Prepared Foods talks about sugar reduction and industrial fruit preparations with Karsten Kotte, vice president of technical services at Graceland Fruit, an industrial fruit and fruit products supplier in Frankfort, Mich. Kotte is responsible for Graceland’s product and process optimization. Prior to joining Graceland, Kotte spent more than 15 years in the food industry with Omega Protein Corporation, H.J. Heinz Company and the Schwan Food Company. He joined Graceland in the fall of 2016. 

Prepared Foods: Looking back on 2017, what would you say were the most important food trends and how did they impact industrial fruit products?

Karsten Kotte: In 2017, the high amount of sugar consumed by US consumers grew to become a major health issue. So, sugar reduction was at the top of our R&D priorities. Another trend that caught our interest involves the demand for functional foods. For example, those products supporting digestive health, joint health and muscle recovery. 

We tested a new variety of cranberry that is high in anthocyanin content. Our R&D department is working closely with our marketing team to identify and put into play permissible messaging about the health benefits associated with our products. 

We also saw greater consumer interest in a more global approach to flavor, so we are exploring the potential for more exotic, savory or spicy flavors and fruit blends for both domestic and international markets.  

PF: When it comes to fruit products—either finished or, as an industrial ingredient—what’s something new that finished product manufacturers may not be aware of? What’s something that might surprise them?

Kotte: We will soon be introducing a new, No Added Sugar Dried Cranberry. This product has no added sugar and no artificial sweetener. Instead of sugar, the product contains a prebiotic fructan fiber and it retains 50% more of the natural cranberry center than conventional dried cranberries. This not only helps with texture properties, but results in a flavor and texture that is appealing to consumers. 

We are testing the new No Added Sugar product in the retail consumer market, and if it achieves the acceptance we expect, we will make available as an ingredient for food manufacturers. The appeal for product manufacturers is that is helps them lower the overall amount of added sugar in their products. This is especially important given the new FDA labeling guidelines related to added sugars. 

Manufacturers and consumers will be surprised at how good this product tastes and feels. In fact, in our consumer testing, respondents actually preferred the flavor and texture of the No Added Sugar product over conventional dried cranberries. 

PF: Since joining Graceland, what are you most proud of?

Kotte: We’re extremely proud of the No Added Sugar product because it meets two of our goals in new product development: sugar reduction and enhanced health benefits. This product provides a healthy alternative for consumers that are concerned with their intake of processed sugar and artificial sweeteners, and it is a good source of fiber.

Prebiotic fiber helps increase the levels of good bacteria in the large intestine and is scientifically proven to support digestive health. Additionally, carbohydrates and calories are 10% lower than those in conventional dried cranberries. 

We’re also excited about a new approach to product innovation that we developed in 2017 and is officially kicking off this month (February 2018). This is a multi-stage approach that guides the innovation process from ideation through product development and on to market. Continual innovation is a pillar of our culture at Graceland Fruit, and this new approach allows us to better manage the process, decision making and cost of product development.

PF: Can you share any other goals for 2018? 

Kotte: We’re focused on designing products that meet consumer needs. In general, dried fruit is a mature category and it’s critical that we continue to innovate in order to grow our brand.

Our goal is to roll out two new products each year. I can’t discuss specifics, but we’re taking a symbiotic approach to product development. In other words, we’re asking ourselves, “How can we marry our products with other beneficial natural products or ingredients to boost nutritional benefits, flavor and other qualities even more?”  We’re very excited about the possibilities that this approach presents.  

PF:  Can you share any additional news involving Graceland and your staff or capabilities there?

Kotte: In late 2017, we added a registered dietician/nutritionist in an advisory capacity. She’s helping us better understand the trends in healthy eating and where our products fit into a healthy diet.

We’re always striving to improve our R&D processes, and in turn, the quality that our customers have come to depend on. That means constantly monitoring things like moisture content and product stability, so we better understand shelf life limitations, or how certain aspects of the drying process impact color, flavor and texture. As we increase our focus on promoting the health benefits of our products, we need to measure those benefits and control our processes so that the products actually deliver on what we’re saying.

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