Adam Calder, Wheatsfield Produce Manager
This time of year, the Wheatsfield Cooperative produce department carries a decadent autumn treat: Simply Concord brand Organic Caramel Dip. This dip is the perfect consistency to dip crisp apple slices into, and it bursts with creamy caramel flavor in every gooey bite.
Did you know that this product was developed by one of our very own Wheatsfield staff members? Firth Whitehouse is that staff member, and she has worked part-time in the Wheatsfield produce department for two years since retiring from her career as a food scientist. When she used to work for Cargill, her team was assigned to develop an organic caramel dip for Concord Foods.
“It was a team effort, Whitehouse said. “I worked for a company that provides ingredients in the food industry, and to Concord Foods who is the manufacturer of the caramel dip. They are a really big New England Company. They make a ton of things in the sweet arena; they do jams and jellies. I worked for a company that was one of their many ingredient suppliers. When you work for an ingredient company, and when you do customer assistance, you are considered an application scientist. These customers will call you when they don’t know what to do, if they are having difficulty with the ingredients you are supplying, if they are looking for new ideas, etc.”
The process is a customer service oriented one, where both companies come together and share their resources to get the job done.
“This is part of the service that many ingredient companies provide, it’s a customer service” Whitehouse said. “They have food scientists who will do this work. You end up partnering with that company who wants the new thing done or something fixed. Usually, you go to their facility and work with people in their kitchen. Typically, that company that is requesting the services, you have a confidentiality agreement with them that is a two-way confidentiality agreement so you can share information back-and-forth. They will give you maybe a starting formula for what they are making now, for regular, not organic caramel dip. Now we want to make an organic one, so what do we do to get there?”
The next step involves working within the confines of the food manufacturers desired ingredients and processing capabilities.
“They are going to set out parameters of what they are looking for” Whitehouse continues. “The ingredient application specialist from the ingredient company will work in their lab to come up with some options. You have to understand the processing capabilities of the manufacturer.”
There were some challenges sourcing the ingredients required for the caramel because, at the time, certain organic products were produced in limited locations globally.
“With Cargill, it is a global company, so they do sell a lot of organic ingredients, or they are non-GMO, primarily to appease the European market” said Whitehouse. “All of the tapioca came from southeast Asia. Cargill has a plant in Thailand that makes the organic tapioca syrup. The other thing that was a little bit of a challenge was, believe it or not there is pectin in the caramel. When you make caramel at home, you are not going to use pectin. This pectin is in here for a variety of reasons. It’s in there for processing capabilities, to help it set up a little bit after they put it into the container. Also, when you dip your spoon in it is not just going to be runny, and it is not going to flow the way you do not want it to. In conventional caramel, they are going to use a certain kind of pectin that has been slightly modified. Because it is modified, it is not organic. There is a wide range of pectins that have slightly different properties and applications. You have to try a bunch of them to get to the right recipe. I think I remember from this that we ended up with an apple pectin in here, because apple pectins do not set up like a hard jelly. They set up softer.”
When asked if there were any other products out there that she hoped to work on or that she was proud of, Whitehouse replied with an anecdote about one such product.
“When I worked at General Mills, I worked the fruit snacks group” Whitehouse said. “They make Fruit by the Foot, Fruit Roll-ups and Fruit Gushers. We had to re-formulate the Gushers. When we finally finished and finally starting cranking out this new product which was called, and I was so happy, Rainbow Gushers, and I first saw them on the grocery store shelf in Minneapolis. I was happy! It made me realize that I was a part of doing something that turned out exactly the way everyone wanted it to turn out, and everyone was happy.”
Whitehouse also worked on other national brands that we carry at Wheatsfield, such as Noosa Yogurt. We are so happy to have someone with Firth’s knowledge and experience working in our produce department. We are even more pleased that she brought her sense of commitment and customer service with her to our cooperative. Thank you for all your hard work, Firth, and thank you for sharing your story (and the caramel dip) with us!