Editor’s Note: Prepared Foods Editor Bob Garrison talks with Muriel Acat, CEO and majority owner at Prova, a global sweet brown flavors supplier based in Montreuil, France. Last year saw the company celebrate its 75th anniversary and add ultra-high temperature (UHT) product development capabilities to its US innovation lab in Beverly, Mass.
Prepared Foods sat down with Acat at this year’s Institute of Food Technologists expo to discuss Prova’s 2022 global recognition as a Certified Women Owned Business (WBE). The designation provides access to supplier diversity and procurement executives at hundreds of major U.S. corporations and federal, state, and local government entities that accept WBENC Certification.
Prepared Foods: Congratulations on Prova’s certification as a Women Owned Business! What does this certification mean to you?
Muriel Acat: This was important on two levels. Firstly, it’s a government decision to foster minorities, which is good. Let me note that I don’t think that women are better managers than men. I believe we can excel at the same levels. But it is important to have this program because there are too few women-owned companies.
On a deeper, secondary level, when many young girls and women are growing up, they don’t believe they have the same workplace opportunities as their male counterparts. I also don’t think that many secondary schools—even in developed countries—encourage girls to go into science, or business. Unfortunately many girls believe that they’re not even capable.
I’ve been trying to intervene. In France, for example, I’m going to high schools to share my story and talk about what it means to be a successful entrepreneur. And unfortunately, I can literally see the difference between girls and boys and their attitudes in this area. Girls simply don’t believe they’ll have the same chances as boys. The WBE program puts forth a model for girls. I believe we need to act as role models and show them that women can succeed in business just as well as men.
PF: We’ve seen releases about several new 2022 flavors from Prova—including Smoked Chocolate, White Chocolate Mocha and a combined Nuts & Honey offering. Looking back, Prova came into this year with a focus on Caramel. Can you talk a little about this?
Acat: We do have a caramel extract that’s very unique in market. Overall, when you think of sweet brown flavors, you think chocolate and vanilla and then caramel is next. It’s quite big and important. Our offering include caramel, sweet caramel, toffee, butterscotch, dulce de leche and roasted caramel. I’ll add that we’re also proud of the nut flavors within our Gourmet category. These include almonds, hazelnuts, pistachio, chestnut, coconut, pecan, walnut and even pine nut. In each category we have both extracts and flavors.
PF: Let’s shift from pure flavor for a moment to discuss function. How is Prova responding to the plant-based products trend, particularly in dairy?
Acat: There are more customers developing plant-based milks as new market alternatives. Of course, one of the primary issues they face is how to mask the “off” flavors related to pea protein or other plant-based proteins.
We’ve done some great work in this area. When this trend was emerging, we went deep into it with analysis and research. Later, we brought in a customer to explain our entire R&D process, help them understand the problem and demonstrate and our masking solution. In the end, the customer was absolutely ecstatic. The flavor we developed absolutely masked the taste and we achieved the goal of a plant-based milk—that doesn’t taste like plants. Today, we’re working with lots of companies in this area.
PF: Okay. So this connects with your 2021 news and adding a UHT pilot plant lab to your US operations.
Acat: That’s right. Dairy companies are demanding. They expect you to have pilot plant equipment—that’s similar to them—to make sure the flavors we supply can handle the process. We know that flavors tend to fade or diminish during this particular process so we need to control that ourselves, and understand before we advise our customers on usage rates.
PF: We discussed plant-based products. Does PROVA offer products that contribute in a functional way?
Acat: Indeed, we have the best Cocoa Extract in the market that, in addition to great flavor, add functional benefits. And plant-based products have already been an area of success for us involving our Cocoa Extracts. This year at the Annual IFT Conference, we sampled a plant-based product, chocolate oat milk, featuring our Cocoa Extract. PROVA’s Cocoa Extract does not necessarily replace traditional cocoa powder – it greatly enhances it. It’s actually eight to 10 times stronger than cocoa powder and by adding our Cocoa Extract on top of it you can achieve a great boost in flavor and indulgence.
PF: Can you tell us more about your new product development approach?
Acat: Sure. We believe our innovations are not just new flavors but usage-related innovations. In fact, what made us successful are a couple of products that are still blockbusters. We encourage our sales people to question our customers and detect their unexpressed needs. That’s when you find out what keeps them up at night or the problem that they’re simply living with—but wish they had a solution.
I’ll give you an example. Chocolate uses vanilla and in (the United States) there’s one vanilla extract, a standard of identity for vanilla extract that involves water and alcohol. Yet it doesn’t work in chocolate. At Prova, we make specialty extracts and we have intellectual property for a technology of fat-soluble vanilla extracts. We plate it in cocoa butter. We were selling those 1- or 4-kilo blocks to chocolate companies and they simply add those into their process. Fat goes into fat and the flavor performance I much higher overall than with a liquid extract. There’s also no need for an additional flavor carrier. The carrier is cocoa butter, which already is an ingredient in chocolate.
That’s how we started this company with this product. Listening to customers is our strength. We take the time to not only understand how a flavor helps with taste but also how our flavors provide solutions. We’re very much into tailor-made, personalized solutions. At our size, we can do that while our larger competitors cannot. They’re more standardized and cost driven while we are quality driven.
PF: Here’s a last question. Another industry topic of concern involves sustainability. How does Prova address this issue?
Acat: Sustainable sourcing is important. We are a middle-sized company but we rank among the top 10 vanilla buyers worldwide and we’re in the top five in purchasing cocoa extracts. We believe we have a responsibility regarding supply chain and our sources of vanilla. We are working with farmers in some of the poorest countries, such as Madagascar. For that reason, we cannot pay the very lowest rates. Rather, we believe we need to bring better pricing to our suppliers and hopefully our customers will accompany us. There is a lot of “greenwashing” out there as everyone talks about sustainable sourcing. I think it’s still early but eventually, they’ll join us to truly “walk the talk.”
Our objective is to source as much as 50% of our vanilla in an eight- to 10-year horizon. It’s ultimately about making vanilla production sustainable over time. Cocoa and vanilla are similar as they involve small family plantations, small-scale agroforestry and all our sources are organic. We need to foster and encourage the next generation of farmers. I personally go every year and get into the fields with our farmers. We commit to buy from them and, ultimately, we need customers to join this support.