- General Mills has announced a research partnership with South Dakota State University to explore how to improve the quality and sustainability of oat crops.
- The company uses oats in more than one-quarter of its products, so such research impacts a sizable percentage of the company's portfolio. In the last fiscal year, products containing oats made up 25% of General Mills' retail sales volume in the U.S.
- This research could make oats more sustainable, more profitable to grow, produce higher yields, and more resistant to diseases and pests so the crops would need less treatment with pesticides, all of which impact General Mills' bottom line. The lab will also focus on enhancing the nutritional quality of oats.
Much of the latest industry-funded research has focused on nutritional benefits or implications of certain ingredients. Ocean Spray's study claimed cranberry juice can prevent urinary tract infections, and a study funded by the National Confectioners Association claimed children who eat candy tend to weigh less.
These studies have drawn criticism because of industry funding, which is thought to skew the results in the favor of the company or industry association providing the funds. Experts have raised questions, particularly in cases such as the NCA study, where the organization had allegedly been allowed to review the research and provide comments, according to emails uncovered by AP. And in the Ocean Spray study, Ocean Spray staff scientists also co-authored the report.
However, according to General Mills, it is focusing its research on making improvements to the ingredient, including and also beyond nutrition, rather than using research to support claims about existing nutritional benefits. This is similar to Silk's recently announced research initiative concerning plant-based ingredients as solutions to industry challenges like sustainability, transparency, and health and wellness.
But this research could generate criticism because of the financial gain General Mills stands to reap from the results. By improving sustainability, increasing yields, and reducing pesticide use, General Mills can turn a higher profit on an ingredient found extensively throughout its portfolio.
Also, by breeding oats to enhance their nutritional qualities, General Mills could engineer new ways to position products with health benefits the competition may not have available in its oats supply. This is particularly true for General Mills' cereal brands, including Cheerios and Lucky Charms, which commonly use oats and oat flour and have struggled recently.
Using oats as the base ingredient also enables General Mills to affix the gluten-free label on these two brands. Oats research may result in more General Mills cereal brands reformulated to contain oats or new cereal brands made with oats to appeal to the health-conscious crowd looking for gluten-free cereals.