When Jill Houk started at Olam International about three years ago, the company concentrated mostly on agriculture, trading and supplying ingredients on a massive scale. But Houk, corporate research and development chef for its spices division, said that since then it has undergone a "metamorphosis."
Olam has shifted to focus more on getting ahead of the curve by innovating and co-creating with its CPG customers to give them ideas and solutions for ingredient applications. While Houk was once the only chef at Olam, now there is a culinary team of eight that continues to grow.
"I'm at the point where I have customers who are coming to me and saying, 'I'm looking for a specific flavor profile for this product line. What ideas do you have? What can you bring to me and can you send me some samples?'" Houk said. "So this is exciting. Previous to this it was more like having to make some inroads within the product development teams of the customers that we work with and meeting people at conferences, meeting people online, meeting people through trade associations — and now they're coming to us."
One of the bigger transformations came earlier this year, when Olam announced it was splitting the company into two operating groups: food ingredients and agribusiness. Olam Food Ingredients has five business units: cocoa, coffee, edible nuts, spices and dairy. Its agribusiness Olam Global Agri focuses more on processing, trading, logistics, distribution, farming and risk management.
Between all of its business units, ingredient supplier Olam has more than 11,000 customers, 102 manufacturing facilities and a presence in 50 countries.
Houk said Olam now has a robust innovation and product development organization, where she can bring in food scientists when talking through formulations.
"We're coming together for more customer centricity so that we can take a look at trends as they're happening and also to provide our customers with insights and the power of our entire ingredients portfolio between all of the business units," Houk said. "What we're finding is that this makes it easier for us to collaborate and innovate with our customers."
If the cocoa team has a customer interested in spicy chocolate, for example, they can ask her if dark or milk goes best with certain spices and then they can also consult the commercialization team to understand how these ingredients will behave once they're in products and being manufactured, Houk said.
"As an organization, part of the reason why we have Olam Food Ingredients is because we realize that we have these pockets of knowledge and pockets of ways of dealing with customers and we haven't done a really great job of cross-utilizing one another's talents," she said.
In the future, Houk said Olam will bring on more people like her and more food scientists.
"Some of our customers have really started taking product development out of their own way of doing business, and they're looking for ingredients providers to come with a more fully baked, if you will, concept that they can run quickly and do a quick test: is this going to succeed or fail?" she said. "They are looking for their suppliers to not only bring them ideas, but also bring them something that is a little bit more ready for them to launch in a quicker period of time."
Working with CPGs
Houk's work focuses mostly on the spices portfolio and talking and coming up with ideas for their customers. Olam's ingredients are sold to CPG customers at some of the largest food companies in the world, as well as foodservice operations.
Houk's day-to-day involves connecting with product development staff, culinary staff and customers to help them understand which products would work well in the applications that they're developing. For instance, if a non-dairy ice cream producer wants to create cinnamon churros as a flavor, then Houk would discuss the details of the formulation, such as the percentage of cinnamon that could be used.
A couple times a week Houk also gets into the kitchen and cooks because she said "that's the only way to really understand how to translate the different foods that I'm seeing and work with our customers' products."
Houk said she is looking forward to having more chefs inside the organization to bounce ideas off of who will not only be located in the U.S., but are all over the globe.
"I'm going to have a chance to touch base with chefs from Vietnam and India and Africa and Europe and Singapore. It's like I am like a kid in a candy store," she said.
Outside of spices, Houk is starting to learn more about the other ingredients Olam has to offer. She pointed to nuts as an example because they are used in plant-based formulations and are full of good proteins and fat, serving as a blank canvas for formulations.
"There's a lot of work that we can do in terms of turning nuts into nut milks and to substitute dairy products, but then also bring them into snacking," she said. "I've always done development working with our different products, but this gives me a chance to really do a deep dive."
Spotting trends amid a pandemic
A big part of Houk's job is keeping up with the trends, but spotting those can be difficult during the pandemic because generally she would rely on trade shows and dining out. During coronavirus, Houk said she is online more tracking platforms like Instagram and YouTube.
What she has seen is that the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated several trends and shifted others. With potential meat shortages and issues in processing facilities, plant-based protein interest has grown, she said. There has also been booming sales for non-dairy milks, like nut and soy milks, frozen dessert, yogurt and cheese, which impacts their portfolio of edible nuts.
"This is the great accelerator. Any kind of trends that was in motion just got an extra influx of energy," she said.
She said products with a health halo and a focus on immunity and functionality saw a boost amid the pandemic. Products such as dark chocolate are providing antioxidants while also serving as a comfort food, Houk said. Turmeric is also being added into some formulations, as well as vegetables because they are rich in vitamins, nutrients and fiber.
The trend of replacing sugar, salt, fat and carbohydrates with natural ingredients like spices that are still flavorful, is increasing now too, she said. Many people see a tie between carrying excess weight and being more susceptible to viruses, as well as seeing weight gain during quarantines so they are looking for reductions, Houk said.
"Sugar replacement has always been a big deal, but we're now looking at more sugar replacement in things like salad dressings, marinades, pasta sauces and replacing that sugar with things that taste a little bit naturally sweet. In sweet applications that would be cinnamon and ginger, and in savory applications you can really do a nice boost of umami with onion powder and garlic powder and black pepper," she said.
Looking ahead, the flavors booming during the pandemic will influence future formulations. With everyone making sourdough bread during shutdowns, those flavors will start popping up again with sourdough bread flavors in crackers and snack foods that could incite nostalgia once the pandemic ends, Houk said.
In addition to new flavor innovations, the pandemic has also impacted the way Olam's R&D does business. Much of Houk's work is showing customers new applications and different ways to use its ingredients with in-person meetings and at conferences. Now the company is shipping its ingredients off so that they can engage with customers at a safe distance, including a recent "lunch and learn" where they sent 13 customers a four-course lunch and gathered on a Zoom call where they did a demonstration on how to work with the ingredients and develop applications with them.
"It's actually kind of nice because we can interact with more of them at the same time instead of having to go to their individual offices," she said.