Let’s make a really sticky cinnamon bun! What about naan bread? ‘Get rid of soy’, said our customers. Well, easier said than done when it comes to creating new and better products that are gluten-free and free from major allergens. It’s a whole industry.
For Mandi Hoke and Madeleine Dimapilis, trying, testing and trying all over again is all in a day’s work. As Innovation Manager and Product Development Co-ordinator, respectively, for Kinnikinnick Foods, it’s their job to come up with new and improved product ideas our free from community is clamoring for.
Considering we supply over 15 000 stores across North America and make 10 000 loaves of bread a day, the quantities and methods are totally different from making a couple of loaves or a dozen muffins at home. “Even when the recipe is perfect, we still have to do all sorts of testing to see how the end product satisfies gluten-free taste-buds,” Hoke adds, “We also need to know nutritional values, shelf life, what happens to the product when you freeze/thaw it?”
Our President, Jerry Bigam, is also full of ideas. “We’ve been trying to make a ‘Smores kit for a while, but sourcing vegan, soy free chocolate and marshmallows has proved a mammoth international task,” Bigam suggests. It’s taken more than a year to find a supplier that can make the chocolate in graham-cracker-size flat pieces that also satisfies all safety and taste requirements.
Given the goal of product development is to create items just as good if not better than those containing gluten, “We have to be meticulous in recording every little detail of how we make a test-product, so we can reproduce it,” smiles Hoke, “Each gram of an ingredient can change the outcome, every degree of heat in proofing or baking can be the difference between delight or disaster”. Sometimes a trial goes well right up the final stage, yet it’s not 100% perfect and you have to take a step back. That can be tough when it feels like a lot of work gone to waste. But, there’s continuous learning going on–the only way to guarantee improvements.
“I love coming up with new recipes and taste-testing them with our staff!” Hoke smiles. Imagine the scene. A range of five pumpkin pies, all sweetly different, all with varying degrees of flakey crust. And fifteen staff all with different opinions. “Learning to deeply listen to and respect all perspectives is probably the most important part of my job,” she states, because the ‘sensory’ testing part (taste, smell, texture, ‘mouthfeel’ etc.) is critical to maintaining Kinnikinnick’s reputation for high quality, safe and scrumptious, free from baked goods.
It’s not all ovens, test tubes and food safety protocols. Hoke and Dimapilis also meet suppliers to stay up to date with all the newly emerging gluten-free food ingredients. The Product Development team also advises our customer care team if they have any questions related to processes, formulations or regulatory requirements. “We’re also collaborating with another local company and local university to be at the forefront of gluten-free product development.”
For anyone interested in this type of job, education is key. Hoke recommends getting a BSc. in Food Science as a way of understanding the science of how and why food components interact. Hoke went a step further and landed a Masters too. “I learned a lot about applying scientific lab methodology and how critical it is to persevere, work through challenges and revisit obstacles from many different angles”. A love of food is also a huge asset in the world of product development.
Every day Mandi’s mantra is to always ask, “Why?” and “Can it be done better?” as well as “What else would be good to know?” Critically important is how she learned to "thoroughly research topics and better decipher whether a source of information is trustworthy and based on solid facts.”
In a job that affords both the ability to be super creative as well as scientifically meticulous, Hoke’s main goal is to make a real difference to those who depend on free from products. “I want to be proud of every great product we develop or reformulate. In future, we’ll continue to focus on more functional foods and foods higher in nutritive value. And they’ll taste every bit as good, if not better, than the ‘real thing”.