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Saturday, July 04, 2009

Betty Crocker Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free Mixes

One of the biggest problems for those on any specialty diet is that cooking everything from scratch is difficult, but buying pre-made products or mixes is chancy. Chancy in that you have to experiment with many brands to find the taste and quality that suits you and that the companies who make specialty products are small, often have limited distribution and variety, and can go out of business quickly.

Few national brands have been willing to enter the relatively small specialty food market. That's understandable. Firms fight for every inch of shelf space, often paying out thousands of dollars per store to get the room they want. Specialty foods don't get this visibility, being confined to back corners or at least lesser-traffic areas of large supermarkets. Large advertising campaigns are usually the norm for big companies. These aren't affordable by the tiny companies but the large outlays require even larger returns, and these often aren't forthcoming.

So when a major company like Betty Crocker enters the gluten-free market, it's big news. It's also news that apparently the entry costs into a niche market like this are lower than they used to be, which may mean that other big firms will follow the lead of General Mills, the parent corporation.

A good place to start on this topic is For General Mills, Wheat-Free Items Are Tricky to Make, Cheap to Market, an online Wall Street Journal article by Ilan Brat.

Mass marketer General Mills Inc. is carving out a niche in gluten-free food after realizing it could reach eager customers without costly ad campaigns. It started with a gluten-free version of its Chex cereal last fall, for which the response was great.

The company's Betty Crocker brand is introducing gluten-free mixes for cookies, brownies and cakes. The mixes are the first gluten-free offering from a major, mainstream brand in the cake-mix aisle. Gluten is a key protein in wheat, but many people react badly to it.

Ann Simonds, General Mills's president of baking products, says the company decided to pursue gluten-free products last year after its customer-relations department noticed that customer inquiries about food allergies and sensitivities most frequently centered on whether items contained gluten.

"It used to be, as a marketer in the food industry, you needed a $50 million idea to make the business model work," says Ms. Simonds. "Today, you can meet an unmet need that will be a $5 million business . ... That would be worth it for a company like General Mills."

Two major hurdles remain. One is that the market for gluten-free products is likely to be similar to the market for dairy-free products.
Although only about 1% of the U.S. population has Celiac disease, General Mills says its research shows about 12% of U.S. households want to eliminate or reduce their gluten intake...

In the dairy-free world, people say they are interested but that doesn't translate into actual purchases. If 12% of households buy these goods, General Mills will have a major hit. If 1% buy them, they will disappear from the shelves.

The other hurdle is quality, consistency, and ease of use. That's always been a major issue for anyone trying to bake without wheat. A point you should know: the mixes are made in a dedicated gluten-free factory.
From September to December, General Mills food scientists baked more than 1,000 pans of brownies, cookies and cakes while conducting about 75 experiments with different formulations, says Jodi Benson, director of baking products research and development.

In initial experiments with yellow cake, the rice-flour mix wouldn't rise, leaving flat, dense and moist matter in the bottom of the pan, Ms. Benson says. The mix needed something to trap air.

Can ordinary people duplicate the successes the test kitchens finally achieved?

Tiffany Janes, an Atlanta writer at, baked up a pan of cookies and blogged about the results in Gluten-Free chocolate chip cookies and pan bars. Evidently, you need to follow the instructions exactly, even when they seem not to be working.
The gluten-free chocolate chip cookie mix from Betty Crocker is not as easy to mix up as the brownie mix - by a long shot. The mix was so crumbly that it seemed it would not make very good cookies without extra liquid added. There was no unsweetened applesauce on hand to add so an extra egg went into the bowl. That was a mistake to say the least.

Even with the extra and unnecessary egg, the cookies passed the toughest test, the cookie eater:
The cookie lover in our household is the gluten eater, who upon smelling the cookies was happy to give them a try. He scarfed down five huge cookies in as many minutes, and simply said "I think they're really good but you can taste the butter sliding down your throat". This is understandable considering the mix calls for an entire stick of butter. The cookies were very good and certainly if you didn't tell people they were gluten-free, they would never suspect it.

Didn't I say these are dairy-free? I did. But the recipe calls for butter and margarine may not work as a substitute.

Betty Crocker understands this and has a whole page on its Gluten-Free Dessert Mixes site devoted to "no butter" instructions for all its mixes.

Technically, the mixes are already out and available. You may not see them yet in your local store, because General Mills is slowly adding them by chain and region. They should be widely available by the end of summer. If you can't wait, you can go to, although you have to buy them six boxes at a time.

This could be the start of great times for us buyers of specialty foods. Or it could be such a bomb that no other company will touch them for years. That's what I love about reality. Unlike the reality shows on television, real life is unscripted.

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1 comment:

Elizabeth Carter said...

For the cookies, I use vegan butter and a bit of canned pumpkin instead of egg. My non-vegan, gluten eating friends loved them and had no idea.