Health-conscious consumers demanding more from local food producers

2014-04-20T00:00:00Z 2014-05-06T17:35:14Z Health-conscious consumers demanding more from local food producersVanessa Renderman, (219) 933-3244

From lowering sodium and cutting fat to adjusting recipes to exclude gluten, region food producers are trying to keep up with the evolving dietary demands of their customers. 

At Branya's Bakery in St. John, serving customers who avoid gluten means waking up three hours early for the work day. The made-without-gluten items are produced first, then brought to a separate place before production begins on the traditional baked goods, bakery owner Jean Theile said.

The demand for gluten-free items was there when the shop opened six years ago. But because there is gluten on site, the label "gluten free" could not be used.

When the "made-without-gluten" labeling option was introduced, it created an opportunity for the bakery to start creating. 

"Two years ago, one of our regular customers was diagnosed with celiac disease," Theile said. "She would come in and cheat, and it would make her so sick. Her cheat was our butter cookies." 

So the owners spent thousands of dollars to perfect a made-without-gluten version of its popular butter cookie. They sold it secretly for six months and slowly introduced it to a wider audience.

They asked customers to serve as guinea pigs as they expanded their gluten-free line, requesting honest feedback about the products. Now, they label an assortment of their products, from muffins to doughnuts to breads and cookies, as made-without-gluten, Theile said.

Finding the right taste is a matter of trial and error, combined with years of experience between the owners who know which ingredients complement each other.

"We ruin a lot of product," Theile said. "It was $5,000 just to be able to replicate our butter cookie."

They also feed the made-without-gluten treats to their twin 10-year-olds. If the children do not make "that face," then Theile knows the recipe is a success. 

The demand for products without gluten has been lucrative for the shop. 

"The last eight months, I have sold double the first year and a half in sales," Theile said.

The bakery is working on a line of vegan products, eliminating dairy and egg. 

Developing sugar-free options is more difficult. Replacing sugar with a chemical substitute is hard, because things don't bake the same way, she said. 

Fernando Gutierrez, owner of Torti Products Inc. in Highland, sells his raw tortillas in 26 local stores. Aside from his aunt's traditional recipe, Gutierrez offers whole wheat tortillas for customers seeking an option with more fiber and protein, he said.

His next focus is on products without gluten, but Gutierrez needs time to develop it properly.

"What's holding me back is you have to be certified," he said.

That means needing a bigger facility with a separate space for non-gluten products and even a filter so the flour won't travel in the air and cross contaminate, he said.

"It's coming," he said. "I'm working hard." 

Land O'Frost, a lunch meat manufacturer with a Lansing facility, began offering a line of heart-healthy products called Simply Delicious to meet consumer demands.

"Parents have been looking for ways to improve their kids' lunches – and their own – for quite a while," said Keith Hill, director of brand management at Land O'Frost. "We did research and focused on the top six issues consumers have with lunch meat."

As they worked to meet those requests for lower sodium, lower fat and lower cholesterol, the company realized it was falling in line with American Heart Association guidelines, he said.

The healthy lunch meat line is certified by the American Heart Association's Heart-Check Food Certification Program.

"The retailers are looking for things like this," Hill said.

He said the company's team of food scientists worked to produce a line of healthier products without sacrificing flavor, color and texture in its traditional line of lunch meat.

At 50 calories per 1.8 oz. serving, the Simply Delicious line includes slow roasted turkey breast, black forest ham, rotisserie seasoned chicken breast, honey roasted turkey breast, honey cured ham and slow roasted beef. 

Food safety is another concern for consumers, said Chantel Arsenault, digital marketing specialist for Davidson Safest Choice.

The Lansing-based egg pasteurizer offers its products in more than 5,000 grocery stores. Their volume has grown 40 percent in the last year. 

Safest Choice pasteurizes eggs in a patented process involving a hot water bath. Eggs are not cooked, but the bacteria is killed, making the eggs safe for homemade mayonnaise, ice cream, egg nog and other recipes.

"Mostly what we're hearing from our consumers is peace of mind," Arsenault said.

It opens up culinary options they may have been hesitant to try, because of safety concerns. 

"Unless you're cooking the egg completely through, there's still a potential for bacteria," she said of traditional, non-pasteurized eggs.

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