Aug 27, 2012 • By

It’s not nutritious unless people eat it

The relationship food companies have with their consumers goes beyond traditional parameters. Our consumers trust us with the food they put in their bodies, the food that nourishes and fuels them throughout the day. This gives us a unique connection to our consumers that we take very seriously.

My team’s goal at General Mills is to provide people with nutritious foods that – when combined with an active lifestyle – can help them live healthier lives.

Part of this commitment is to continuously improve the health profile of our existing products as well as introduce innovative, new products. These improvements are strongly tied to what consumers tell us: healthy, great-tasting foods that fit their lifestyles. However, they also tell us that they won’t compromise on taste. So, the guiding principle behind all of our health improvements is the maxim: “It’s not nutritious unless people eat it.”

Health Improvements: Targeting Sugar, Sodium and Whole Grain

We first began tracking and quantifying health improvements in 2005. Between 2005 and 2012, the company has improved the health profile of 68 percent of its U.S. retail sales volume. These improvements have included measures like adding whole grains, fiber and calcium, and reducing calories, sugar, sodium and trans fats.

As the head of the General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition, part of my role is to ensure we achieve our ambitious goals. Here are some examples of our advancements:

Cereal improvements: General Mills continues to reduce sugar and sodium in cereal while adding whole grain. Since 2007, we’ve lowered sugar levels in our kid cereals by more than 14 percent on average, with some reduced as much as 28 percent. We’ve committed to reducing sugar to single digits in cereals advertised to children and we’re now at 10 grams of sugar or less per serving, with some at 9 grams. We’ve also reduced sodium by 10 percent across our cereal portfolio since 2008 while continuing to add whole grain.

Too few of us are getting the vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber available through whole grain. So, in 2012, we announced a multi-year reformulation milestone that made whole grain the first ingredient in all Big G cereals. Every General Mills Big G cereal contains at least nine grams of whole grain per serving, and more than 20 General Mills cereals out of approximately 50 deliver 16 grams or more.

•Yogurt improvements: General Mills just announced exciting news about our Yoplait line of products. In Fiscal 2013, we are bringing a lot of innovation to the yogurt sector with the launch of 40 new Yoplait products this year. The biggest launch is Yoplait Greek 100, a yogurt that delivers all of the benefits of Greek yogurt – thick and creamy texture and two times the protein of regular yogurt – in 100 calories. The product’s package carries an endorsement from Weight Watchers with a PointsPlus value of two per serving. It will debut in stores across the U.S. in coming months. Yoplait Simplait is another great new product made with six simple, all-natural ingredients and available in four flavors.

•Frozen vegetable innovation: Most Americans say they would like to eat another serving of vegetables each day, preferably with a meal at home. One hurdle they cite, however, is that “plain vegetables are boring,” and more elaborate vegetable dishes take time to prepare. So, we’ve launched six flavors of Green Giant easy-to-prepare Seasoned Steamers, which are frozen vegetables that feature unique seasoning blends such as rosemary, oregano, honey and parsley.

It’s important to note, however, that these health improvements and new healthful products could not have been brought to market without significant innovation and technical effort. Specifically, with the health reformulations, there are major technical hurdles involved given the function each ingredient plays in a recipe.

For example, sugar and sodium (two limiters that we are working to decrease in our products) play an integral functional role in products beyond just providing a taste benefit. It’s not as simple as just using less sugar or less sodium in our recipes. Suitable alternatives have to be found to maintain the product’s integrity and in the case of sodium, food safety as well.

For example:

•Sugar: Most people associate sugar with bringing sweetness to food. However, you might be surprised to know that sugar also contributes to bulk and crispiness, and imparts a toasty brown look to food. It’s critical too in staving off sogginess in cereal. In our efforts to reduce sugar in our cereal, adding in whole grain to replace the bulk that is lost when the sugar is removed has played a significant role. We’ve also moved some of the remaining sugar to the outside of the cereal so though there is less sugar overall, the remaining sugar is still perceived by the taste buds.

•Sodium: Beyond adding flavor, sodium helps food stay crisp and whole, it aids in leavening, and is used as a preservative to inhibit the growth of things like mold and bacteria that could make us sick. If we reduce sodium too quickly, consumers tend to either leave the brand or add more salt themselves. As with sugar, however, we are working to reduce sodium in many of our products by adjusting the placement of the sodium as well as adding additional spices to ensure no flavor is lost when the sodium is decreased.

The True Test – Consumer Acceptance

And, of course, as with every success story, there are the healthy products we launched with great enthusiasm, only to be rejected by consumers for lack of great taste, convenience, or simply lack of interest. Just because it’s a healthy option doesn’t mean consumers will choose it for their families.

•Apple Crisps: Apple Crisps were launched as a healthy, convenient, portable and tasty snack option providing a serving of fruit. But consumers did not share our enthusiasm, and the product did not do well. Consumers bought the crisps once but didn’t find the taste to be pleasing enough to buy them again.

•Yogurt and Snack Bars with Plant Sterols: Plant sterols have been clinically proven to lower serum cholesterol and sterol-containing products are quite popular in Europe. Knowing that, we created a snack bar and yogurt product that contained plant sterols. While these products could have played a positive role in the diet of any adult, particularly if they had high cholesterol, these products didn’t succeed either. One possible reason: not much is known about plant sterols and their benefits weren’t yet well known by consumers.

Responsibility: A Two-Way Street Between Consumers and Brands

This all brings us back to our guiding principle, “It’s not nutritious unless people eat it.”

The principle works well to remind us that taste and nutrition must go hand in hand. What we’ve learned is that we need to carefully consider what consumers will accept as we introduce new products and as we reformulate our mainstay products.

Our solution: to help ease consumer acceptance, make small, incremental health improvements over time. So, sometimes we announce these changes prominently on the front of our packages and at other times the changes are simply reflected in the nutrition facts panel and we do not call special attention to the fact that we are making a change on the front of the package.

We refer to the latter as “stealth health.”

General Mills’ Stealth Health Approach

With a stealth health approach, we recognize that sometimes consumers judge a product to be less appealing after hearing that the sodium or the sugar has been reduced. We know from nearly 150 years in the food industry that taste will always lead the way.

Consumers want healthy options, but if they perceive too much of a taste tradeoff, many will try the product once, but hesitate to go back to it again. So, small incremental changes can help make our products healthier over time while still delivering on the taste our loyal consumers expect.

Editor’s note: This post first appeared on CSRwire.