PORTLAND, ORE. —Today’s consumers can’t make snack purchases without seeing terms that are synonymous with “natural” splashed across a bag of chips or box of crackers. Because the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t defined “natural,” clean label buzzwords have infiltrated the industry, and marketers are capitalizing on the power of these words — even if it means bending a term’s definition in their favor.
Jack Kuo, chief executive officer of Fuller Foods, Portland, noticed this trend when he came across a bag of cheesy puffs labeled “natural.” As a graduate of the University of Illinois’ Food Science program, he was struck by how delicious they were for a clean label snack. After flipping over the package, he quickly discovered that the puffs contained the processed ingredients he was trying to avoid.
“That was the eureka moment,” Mr. Kuo said. “Why not make a super clean label version that is above and beyond the industry norm of natural and clean label?”
To create Fuller’s Seriously Cheesy Puffs, Mr. Kuo stuck to a strict set of standards. The company only uses ingredients that can be found in a typical consumer’s kitchen. For example, each package contains corn, sunflower oil and a cheese blend, which consists of milk, salt, cultures and enzymes. Ingredients such as maltodextrin, colorants, yeast and natural flavors, which are usually added to so-called “all natural” products, aren’t allowed in the snack, which is labeled as “wholesome” and “non-G.M.O.”
Taste was also a top priority. “Fuller’s approach is to find quality ingredients that taste great,” Mr. Kuo explained. Since flavoring agents weren’t an option, the snack company turned to Bob’s Red Mill to supply its corn and doubled the amount of cheese typically used in puffs.
To manufacture Seriously Cheesy Puffs, Fuller spent two years searching for a copacker that could meet its needs. This allowed the company to have free reign on product development and create selling points such as larger puffs, increased flavor, craft paper stand-up packaging and a partnership with Bob’s Red Mill. “Most puff manufacturers can’t or won’t do what we do because of changes in supply chain, production complications, packaging headaches or cost,” Mr. Kuo noted.
The lineup includes blue cheese and jalapeño, sriracha and cheddar, and asiago and black pepper. The asiago variety was introduced as the brand’s take on macaroni and cheese and turned out to be its best seller. A plain cheese flavor, as well as a vegan version, are expected to launch next spring.
Seriously Cheesy Puffs can be found at grocery stores across the country and have a suggested retail price of $3.99 per 3-oz bag. While Fuller’s focus is on expanding into supermarkets’ natural segments, the company doesn’t ignore traditional markets and hopes to reach new consumers in future. “The thing about our product is that it naturally attracts interest from all walks of life because of how we’ve made it, our sourcing ethos and branding,” Mr. Kuo said. “And it’s cheesy puffs, after all.”