“We really believe that food products should go bad,” said Jodi Bager, who launched Grain-Free JK Gourmet in 2001. She acknowledged that statement “might sound weird,” but she explained she does not believe people should eat foods with no expiration date “because they likely are full of preservatives.”
Bager is not alone in her anti-preservative stance. Consumers increasingly want “clean ingredients” that they recognize, can pronounce and could have in their kitchens at home. This precludes many preservatives with long or chemical-sounding names, and has spurred some manufacturers to reformulate with fewer or no preservatives along with no artificial colors or ingredients.
Grain-Free JK Gourmet could be considered a pioneer in the movement given its line of granolas, cookies, snacks and baking mixes all have been made without preservatives, grains and refined sugar since the company’s inception 15 years ago.
Bager explained that she makes her products this way because she didn’t want to give up the foods she loved when she adopted the Specific Carbohydrate Diet as a way to manager her ulcerative colitis. So she reformulated them to fit the diet, which included ditching preservatives.
When she adopted this diet in 2000 there were few gluten- and grain-free options available – a trend that clearly has turned and bloomed in the last few years so that options for both are now readily available.
A new way of thinking needed
However, preservative-free foods are just starting to gain traction and in order for these products to go mainstream, or even grow in the natural channel where they already have a foothold, retailers and manufacturers must rethink how they pack, ship, store and stock products, Bager said.
She explained that the current model for many products that have two or three year shelf lives thanks to preservatives is to work with distributors to ship large orders to retailers so that stores can restock the product as needed without constantly going back to manufacturers and risking running out of stock
But this approach does not work well for preservative-free products that have only five or six month shelf lives, like those made by Grain-Free JK Gourmet.
Strategy 1: Ship less more often
Bager’s company bypasses distributors to save transit time and it ships smaller amounts more often to ensure the product available on the shelf is as freshly made as possible and that the stores and consumers still have plenty of time to enjoy it before it expires.
Bager notes that while this strategy works well for smaller, independent stores and regional chains in the natural channel that already tend to place smaller, more frequent orders, it has held back the company from entering many large, mainstream chains that opt for buying in mass less often.
Bager adds that while educated natural channel shoppers are looking for preservative-free products, she admits she is unsure how quickly mainstream shoppers will make the shift given the convenience of longer shelf lives and their lack of knowledge about the use of preservatives.
But, she added, if consumers pushed for the change, larger chains could alter their stocking strategy for the center of the store to more closely resemble that of the produce, dairy and fresh food categories.
Strategy 2: Extend shelf life with packaging and freezing
Grain-Free JK Gourmet also relies on packaging innovation to extend the shelf-life of its products without using preservatives.
“When it comes to packaging, you want a membrane that doesn’t allow oxygen through because oxygen leads to rancidity,” Bager said, specifically calling out the benefits of foil wrappers.
Windows that let light into the packaging can shorten a product’s shelf life, but this was a sacrifice that Grain-Free JK Gourmet was willing to make for its granola GG Bites lines because it felt that allowing consumers to see the products would boost velocity, thus reducing the need for a longer shelf life, said Bager’s husband and business partner Steven Bager.
Strategy 3: Choose ingredients with naturally long shelf lives and preservation qualities.
The duo also extends their products’ shelf life by choosing ingredients that are naturally more stable and will last longer before spoiling.
For example, the company uses almond flour as the base for its baking mixes for cookies, muffins and waffles. Bager explains that almond flour has a longer shelf life than many other nut and gluten-free flour blends.
In addition, Steven Bager noted that honey – the company’s sweetener of choice – is a natural preservative that helps stabilized the products.
Strategy 4: Consider natural preservatives
The company also is exploring natural preservatives, such as rosemary extract, with the hope of bumping up the shelf life of its products to at least a year, Bager said.
New snacks incorporate strategies
Even as the company explores and promotes options for preservative-free food, it continues to innovate and launch products’ that meet the founders’ strict diet and product standards.
By the end of April, the company will launch for new GG Bites – snack sized clusters of seeds, nuts, fruit and coconut nectar. The latest additions will be covered in chocolate made with honey instead of refined sugar and will be nut-free for consumers with allergies but who can eat products made on equipment and in a facility shared with nuts, the team said.
In addition to the chocolate-covered GG Bites, Grain-Free JK Gourmet will launch a version of the snack made with hemp hearts – a trendy ingredient that is high in heart healthy omega fatty acids and has a “nutty and warm flavor profile that is very different from the other GG Bites,” Bager said, adding that the GG Bites in general are her favorite product line that the company makes.