Bakers and snack producers have been using inclusions for years to create tasty treats that appeal to consumers. These include nuts, dried fruit, crunchy grain clusters, moist fillings, sugar-coated chocolate disks and other items. Inclusions add flavor, color and texture to everything from cookies and snack bars to granola mixes and tortilla chips.

Despite the many inclusions available to them, bakers and snack producers are always looking for new ingredients to help them expand or improve their product lines, so they can meet changing consumer demands and differentiate themselves. Today, this means seeking out inclusions that will help create baked goods and snacks for health-conscious consumers who want products that are made with all-natural ingredients, contain less sugar and unhealthy fats and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. Not surprisingly, inclusion suppliers are ready to deliver.

Georgia Nut Co., for instance, has been receiving many requests for products with added protein and calcium, all-natural flavors and colors, and reduced sugar, says vice president of sales and marketing Kurt Thorsen. The Skokie, Ill.-based company’s wholesale offerings include fruits, nuts, seeds and yogurt-covered pretzel, carob and sugar-coated choclate pieces.

“We’ve being doing a lot of all-natural, GMO-free Gems, which is our sugar-shelled version of an M&M,” Thorsen says. “We refine a lot of calcium-fortified products, so we can make our own coatings and enhance [them] with calcium.”

The company uses the calcium-enriched coatings on a variety of products, including its yogurt-covered raisins and Gems, which are popular inclusions for cookies, muffins and granola mixes.

Thorsen says Georgia Nut’s “tremendous processing capability” enables it to create innovative and new products not currently on the marketplace. “We do a lot of Gems, and sugar shelling is our single largest product line,” he says. “So we asked ourselves what we could do that’s different from everyone else. We [now] form our own lentils and refine our own coatings. We can add protein and other inclusions to the center of the Gems. There are so many different things that we can do that we haven’t necessarily leveraged in the past that we’re working on now.”

In addition to developing items on its own, the company routinely works with its customers to create new products. “We try to understand, directionally, where they want to go, along with showing them things we believe are relevant for the marketplace and might be a good addition to their line,” he explains. “So, it’s really a two-way street. We’re taking direction from them, and we’re also suggesting ideas that we have that they might not have thought of or understood that we can make.”

QualiTech Inc., a Chaska, Minn.-based company that specializes in particulates, inclusions and savory blends that add flavor, function, mouthfeel and visual appeal to foods, also is seeing more consumers interested in their health and wellness.

“Consumers seem to be a lot more concerned about where their food is coming from,” says Sales Manager Stan Tinsley. “They’re also trying to eat well, so that’s driving things like systems that allow for reduced sodium and reduced fat.”

It’s not surprising, therefore, that QualiTech is also seeing more interest on the part of food processors in systems that can deliver nutritional ingredients, such as fiber, protein, fruit content and nutraceuticals.

“Inclusions have typically been points of color, flavor and texture,” says Tinsley. “What we’re seeing now is their potential to add things like Omega 3s. They make it easy for manufacturers to add such supplements.”

QualiTech’s lineup of standard and customizable food inclusions and particulates includes Pell-ettes, a carbohydrate-based, uniformly sized berry alternative; Flavor-Lites, round, flavor-coated, grain-based crisps; Season-ettes, unflavored, cereal-based pellets and granules that mimic spices and dry seasoning blends; Flavor Islands, which are soft, colorful particulates for wet and dry applications; Flav-R-Grain, a 100% natural, stabilized corn germ; and Flavor-ettes, which are sweet or savory particulates that can carry nutritional supplements.

A recent Flavor-ettes introduction demonstrates, however, that inclusions also can help bakers and snack producers create more nutritional products by what they don’t bring to the table. QualiTech’s new Cheese Flavor-ettes “is a big breakthrough for us,” says Tinsley. “It provides significant advantages to our customers over real cheese” because it doesn’t melt at high temperatures, yet delivers a rich cheese flavor into systems where real dairy products won’t work.”
In addition, the company designed Cheese Flavor-ettes to offer “significant nutritional value over real cheese,” explains Tinsley. “Real cheese or cheese sauce is typically very in high fat and has a lot of sodium in it. We developed a product that has significantly less sodium and fat, but provides the eating experience of, say, a cheese dipping sauce.”

Tinsley says QualiTech typically works directly with its customers to develop inclusions for products on which they are working, rather than rolling out a product across the board.

“Our value proposition is customization,” he says. “We have a standard list of products that we can offer as samples on a fast turnaround, but we also turn around samples designed to meet a customer’s objectives quickly. We have a process for identifying a customer’s key requirements, so that we can make sure that we are sending them the right items the first time.”

Tinsley continues, “We also understand that the needs and limitations of bakery and snack R&D. Many times, our customers have to do their testing on their production equipment. Our manufacturing process is very scalable. We can make production runs as small as 400 lbs. of a custom item. This way, a customer knows that the material they are testing with in their facility is what they can expect when they roll out a new item in full production. We work to understand the complete journey their product is going to make, from conception to physical process to market.”

Viterra Inc./21st Century Grain Processing Co., a global food ingredient company, develops grain-based inclusions with proprietary ingredients for customers who use them to create healthy or indulgent snacks, baked and chewy granola bars, energy and nutritional bars, baked goods, tortillas and more.

“They can be based on textural differentiation, flavor-release uniqueness and targeted nutrition,” says Bill Bonner, senior technical adviser based at the company’s Kansas City, Mo., operations.

Currently, Viterra Inc./21st Century Grain Processing is developing several new ingredients for use in future inclusions, including high-fiber oats and beta glucan concentrates from specific oat varieties. “These provide beta glucan in support of the [Food and Drug Administration] health claim for potential cholesterol claim reduction,” explains Bonner.

Like QualiTech and Georgia Nut, Viterra interacts directly with the R&D staffs of consumer product companies when developing new products for them. “Our sales, technical service and product developers are in constant contact with customers to identify project solutions and new market concepts,” Bonner explains. “Our own consumer product development experience results in our development team understanding key parameters in the process allowing extremely quick identification of issues and solving them.”

Material Issues
As for most food processors, the makers of inclusions have seen their costs for raw materials increase, especially for all-natural ingredients, which often aren’t as plentiful or as accessible as regular inclusions. Cocoa, cocoa butter, fats, oils, sugar and peanuts are just a few of the items whose prices have gone up significantly, according to Thorsen.

“It’s almost universal, I’d say, from a raw materials standpoint,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

Still, Thorsen says his company tries not to pass higher ingredient costs onto its customers. “It’s something we can manage,” he says.

“We try to look at ways to reduce [product] costs, while still delivering the taste and flavor profile.”

Tinsley concurs: “We’re looking at new ways of formulating ingredients to mitigate that cost effect. The cost of grains, grain products and sugar has gone up, but not at the same relative level. So there’s an opportunity to look at, for example, more intense sweeteners—Stevia or something like that—that allow you to reduce the impact of the cost of sugar.”

The company is also continuing to look for new sources for natural ingredients, particularly colors. “We have found some really great natural sources for reds and greens,” says Tinsley, “as well as purples, which are more important for vegetable and fruit [products]. We’ve had really good luck, but they’re just inherently more expensive, which is something consumers may not always understand.”

What consumers are starting to realize, however, is that a product can be both better-for-you and an indulgent treat. “Indulgence is still king,” says Thorsen.
“[A product] still has to taste good. We try to deliver the functionality of indulgence and taste, but with that good-for-you twist.”