offer a chance for individuals to connect with one another to share recipes and other advice. Last December, GlutenFreely.com hosted its first Twitter party with the conversation about how to have a happy and gluten-free holiday season.

What kinds of requests do you get for products that may not already be available?

Ms. Aittola: We get many gluten-free product requests and review those opportunities on an ongoing basis so we can continue to help this group of consumers with their gluten-free diet.

In fact, this past fall, we heard from our Gluten-Free Advisory Board, a gluten-free group of employees and contractors. They wanted to make their favorite holiday casseroles but have yet to find a gluten-free recipe that can truly replicate the original ones. Fortunately, recipe innovation is the expertise of the Betty Crocker Kitchens, and we’ve made progress on that request.

As a leader in dough and baking mixes, as well as cereal grains and grain technologies, General Mills is in the unique position to combine our vast processing expertise with our deep scientific knowledge to address the challenges of creating gluten-free products. We’re proud to be innovators in this space with products like our Betty Crocker gluten-free dessert and baking mixes, which took more than 1,000 test batches to develop. We’re committed to the gluten-free market and will continue to provide innovative products that are great-tasting, affordable and easy-to-prepare.          

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