ANAHEIM, CALIF. — Recent acquisitions are helping General Mills, Inc. “operate in a small and nimble way, like a start-up,” said Carla Vernón, president of the company’s natural and organic operating unit. At Natural Products Expo West, held March 5-9 in Anaheim, Minneapolis-based General Mills demonstrated some of its recent bold moves inspired by the smaller brands in its portfolio, including Epic Provisions and Annie’s.
“People often wonder, can the small really influence the big?” Ms. Vernón said during an interview with Food Business News at Natural Products Expo West. “Can the small lead the big? Can the small teach the big?”
The answer is yes, she said, pointing to General Mills’ recently announced commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030. Such farming practices focus on pulling carbon from the air and storing it in the soil in addition to helping the land be more resilient to extreme weather events. The company is partnering with key suppliers to drive adoption across ingredients including oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed and sugar beets.
“Until we had our founders from Epic, our great partners who work at our natural and organic retailers, and our early Annie’s team telling us about regenerative agriculture, we, parent company General Mills, were unaware of this form of agriculture even emerging,” Ms. Vernón said. “They taught us, they held our hand, they cheered us on, and together now we’re scaling.”
Cascadian Farm, another General Mills brand, is working alongside The Land Institute, Salina, Kas., to commercialize organic Kernza, a perennial grain with deep roots that is shown to have a positive impact on soil health, carbon sequestration and water retention.
“This year we had planted enough acreage that we were hoping to launch a nationally available Kernza cereal,” Ms. Vernón said. “It’s a honey coated flake. It’s crunchy and has a more toasty flavor. It’s a little different than some of the other wheat flakes you’re used to.”
Unfortunately, she said, the first-year crop yield fell short of expectations.
“Sometimes on the road to innovation it takes a while before you get it right,” she said. “We’ve only got a very limited production of Kernza such that what we’re doing is giving it to some of our partners in the industry, some of the champions and thought leaders who have been with us since the beginning so that they can see where we’re going. And we’re going to take a second swing at next year’s crop, working with The Land Institute to try to tweak the agricultural dynamics we didn’t get right the first time because we are aiming to have a commercial scale crop next year.”
She added, “I’m very proud of us because that’s unexpected from what people call ‘big food,’ to act like our own start-up and embrace our failure.”
At Natural Products Expo West, General Mills announced a slate of new product launches from its natural and organic brands, including Annie’s, Epic Provisions, Cascadian Farm, Larabar and Muir Glen.
“Annie’s is the No. 1 natural and organic kid food brand in all of grocery, which gives us an awesome opportunity and responsibility to be the brand that kid and family households count on to give them the food they love and make sure it’s food mom and dad feel great about… but also delicious and maybe a little fun,” Ms. Vernón said.
New products in the Annie’s portfolio include protein bars and sour fruit snacks.
Cascadian Farm is launching its first new boxed cereal in two years, Honey Vanilla Crunch is gluten-free and made with sweet potatoes and chickpeas, Ms. Vernón said.
“We’re not making that the No. 1 screaming headline because we don’t want someone to think their breakfast cereal tastes like vegetables,” she added.
Cascadian Farm has been part of General Mills’ portfolio for two decades, and its founder, Gene Kahn, remains involved in the business, “feeding our inspiration,” Ms. Vernón said.
“This is the original natural and organic brand in our portfolio,” she said. “But, if I’m honest with you, we let that brand lose its way for a little while. We hadn’t updated the packaging in a while; we haven’t come forward with really new-to-the-category innovation. This year, we introduced a really bright and energetic new packaging design to make it more clear to people which flavors they were shopping.”
The brand also is launching fruit-infused nutrition bars made with ingredients such as sweet potatoes, beets, blueberries, carrots and apples.
“Infusion is a great word for it because it’s like every bite is a bright burst of a fruit flavor,” she said. “It’s not fruit bits; it’s fruit that has been blended into the actual whole development of the bar recipe.”
Muir Glen, the canned and jarred organic tomato brand, is featuring a reformulation of pasta sauces with no added sugar.
“Our tomatoes have a natural sweetness that allow our pasta sauces to be some of the only ones on the market that don’t need added sugar to be delicious,” Ms. Vernón said.
From Epic Provisions, new Rise & Grind bars feature organic egg yolks and humanely raised meat. Varieties include bacon and egg yolks and chicken, egg yolks and apple.
“We know our Epic lovers who love our meat bars have been eating our meat bars as that go-to afternoon snack to get from the workout to the evening plans, but for everyone that hadn’t been a taste that felt right at breakfast time,” Ms. Vernón said. “Some of those flavors maybe feel a little heavy or a little savory for breakfast.”
Epic also is adding cinnamon churro baked pork rinds, jalapeño pork cracklings, and bison and chicken sriracha snack strips.
“Because the Epic business is still run in Austin, Texas, that team is so close to that consumer and that mindset,” Ms. Vernón said. “Our office is still very entrepreneurial in Texas.”