The request - posted on its G-WIN innovation platform - is just one of several technical challenges the Minneapolis-based firm has asked potential partners to solve as it cranks up its open innovation activities in order to bring better products to market, more quickly.
Sulfur dioxide and its releasing salts are widely used in food and drink production, thanks to their antioxidant properties and ability to inhibit polyphenol oxidase (PPO), an enzyme that makes food go brown.
However, the food industry has been exploring alternatives for years, primarily because sulfites do not sit well with ‘clean-labelling’ initiatives, but also because manufacturers do not want to handle allergens on site. They also reduce vitamin B1 uptake from food.
“Currently, unless treated with sulfites or with a combination of citric acid and ascorbic acid, PPO catalyzes a reaction between oxygen and phenolic compounds in apples that causes the development of brown pigments and off- flavor,” said General Mills.
“However, neither of these options is considered natural. We seek a proposal that presents a natural food-grade technology or ingredient that inhibits PPO.”
Natural extracts or novel technology
Possible approaches could include natural extracts, blends or single ingredients derived from natural sources or novel technology or processes to blanch or dry the apples, said General Mills.
The solution must work on dried apples with 10-20% moisture and significantly reduce or eliminate color and flavor change during the products’ shelf-life (typically nine months at 70°F or four months at 85°F) as compared with freshly dried apples or apples treated with sulfites.
It must also decrease enzyme activity as measured analytically without significantly altering the flavor profile or texture of non aged dried diced apples.
“Ingredient solutions should be natural (not chemically derived), stable and either currently or foreseeably approved as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).”
Finding alternatives to sulfites is also the focus of a three-year EU-funded project SO2SAY, which has three strands. The first is exploring the development of plant extracts with similar antioxidant and antimicrobial qualities to sulfites; the second is looking at enzyme inactivation to prevent browning; and the third is looking at novel processing and packaging technologies to tackle the problem of browning.
In some cases, the solution is fairly straightforward. By vacuum-packing diced potatoes, for example, you can avoid having to dip them in water containing sulfites to stop them going brown - cleaning up labels on ready meals.
In other cases, however, novel technologies will be required.
Well-articulated business needs
While many rivals have embraced the principles of open innovation, General Mills has gone one step further by publishing detailed lists of technical problems it is trying to solve on its G-WIN website.
This was based on a recognition that success rests on well-grounded and well-articulated business needs, said Kamel Chida, connected innovation senior manager, who was speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk at the UK Food and Drink Innovation Network’s open innovation conference in Daventry, UK, last year.
Critically, General Mills was not looking for ideas, but fully formed technologies or products, he explained. “We are not looking for ideas. We are looking for solutions.”
General Mills posted an 18 percent rise in profit to $392.1m on sales up 2 percent to $3.65bn in the first quarter of 2011, driven by strong performances in its snacks division and Small Planet Foods natural and organic unit, and robust sales in Europe and Asia. However, revenue from its retail business in the US dipped one percent.