Informing Better Food Product Development and Marketing
Producing safe, affordable, palatable and nutritious foods for mass populations is a difficult business. This is the daily challenge for the team at General Mills Canada, who are working together to understand and respond to the needs of Canadians while trying to stay on top of their competition at the same time.
As a Registered Dietitian, Pierrette Buklis has played an active—and evolving—role on this team for over a decade. “When I started as a consultant, I had to build a lot of trust with the product development and marketing teams,” Pierrette said. “They would say, for example, that a certain product could only contain so much fibre due to costs or texture issues involved, and they would look to the bottom line of regulations as their guide. I had to push that we look beyond that to create new opportunities to meet consumer needs and show our commitment to doing the right thing. Over time, they came to value my input but at first they had doubts about what I was there to do.”
What Pierrette was there for was to take a leadership role in understanding the changing face of nutrition and human health, stay on top of trends relative to consumers’ interest in topics related to nutrition, and to help inform product development and marketing via the evolving body of research.
“The struggle continues to be the bits of research that come to light every day, and knowing which bits of research to focus on. As dietitians we follow up on journal articles, interpret the basis of critical thinking in recommendations and results, and think about how to organize the right sets of information to bring to the public.”
As a dietitian, I knew it was important to relate the evidence from research regarding sodium and as a member of the business team, sharing the way that knowledge might frame how people look at our products.
This focus was important when sodium was emerging as an important topic in food and nutrition. “Like many consumers at that time, the business people at General Mills were not as aware as health professionals regarding the impact of sodium on blood pressure and cardiovascular health,” Pierrette recalls. “As a dietitian, I knew it was important to relate the evidence from research regarding sodium and as a member of the business team, sharing the way that knowledge might frame how people look at our products.”
She added that it was beneficial to General Mills to strategize changes in product sodium levels and communications to the public in advance of the 2010 report issued by the federal government’s sodium reduction task force, which made the issue publicly prominent.
Pierrette noted that she is grateful for CFDR’s biannual Tracking Nutrition Trends (TNT) study, of which General Mills Canada has been a sponsor. TNT assesses Canadians’ evolving habits specific to food choices, food purchasing and preparation habits. It also tracks their understanding and consumption of public information related to food and nutrition.
“Consumer research is important in my role as a dietitian. Our marketers want to know where the consumers’ heads are at—they’re always seeking info on people’s interest in food and nutrition. We’re excited to see purely Canadian info from studies like TNT as most of the research we get otherwise is global in focus.”
In her time at General Mills, Pierrette has been pleased to see the growing importance of dietitians as part of the business teams. “When I first started there was a lot of referring to ‘Dr. Google’ for health and nutrition information,” she said. “Now they come to me for evidence. This speaks to marketers’ and product developers’ high level of trust of dietitians to filter through evidence and provide timely and accurate information.”