Prepared Foods’ “Food for Thought” feature interview series involves food company R&D professionals, nutritionists, research chefs and other industry executives.
In this second edition, “Food for Thought” talks with Dr. Jennifer Garrett, global nutrition director for McCain Foods Limited, a global frozen food leader that employs more than 20,000 people at 57 production facilities on six continents.
Garrett lives on a Michigan farm but works from McCain Foods USA offices in Lisle, Ill. McCain USA processes and markets frozen foodservice potatoes and snacks. It also supplies retail grocery chains with both McCain and private label potato products. Popular McCain frozen snack foods are sold under the Moore’s, Anchor and Brew City brands, and the Ellio’s frozen pizza brand.
PF: Most people probably don’t know you grew up on a farm and that you still live on a farm. How do those experiences shape you and relate to your work?
Garrett: I grew up on a family dairy farm, north of Nashville, Tenn. My childhood taught me the value of faith, hard work and nutrition. On a dairy farm, we monitored the amount of milk that every cow produced—every day. If something went amiss in a cow’s diet, we’d see the results the very next day. Alternatively, if the cow’s diet was balanced, or there was an improvement in the feed ingredients, I also could see a positive difference. It reminded me—at the very beginning—about the value of nutrition and nutritional science, whether you’re talking about a healthy animal or a healthy person.
A professional nutritionist came to our farm regularly to monitor and balance the nutrients in our cows’ diets. They even shared published nutrition research to support any changes. As a kid, I was fascinated by that approach and later looked for ways to apply the same experience on the human side. It reinforces how important good nutrition is to our health—whether you see the results next week or next year.
Today, I live on a sheep farm, and we manage a flock of Lincoln Longwool sheep. If there’s a change in their diet, you see the effects in the quality of wool in a few weeks.
PF: Considering your background, it certainly seems as though you’re exactly the right person—for the right job—at the right time. How have your past experiences prepared you for this McCain position?
Garrett: My experience has been “farm to fork.” I grew up on a farm and now live on a farm. As a faculty member at the University of Missouri, I stayed connected with the College of Agriculture. At Monsanto, I worked as a research scientist and stayed involved with farmers. All of those jobs involved connecting to agricultural commodities, and I was still thinking about the nutritional aspects. Then, I went to the other end of the food chain at the Kellogg Company. Kellogg is an amazing retail company that truly understands consumer needs and customers.
Today, I’m back in the middle of the food chain. Here at McCain, I now have a better understanding of foodservice and its integral role in providing good nutrition. My job is to open communications from farm to fork and apply my experiences—from both ends—to our business.
PF: Tell us about your McCain position. Isn’t it new?
Garrett: Yes. My title is director of global nutrition. My job used to be connected to marketing, but it has been realigned as part of our global innovation organization. This is a very important shift. As part of our global innovation organization, I describe my new position as the intersection between nutrition science, nutrition communication, nutrition marketing and nutrition outreach.
We now have a new global chief technology officer and a global R&D organization. As we think globally, it means I have to be able to consider the bigger picture—then consider and use the efficiencies of a global team.
This new role is important as we look for ways to provide healthier options. We know that some products are more indulgent. Yet we also want to offer customers and consumer healthier options. We’re committed to the science that protects our products from misinformation—while we also promote our foods.
This is an interesting place to sit, so to speak. I truly enjoy being a part of our technology and innovation efforts, while staying connected to marketing and corporate communications. Sitting in the middle here, I see how everything we say and do–at some point—relates to nutrition.
PF: How do you actually interact with McCain USA’s R&D staff, food scientists, chefs? How often?
Garrett: I interact weekly with our R&D, marketing, sales and our culinary teams. Many of our R&D personnel are food scientists working on ways to improve McCain’s line with healthier choices – items that maintain their flavor appeal but with reduced calories, sodium or fat.
I also rely heavily on our top-level culinary team, which ensures not only that these items taste great – but that they’re easy to prepare, regardless of whether it’s a retail item for mom to make at home; or something designed for a school foodservice setting. When it comes to marketing, my role is to ensure that our nutritional communication is clear—and not misleading. In working with sales, we want to ensure that our nutrition education pieces are useful to our customers.
How does it all tie together? An example comes from our school foodservice product line-up. Here, our food science and culinary teams have done a great job reformulating more than 60 potato products to be lower in sodium, fat and calories—and that are still loved by kids.
PF: Let’s talk about another foodservice sector, for a moment. Do you ever work directly with multi-unit chain restaurant operators?
Garrett: We’re starting more health and wellness conversations between McCain and its restaurant chain customers, in addition to our strong culinary support. It’s rewarding to connect with our customers’ nutritionists to find ways to help improve their menus or team up and prepare for anticipated nutritional guidelines. And because some customers don’t yet have a nutritionist on staff, it opens up an opportunity for us to become a stronger partner.
Health and wellness is an important topic that restaurants want to address.
PF: Let’s shift gears for a moment and circle back to your comments about potatoes’ nutritional benefits. Do you ever work with your competitors to promote the broader category?
Garrett: Yes, primarily through other food industry organizations. For example, McCain is a member of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education (APRE). This organization receives funding from potato processors and growers. That is used for nutrition research and education specifically related to processed potatoes. Information from APRE is used by registered dietitians and others to help ensure the best approach for fitting potatoes into a healthy, balanced diet.
PF: Are you monitoring certain food research projects? If so, what? Why?
Garrett: The Alliance is focused on potato consumption at home, in restaurants and at schools. Specifically, we’re looking at the nutritional contribution of potatoes to today’s American diets. We also are working to sort out scientific fact from misperceptions about the nutritional value of potato products.
PF: Let’s go back to your day-to-day job for a moment. Are you involved with McCain USA’s product development, culinary, labeling or consumer insights efforts? How? When?
Garrett: I’m more involved in product development research. We do utilize consumer insights research and integrate that into our decision making. I join the process to ask questions such as, “What are the health and wellness implications of this product?” and “Can we lower the calories, fat and sodium while we maintain or increase the availability of positive nutrients, such as fiber or potassium?”
I’m always looking at these items through a lens of nutrition and a balanced diet.
PF: What consumer demographic trends do you monitor? Why?
Garrett: McCain is a family-based company that delivers good taste and good nutrition at affordable prices. That said, I tend to look further out and ask, “What will be the unique needs of our aging population in the years ahead?” or “How will our products fit the next generation of school-aged children?”
That next generation will have a different experience with food and nutrition. Even in today’s information age, it often is difficult to sort out food facts from perceptions. We’re looking at all the angles associated with that, thinking about how to provide the right choices to meet the needs of both age groups with balanced diets.
PF: What are a few of your goals for the remainder of 2012?
Garrett: First, I continually work to make sure people see the true value of the potato – that it’s recognized as part of a balanced diet. Too often, potatoes are portrayed by others as “empty calories,” when—in fact—they are a nutritious, affordable food.
Secondly, our parent, McCain Foods Ltd. (Florenceville, N.B., Canada) already is well known as a global force that invests in health and wellness. We want to further develop our partnerships with organizations such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly, the American Dietetic Association), the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation to seek science-based choices, together, for our American consumers.
PF: Last question! What’s your favorite McCain item? What’s in your home freezer?
Garrett: I have two varieties of McCain Purely Potatoes – Whole Baby Skin-On Potatoes and Russet Potato Slices. Because I travel so much, there’s no time for cooking. Purely Potatoes takes out all the washing and peeling, so there’s no mess. I just stick them in the microwave.